Implementing the Project Approach:
What Teachers Say

Judy Harris Helm
National-Louis University, Wheeling, Illinois

Presenters for the NAEYC Project Night are selected to present the projects completed in their classrooms by the leaders of the Project Night. Their documentation has been viewed by the leaders of Project Night, and in many cases, their classrooms have also been visited. These teachers are successful implementers of the Project Approach. Their years of experience in doing project work have yielded valuable insight into not only the process of how projects evolve in their classrooms but also into how they learned to facilitate project work.

To capture teacher thoughts about projects and to provide a more complete view of how projects take place in classrooms, surveys were sent via electronic mail to teachers who were selected to display projects at the NAEYC project night. Twelve surveys were received from the participants. Six of these teachers are in classrooms primarily with 3-year-olds, or 4-year-olds, or multiage classrooms of 3- and 4-year-olds. Four kindergarten teachers and two primary (first and second grade) teachers returned the survey. The teachers were asked to indicate the type of programs in which they teach. Seven of the teachers responded that they were in public schools. One teacher listed her program as a laboratory school. Two teachers described their programs as laboratory schools that were also child care centers. One teacher indicated that the program was a child care facility, and one a private preschool program.

The teachers who responded to the survey indicated that they had been doing projects from 2 to 10 years, with the majority of the teachers (8) using the Project Approach in their classroom for 2 or 3 years. The results of the survey were analyzed and are summarized in the following two sections: Part 1: How the Project Approach Is Implemented in Classrooms, and Part 2: How Teachers Learned How to Guide Projects.

Part 1: How the Project Approach Is Implemented in Classrooms

How often have projects been occurring in the classroom?

Many teachers first learning about projects imagine that when a teacher uses the Project Approach, there is always a project going on in the classroom. The teachers reported in the surveys that this impression is not true, and that there are periods of time within the school year when projects are not occurring at all. Eight of the 12 teachers indicated that generally only two projects occur in their classroom during one school year. Two of the programs that were in session during the summer indicated that they often had an additional project that occurred during the summer session. The teacher with the most experience guiding projects (10 years) was the only teacher who reported doing projects four or more times a year.

How do teachers allocate time for projects in their daily schedules?

Teachers who are first learning how to do projects often ask how projects fit into the daily schedule. All 12 of the teachers surveyed indicated that they set aside specific time for project work. Eleven of these teachers indicated that they also integrated project activities into regularly scheduled activities. It appears that there are special times when only project activities are occurring but other times when project activities are part of other work in the classroom. One teacher described projects in her schedule this way:

We usually use the first 40 minutes of the class to work on projects. Not all children are involved everyday. Some of the large-group time may be used for discussion and planning. Extra class meetings may be held with all the children during other parts of the class or with some of the children during the first hour. If interest is high or important work is happening, we are flexible with the schedule.

When specific time was allocated for project work, it varied from 30 to 90 minutes, with the majority of teachers allocating 60 to 75 minutes. Specific time set aside for project work appears to take place in the morning. Only one teacher reported that a specific time for project work takes place in the afternoon, although teachers indicated that project activities were sometimes integrated with other scheduled activities that occurred throughout the day. Several teachers indicated that project work occurs in a block of time in which children are able to choose what they want to do—called "center time" by some teachers and "choice time" by others.

Teachers appear to be flexible about how projects fit into their daily schedule from project to project and from day to day. One pre-kindergarten teacher commented:

There are times that all of the class have been involved in a project. On those occasions, project time is a separate time in the daily schedule; the project overtakes the curriculum for a period of time.

How are curriculum goals or performance standards integrated into projects?

Eight of the 12 teachers were in programs that required curriculum goals or performance standards. All four of the teachers who indicated that they had no curriculum requirements were teaching 3- and 4-year-olds. All kindergarten and primary teachers indicated that they had requirements. Although many teachers who are first learning to do projects express concern about covering curriculum, these veteran teachers of the Project Approach did not report this concern. When asked what was the most difficult thing to learn or the greatest challenge for them today in doing projects, no one listed incorporating curriculum requirements or meeting performance standards.

Several of the teachers indicated that the project process itself incorporated many required objectives during the three phases of the project work:

The children use scientific processes, describing, comparing, predicting, testing, etc., throughout research and construction phases. As they sketch and work on construction, we see development in art abilities and mathematical thinking. Language skills, social skills, and social studies knowledge improve during work as children discuss problems and negotiate with each other, learn new terms and ideas, describe their learning for documentation, and use new knowledge about nature, the community, work people do, and how things work in enriched dramatic play.

Through cooperative group interaction, I feel that I am achieving standards for language arts: speaking, reading, writing for social interaction; math: graphing, counting, classifying; and social studies: our community and the student's role in it.

One teacher listed the variety of curriculum activities that occurs in most projects:

Writing of signs and labels

Number work through cash registers, use of money, counting, and data gathering

Oral reading particularly of expository texts

Speaking and listening among the children to make plans

Decision making, working on shared ideas

Group writing related to the topic (with specific mini-lessons that illustrate specific words, spaces between words, and sound spelling with initial and final sounds)

Other teachers indicated that the topics of projects made a difference and that many of the project topics coincided with curriculum goals or objectives. One teacher reported that she was able to integrate many of the standards and goals of both the state and the local school district through the topic being studied. This teacher found that language arts and math standards were the easiest to integrate into the projects. She also tried to select topics for projects that helped her meet social studies and science standards. Several teachers reported that they incorporate the required goals naturally during the three phases of project work. Those goals that are not incorporated are taught during systematic instruction. One teacher describes the process this way:

I use the relationship between the project topic and the curriculum goals to develop and meet the goals that naturally fit with the project. When a curriculum goal does not fit at all into a project (e.g., there was not much science in the museum project), I use another activity in another part of the day to meet those curriculum goals.

A number of teachers described using an instructional web, curriculum web, or a planning web. These webs are completed at the beginning of a project by the teacher (without the children's help) and provide a way for the teacher to think about the directions that a topic might go. Curriculum goals are usually incorporated into the web. Several teachers also suggested that documentation of the achievement of curriculum goals was important. One teacher also indicated that the projects aided the assessment process, "We learn more about the children from the project work and through the documentation process than when we organize subjects around a theme."

What criteria are used for selection of project topics?

The selection of a topic for a project is an important part of the Project Approach process. Several teachers reported topic selection to be the most challenging part of guiding projects with children. No teacher listed selecting a topic as the favorite part of the project process. It appears that most teachers completing the survey go through considerable thought and debate with others before deciding on a project. The majority of teachers in the survey responded by describing a process of selection similar to the one described by this teacher:

We watch and listen to the children to see what they might be interested in. We evaluate the various themes that seem to appear to see if the children have prior knowledge or experience with the topic, if the topic will provide opportunities for hands-on experiences, if we can easily get visitors to come in or set up field site visits, and if we feel the topic has value for our children and is related to their life and experiences.

Another teacher described a series of questions:

Do they have prior knowledge to build on?

Does this topic offer broad opportunities for creative representation, for example, observational drawing, clay, woodworking?

Will the topic offer a range of opportunities for early literacy and numeracy skills?

Does this topic lend itself to block play, dramatic play, or cooperative play?

Are there good resources available (e.g., field sites, visiting experts, children's books)?

Are the teachers enthusiastic about the topic?

Most of the teachers described starting with children’s interest or starting by introducing a variety of topics and then watching to see which topics interested children. The primary and kindergarten teachers reported using curriculum requirements as a major consideration in selection of a topic. Teachers of 3- and 4-year-olds indicated that the opportunities for representation (building, drawing, creating) were important. Logistical considerations such as location of field sites, availability of experts, and the availability of books and resources on the topic were also important.

Several of the teachers mentioned the worthiness of the topic. The term worth was used to indicate the value of the time spent on the topic compared with the benefits that the children might gain from studying a topic in-depth.

What project topics were most successful?

Teachers listed a variety of topics of projects, with many teachers naming the same topic. Topics have been grouped into categories:

Projects about living things
Butterflies, insects, dogs, cats, squirrels, fish, trees, pets, plants, birds, tadpoles and frogs, animals

Projects about the outdoors
gardens, butterfly garden, water, food, soil, weather, rocks

Camera, plumbing

Our school, play yards or playgrounds, offices, kitchen, hospital, grocery store, restaurant (a variety of types were named), tree house, supermarket, post office, real estate office, museum

Custodian, veterinarian

Fire truck, school bus

Recycling, hair styling, cooking

The most frequently mentioned topic was butterflies, which was named by three teachers. The school and parts of the school, such as the office, were also frequently mentioned. Most of the topics listed meet the guidelines that teachers indicated in the selection processes that they described. These topics are also in the immediate environment of children and can be studied firsthand. It is also interesting to note that these topics are included in many curriculum guides.

How are parents involved in projects?

One of the suggested benefits of the Project Approach is the involvement of parents. The survey indicated overwhelmingly that parents do become involved in project work. All of the teachers completing the survey reported that parents had been involved in projects in their classrooms through each of these activities: serving as experts in the classroom, assisting with field trips, providing materials for construction, helping out in the classroom during project activities, attending culminating activities, and viewing documentation. Six teachers, 50%, reported that parents assisted with documentation (photographing, videotaping, etc.). Specific additional examples of parent involvement that were described included answering surveys by children, researching and following activities at home, and other family members (grandparents and older siblings) serving as visiting experts. One program had once-a-month parent/teacher group meetings where documentation was shared and projects were discussed.

Part 2: How Teachers Learned How to Guide Projects

Learning how to do projects is often described as a journey, an ongoing process. The 12 teachers who completed the survey confirmed that concept as they described their challenges and goals for their teaching.

How were these teachers teaching before they learned about the Project Approach?

When the teachers were asked how they were teaching before they learned about the Project Approach, most of them (10 teachers) reported that they had been providing teacher-planned experiences of inquiry and investigation. Implementing the Project Approach for them was a matter of learning how to relinquish some of the decision making to the children. The challenge of giving children more control over their learning was also listed by many of the teachers in answering the question about the most difficult thing they had to learn. Although these teachers were previously using inquiry methods and believed in the importance of stimulating intellectual development in children, it was difficult for them to move into the more child-initiated learning experiences that the Project Approach requires. This struggle can be seen in these teachers’ answers to the question "What was the most difficult thing for you to learn when you began to do projects?":

To stand back and LISTEN to the children and let them take the initiative.

To let things flow—drop preconceived notions of what should be accomplished in one particular day or time period.

It was hard to give up the control and direction of the topic and the project to the children.

I have always followed the interests of the children and taken advantage of "teachable moments," but I am a planner so being able to let the children guide our daily activities was a struggle at first.

I think I always was headed in the direction of this and worked toward these types of responses and interactions, but with project work, I became more aware and spent more time really trying to get better at doing these things.

How not to give children all the answers but to be patient and serve as a guide, resource, and co-questioner with the children. I worked at asking better questions and getting better at responding in such a way that it encouraged children to talk more, think more, and problem solve more.
However, when asked about their greatest challenges today in doing projects with children, none of the teachers indicated that following children’s lead or providing for child initiation in learning was still a problem.

How did they learn how to guide projects in their classrooms?

Ten of the 12 teachers attended conferences or workshops such as the Allerton Institute to learn how to do projects. All of the teachers but one reported reading books about projects. Nine of the teachers reported also learning how to do projects from other teachers. Only two teachers had any training in their teacher education program on the Project Approach.

Did they receive administrative support for implementation of the Project Approach?

When the survey results were analyzed, it was clear that the teachers who were successful in implementing projects had received support from many different areas. All the teachers responding to the survey reported that they had administrative support for implementation. All 12 teachers reported that administrators provided encouragement and interest in what they were doing. Ten of the teachers stated that administrators had been involved in provided training experiences for them. Administrative support went beyond providing access to training. Eight of the teachers were given additional funds for project materials and equipment, and five received additional funds for field trips. Administrators served as resources for coordinating curriculum with the project for three of the teachers, and five teachers said their administrator relaxed time requirements to enable project work to happen. Only one administrator secured additional space for project work.

Did colleagues support their implementation of the Project Approach?

Eleven of the 12 teachers reported that colleagues were supportive of their project work. That support took the form of encouragement and interest. Nine of the teachers reported that colleagues viewed their documentation and discussed alternative strategies and problem solving with them. Six of the teachers received assistance from other teachers in doing project activities. Eight teachers actually teamed with colleagues on projects.

What are the biggest challenges today for these teachers implementing the Project Approach?

Time was the biggest challenge for teachers. They expressed the need for time for documentation and reflection. Their desire to do documentation that was meaningful and productive, not just to make a history of events, was prominent in many of their comments throughout the survey. One teacher expressed her desire to change by:

Using documentation for more than just a record of the project. Really working to find the time to study our documentation to learn more about the children, their thought processes, etc., so the documentation can serve to guide us in our project as well as our planning and interactions with children.

Time for preparation was also a problem. Teachers expressed the need for time to do paperwork related to the project, secure materials for construction, contact field site personnel, and to work with parents. In the words of one teacher:

Good projects, really good projects (the ones that you'll want to document well) take lots of teacher time, and it's hard balancing everything else you have to do in the classroom with the project. Many of these things can intertwine with project stuff, but the teacher usually has lots of paperwork at the end of each day. Still, the outcome far outweighs any negatives, and this wouldn't deter me at all from engaging my children in projects.

Several teachers also mentioned the challenge of incorporating children who are not there on a daily basis and the challenges of working in teaming situations.

What advice do teachers have for those just beginning project work in their classrooms?

The teachers surveyed were generous and gentle with their advice, calling on teachers to go slow, to set reasonable expectations, and to not forget to step back and enjoy watching and participating in the learning experience. Some of their thoughts follow:

Keep it up, support others who do project work, talk with others who do project work.

Go out and visit programs that are implementing the Project Approach.

Join a support group so that you can talk to colleagues about your work.

Join the Listserv where you will get ideas, advice, and info.

Find a mentor who will visit your classroom and give you constructive criticism.

Attend conferences that offer presentations on project work.

Work on becoming skilled at documentation, which will help educate parents and colleagues about the benefits of project work.

Don’t be timid about beginning. Sure it's important to go to training and to read about the Project Approach, but if that's all you ever do, what is gained? I always tell teachers wanting to try it to jump in with both feet and stop hovering over the fringes of the Project Approach. After all, we're just like the children, we learn best by exploring and investigating!

Take your time and realize that it is also a learning process for you as well as the children. Project work becomes easier with each project; you learn new and better ways to stimulate learning each time.

It is okay to do phase one work a few times before doing a complete project.

Expect high-quality work as an end result, but allow for mistakes in the process.

Keep a journal/diary of daily/weekly progress.

Invite children to comment, give suggestions, and encourage each other.

When other teachers see how interesting project work is in your classroom, they get interested and want to try it. The enthusiasm generated by your class's successful work and completion of a project stimulates other teachers.

The following comments of Barb Gallick, one of the survey respondents, summarize the thoughts of many of the teachers:

I think it's important that teachers give themselves permission to change and just jump in at whatever level of understanding they have and try. I think just trying a project provides such a rich source of learning for both the children and the teachers. . . . I think teachers are afraid to take the leap and try a project for fear they don't get it or don't understand how to do it. But my experience has been that I have learned so much and become more comfortable with project work with each new project. I feel I have learned so much from "making mistakes." Each new project progresses in a different way with each new group of children, but all that I have learned and experienced from past projects serves to make me more comfortable, more confident, and more interested in learning more. If I had never been willing to try just once, I may never have gained the level of understanding I feel I have now. I still feel that I am learning and growing along with the children in my care. I don't think I will ever feel that this learning and growing will end. Part of what I feel is so valuable about project work is that it is a continually evolving process based on the children in my care, the topic, and the point I am at in my life as a teacher. Project work opens the door for tremendous growth on the part of the children as well as the teacher.

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