Projects, Engaged Learning, and Standards
Judy Harris Helm

From The Project Approach Catalog 2 1998.

Many teachers in kindergarten and elementary schools today are confused and frustrated. As they read and hear more about brain research, active engaged learning, and emergent curriculum, they have come to value student-initiated learning and curiosity. At the same time, they are hearing about the call for standards and for setting high expectations for achievement. Accountability has become a prominent issue in many communities with a strong desire for students to develop a standard body of knowledge and skills. Some community members may see projects as contradictory to the recommendations for standards and expectations. Actually, the Project Approach as described by Katz and Chard (1989) is consistent with recent recommendations and research on school achievement. The solution that readily comes to mind is that teachers learn to do them both—follow the lead of children, engage them in learning, but still assure that required curriculum is introduced and mastered.

Recommendations for Active, Engaged Learning

Recommendations for active, engaged learning experiences are coming from many directions. Jones, Valdez, Norakowski, and Rasmussen (1994) summarized research and developed indicators of engaged learning to use as a compass in planning and evaluating educational reform. They describe a vision of an engaged learner as responsible for learning, energized by learning, and using strategic and collaborative strategies in the learning process. The tasks of engaged learning are challenging, authentic, and integrative or interdisciplinary. Learning experiences are engaging when they are interactive, generative, and the context of that experience is in a knowledge-building learning community which is collaborative and empathetic. Assessment in engaged learning is based on the student’s performance, interwoven with the learning process, and uses equitable standards.

Teachers who have experienced the vitality that projects bring into a classroom would recognize this description of engaged learning as typical of projects. Children become responsible for their own learning, plan and strategize how to find answers, collaborate to find solutions and information, integrate many content skills such as reading, writing, and math, and experience a knowledge-building community.

Application of Mind/Brain Learning Principles

An area of research and scholarship that has provided impetus for engaged learning is the study of how children learn. Caine and Caine (1997) identify twelve mind/brain learning principles based on their review of brain research in combination with research on classroom performance. Many of these principles are observable in project work.

Principle 1. The brain is a complex adaptive system.

Projects challenge children to think by enabling them to do in-depth study at levels of complexity that often surprise teachers and parents. A study of a water treatment plant by four-year-olds resulted in discussions of primary and secondary treatment pools.

Principle 2. The brain is a social brain.

Projects encourage collaboration and sharing, talking and working together to solve problems. Building a fire truck out of a box resulted in two groups of children searching for a solution of how to make the lights look like a real fire engine’s lights, and solving the problem as a team.

Principle 3. The search for meaning is innate.

Children are always trying to connect and make sense of the world, and projects which focus on their world enable them construct their own understanding of it. The Bicycle Project resulted in an ever-increasing understanding of how the bicycle worked. As children sketched and studied the parts of the bike, their drawing revealed a steadily growing understanding of how those parts worked.

Principle 4. The search for meaning occurs through "patterning."

As children participate in more and more projects they begin to get a sense of the principles of how their world works, the similarities of living things, how machines work, or how people help and support one another through their jobs and roles. There is a pattern to the project process itself. Children who have had a successful project experience will often request a teacher to make a web or begin to list questions and then ask their own question of "How might we find this out?"

Principle 5. Emotions are critical to patterning.

Projects involve children emotionally because they are based on children’s curiosity and interest. Children are encouraged to explore and develop dispositions towards inquiry, learning, and the application of skills. An extreme level of persistence in problem-solving is often observed.

Principle 6. Every brain simultaneously perceives and creates parts and wholes.

As children study topics of interest, they often become fascinated with how items, such as radios, are made. They will take apart equipment and often follow that by building their own version of it in models or play environments. Three-year-olds were fascinated with the radio and literally watched with wide-open eyes as the cover was removed. They later spontaneously started making radios with the insides out of boxes.

Principle 7. Learning involves focused attention and peripheral perception.

This principle is often observed in the involvement of young children in projects. Some children may be deeply involved in finding out information, others may be involved in constructing, and some children may watch while doing other activities. As the project progresses, children reveal that they learned from each other. Often the watcher becomes the leader in the next project, demonstrating that not only was content information observed, but also skills of investigation.

Principle 8. Learning is conscious and unconscious—helping learners make learning visible.

The project provides many opportunities for children to make their learning visible to themselves and others as they web and revise webs, write questions for which they find answers, draw, and construct.

Principle 9. Meaningful and meaningless information are stored differently.

Projects are based on topics that are meaningful to children. Because they are following their own curiosity and answering their own questions, remembering what they learned is easy. Applying skills such as drawing or writing has a purpose and meaning. Dispositions are strengthened to use skills.

Principle 10. Learning is developmental.

There are many ways that children approach a topic so the topic becomes tailored to the developmental level of the individual child. Projects can also challenge children to do in-depth studies of topics that adults might not ordinarily think children would be interested in at a particular age, and encourage them to do elaborate thinking during the years of greatest impact on the brain.

Principle 11. Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.

Projects occur over a long period of time. Children are challenged but not hurried, exposed to in-depth knowledge about a topic based on their interest and curiosity.

Principle 12. Every brain is uniquely organized.

Projects result in so many different culminating events that children can be observed using a variety of modalities of expression and a variety of learning styles. A child may build a block structure of a parking garage. His knowledge and understanding of the garage and how it is managed can be seen in his vocabulary and play. Another child may draw pictures with detailed labels. Each approaches and is encouraged to learn and process his learning in his own unique way.

Standards and School Achievement

The Project Approach can be a vehicle for achievement of curriculum goals and for reaching standards of intellectual performance. The Project Approach is an approach, not a complete curriculum, and there are many activities going on in project classrooms including direct instruction, group instruction, and individual study. Projects provide unique experiences for young children at an important point in their development. Projects can complement direct instruction of skills and provide a reason for applying those skills. In a study of first-grade children doing projects and units, children were more involved in reading and research in the project then in the teacher-directed unit (Bryson, 1994). Careful documentation by the teacher during the project process can capture the extensive development of skills, knowledge, and dispositions and provide an effective means for achieving standards of performance that we all want for our children.


Bryson, E. (1994). Will a project approach to learning provide children opportunities to do purposeful reading and writing, as well as provide opportunities for authentic learning in other curriculum areas? Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.
Caine, G., & Caine, R. (1997). Education on the edge of possibility. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Jones, B., Valdez, G., Norakowski, J., & Rasmussen, C. (1994). Designing learning and technology for educational reform. Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Katz, L. G., & Chard, S. C. (1989). Engaging children’s minds: The Project Approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

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