Systematic Instruction and the Project Approach

Below is an overview of how project work and systematic instruction work together in the classroom. For more information, see The Project Approach (Book One): Making Curriculum Come Alive.

Project work is not the only kind of learning experience that students will have in preschool child-care programs or in elementary, middle, and high school. In the case of younger children, there will be opportunities for spontaneous play, story time, singing, dancing, and more. And in the case of older students, project work and systematic instruction work together to enhance learning in a variety of ways.

At the elementary, middle, and high school levels, there are some parts of the curriculum in which students are necessarily dependent on the teacher, and others in which students can work more independently. In particular, two aspects of the curriculum provide for students’ learning needs:

1. systematic instruction for the acquisition of skills
2. project work for the application of skills acquired earlier

Students not only need to know how to use a skill but also when to use it. They need to learn to recognize for themselves the contexts in which the skill might be useful and the purposes it can most appropriately serve. Project work and systematic instruction can be seen as providing complementary learning opportunities. In systematic instruction, the students acquire the skills, and in project work, they apply those skills in meaningful contexts. Project work can thus be seen as the part of the curriculum planned in negotiation with the students and supportive of (and extending) the more formal and teacher-directed instructional elements.

Distinctions between Systematic Instruction and Project Work

Systematic Instruction Project Work
For acquiring skills For applying skills
Activity at instructional level Activity at independent level
Teacher directs the student’s work Teacher guides the student’s work
Student follows instruction Student chooses from alternatives
Extrinsic motivation may be important Intrinsic motivation characterizes the work particularly
Teacher addresses student’s deficiencies Teacher builds on student’s proficiencies


When a teacher instructs a student in a new level of skill, the learning tasks have to be carefully matched to the student’s current abilities. When a student applies skills with which she already has some fluency, she can work independently (and with more confidence), make decisions, formulate and solve problems as they arise, and be creative in applying the skills appropriately. The types of activity or task the teacher plans will be different according to which kind of learning is intended.


Systematic Instruction for Acquiring Skills Project Work for Applying Skills
Examples telling the time
bar graphs
designing experiments
investigating change
doing a survey and representing the results
investigating water pollution
Activity unknown, new
closed, limited steps
familiar (maybe in new context)
intrinsically satisfying
exploratory, open-ended
Teacher instructs
encourages effort
gives guidance
suggests alternatives
observes, listens, questions
encourages ideas
Child is as yet incapable
follows instructions
acts with help
is uncertain about ability
accepts teacher’s evaluation
works alone
is capable, proficient
practices skills unaided
acts independently
is confident about ability
judges own success
often consults, collaborates