Helping Teachers and Preservice Teachers Learn the Project Approach

Eileen T. Borgia, Diane E. McClellan
Governors State University, Illinois

How do teachers learn project work? Teachers often learn new techniques on their own, by reading books and articles and studying videotapes now available on the subject. Many have attended workshops on project work at various conferences. However, it can be difficult for an individual to acquire the finer points associated with project work without kindred spirits to lend a sympathetic ear and help with suggestions.

To help teachers learn to incorporate project work into their teaching, several early childhood educators at colleges and universities are experimenting with a variety of ways to include project work in teacher preparation and inservice professional development courses. This article highlights the experiences of several teacher educators who are members of the Project Approach Study Group in Illinois. Others who are teaching the Project Approach in college-level courses are invited to post a discussion of their experiences on the PROJECTS-L listserv (see Section 4 for more information on PROJECTS-L).

The following presents the general features teacher educators may want to consider in teaching the Project Approach. This section is followed by four illustrations of approaches used by teacher educators in introducing teachers and preservice teachers to the Project Approach.

Considerations in Teaching the Project Approach to Preservice and Experienced Teachers

During a course or extended workshop, students in small groups of four to six participants investigate a topic of interest from their perspective as adult learners. They assume various roles, work together, and involve themselves deeply in the study. The documentation samples they prepare communicate what they learned and represent the types of curricular products their own students might be expected to make.

By having the opportunity to actually do a project, teachers experience a sense of timing and pacing of the phases, understand the rationale behind topic selection and family/community involvement, and learn the role of investigation and documentation. In addition, they develop empathy for their own students and for the trials and tribulations that a young learner might experience during project work.

When learners experience the Project Approach at an adult level, a stronger and more enduring understanding of the process results. Adult students' typically experience, on the one hand, a reminder of what it means to be a learner and, concurrently, a simulation of the learning process that provides them with insights they can take back to their own classrooms. As Rogoff (1997) suggests, "teach the way you like to learn, not the way you like to teach." Many participants agree that the time teachers invest participating as a learner in a project is time well spent.

An additional advantage of participating as an adult team member in a project is that teachers receive a refresher course in cooperation. Sometimes, teachers who have been trained to be autonomous decision-makers forget how to use the kinds of social skills they expect their own students to practice. Skills such as cooperation, negotiation, following as well as leading, giving as well as taking, reaching consensus, contributing to a shared product, and so forth, are practiced and observed and experienced freshly. Many teacher educators find it helpful to include a discussion of cooperative learning principles and strategies during the introductory part of the course.

Finally, for teachers whose preparation and background were oriented toward child-sensitive, informal, open education, or progressive education, the transition to project work may come fairly easily. For practicing teachers and students whose preparation has focused on a more traditionally teacher-directed approach, an introduction to the philosophy and principles of the Project Approach may reassure them that achievement, basic skills, and project work are not mutually exclusive. Once teachers realize that the Project Approach is one of many ways to teach and that other methods also have value, they are often more willing to give it a try. Teachers develop a deeper understanding of the values inherent in the Project Approach.

Four Examples of the Project Approach in Courses and Workshops

The following descriptions provide four of many possible ways to teach the Project Approach to inservice and preservice teachers. In the first example, the Project Approach is learned in a conference retreat center over an intensive three- or four-day period. In the second example, the Project Approach is integrated into a college course that focuses on the implementation of a project with children by preservice students in classrooms. In the third example, the project is a primary feature of a university course that addresses a range of topics such as social development and mixed-age grouping. Finally, in the fourth example, projects are carried out within a university setting in a two-week workshop that focuses exclusively on project work.

The Project Approach Institute at Allerton Park Conference Center

For the last eight summers a three- or four-day institute specially designed for learning the Project Approach has been offered at the conference center of the University of Illinois at Allerton Park. The participants come from various parts of the world and throughout the United States. Following introductory lectures on the philosophy and principles of the Project Approach, the participants form small groups, identify a topic to investigate, and follow all three phases of project work, including the development of displays and documentation of the kind their own students might prepare.

Interspersed in the daily schedule are lectures on specific aspects of the Project Approach and lively discussions led by Lilian Katz and Sylvia Chard. Participants learn from each other and from the leaders. They leave Allerton invigorated and enthusiastic about project work. During the past several years, more than 500 people have participated in the Allerton institute. Further information on the Allerton institute, sponsored by the University of Illinois, is included in Section 5 of this Catalog.

College Coursework and Projects with Children

Many teacher educators have incorporated project work into existing early childhood or elementary education courses at the preservice as well as inservice levels. Introductory discussions and slide or video presentations are blended with readings and reflections. Preservice or practicing teachers enrolled in the class conduct a project with children in their own classrooms, and those who are not classroom teachers might assist with project work in a colleague's classroom. Those without access to a group of children would join together and do a project as adults. Time is allocated during course meetings for discussion of progress, clarification, technical questions, and support for each other's efforts. At the end of the course, participants bring samples of the children's documentation to the course meeting for discussion and display. In one class, students found it more convenient to prepare a portfolio of the project, or Project History Book, as described by Helm, Beneke, and Steinheimer (1998) as part of their final discussion and debriefing about their experiences with project work.

College Coursework and Projects with Adult Students

Another method is to prioritize course time during each class meeting for students to conduct a project as adults. Diane McClellan, Professor and Coordinator of the Early Childhood Education program at Governors State University in Illinois, incorporates project work into a three-credit, 5-week intensive course, "Integrating Curriculum in Early Childhood Education." Content includes: principles of early childhood education, social development, the impact of the physical environment on learning, mixed-age grouping, and the Project Approach. The following is a narrative of a course that took place at Governors State University and is an example of learning the Project Approach with university students preparing to teach prekindergarten through third grade in public schools. Although other trends and issues in early childhood education were also addressed, the main feature of the course was the implementation and documentation of a project. Consistent with recommendations by Katz and Chard (1989), students were advised to choose a project topic that was in close proximity to the university, the hub of their mutual environment.

The class consisted of 25 students. The students were ethnically and racially diverse and varied in age from 22 to 50 years old. Some were already teaching, others were working in classrooms as teacher assistants, and many others had not yet had teaching experience. For five weeks, the class met twice a week for five hours each day. Early in the trimester, students broke into groups of four to six students and began to discuss what they would like to research. Woods, a stream, several ponds, working farms, and wildlife surround Governors State University. Most students chose projects about some aspect of nature. One group, however, decided that they would like to study one of the villages, Park Forest, Illinois, that is adjacent to the university. This decision came in part after an overview to the class by a regional expert, Larry McClellan. The project, entitled "Where Thistles Grew Before: The Park Forest Story," is presented below in three phases.

Phase 1. After much discussion, one of the groups chose to study Park Forest, Illinois. Their interest in Park Forest grew from its history as a racially integrated community, reflecting the racial diversity of the group members, and its unique role as a planned community built after World War II. Students began by discussing their prior knowledge about Park Forest. Because none of the six students lives in Park Forest, their knowledge of it was limited. They also discussed their general knowledge of the south suburban region of Chicago in which they all live. Next they created a topic web and a list of questions reflecting their own interests. They also decided to ask the local expert who had given an overview of the area surrounding the university to take them on a tour of Park Forest.

Phase 2: A tour of Park Forest. Using a university mini-van, the first activity of the group was a tour of Park Forest, a village of 24,000. The tour was extensive, and the students asked many prepared and impromptu questions. After the tour students created a revised web of their developing knowledge and areas of interest for further investigation. They also met with the Historical Society Archivist, Jane Nicoll, at the Park Forest Public Library.

Students were intrigued, challenged, and stimulated as their knowledge of the history of Park Forest grew. They decided to focus on the people of Park Forest and divided into three areas of interest: the very beginning of Park Forest in 1949, the first residents, and people living in Park Forest today. One of the quotes gathered in this process was by one of the community's developers, who wrote: "We aren't interested in houses alone. We are trying to create a better life for our people. We will have failed if all we do is produce houses." From the beginning, the village was conscious about welcoming people from diverse faiths and races.

Students studied the process undertaken by a planned community, including homes, shopping centers, schools, recreational facilities, and road systems. The deep involvement of the first residents and the level of their commitment to making the village work amazed the students. They discovered that Park Forest was seen as the prototype for communities of the future, and that many articles and books had been written about it. Finally, several members of the group interviewed three families currently living in Park Forest. These interviews were taped, and the families expressed great loyalty to Park Forest and gratitude for the open and generous spirit of the community.

Phase 3: Using technology in project development and documentation. The above activities and others were represented in a bar graph of population trends, pie charts representing other census data, a brief summary of the family interviews, brief descriptions of key founding residents, pictures and graphics, a map, and a description of people living in the area before 1949, including Native Americans.

The three phases to this project were similar to those of other projects, with one exception. Documentation and a culminating event revolved around a Power Point presentation. A Power Point presentation is created with the aid of a computer, Power Point software, and a projector designed for use with Power Point. Students were initially more nervous about learning Power Point than about any other aspect of their projects.

The rationale in using Power Point as a tool includes the increasing importance of teacher proficiency in technology in and out of the classroom, the ease with which Power Point presentations can be stored and preserved as archival resources, and the realistic ease with which Power Point can be used with children in classrooms. In addition, Power Point presentations allow a group of people to view and discuss a project with a common focus in time.

Like word processing, Power Point is a program that can be learned by many children from second grade upward. Before this age, kindergarten and first-grade students are able to work with their teacher's lead, or the teacher can do this part on her own. Disadvantages of Power Point in the third phase of a project include its lack of ongoing visibility in a classroom of children over a period of time. Both approaches to documentation-Power Point and bulletin boards-provide students plenty of time to consult and work with one another as they assemble the final stages of the project.

In analyzing their preference for Power Point versus a bulletin board display of the culmination of the project, most university students expressed a preference for the Power Point presentation. In addition to its effectiveness as a presentation tool, students felt Power Point provided them with an opportunity to become more proficient in several valuable skills including Power Point itself, using a scanner, using a digital camera, and accessing topical information through the Internet. In addition, they were able to use and integrate videotape and audiotape into their Power Point presentations.

Although the project remained the major focus for each group, the added complexity created by the need to master technological skills appeared to enhance rather than distract from each group's project. Each group presented its final project to the entire class. In the near future it is expected that "Where Thistles Grew Before: The Park Forest Project" will become a part of the Park Forest Web site and the Governors State University Web site. In addition, it was presented for viewing at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children held during November 1998 in Toronto, Canada.

Reflections of the instructor. Like the students, the first-time use of Power Point for project documentation and presentation felt risky and somewhat overwhelming. The biggest surprise was that it went relatively smoothly. Some students remarked that their initial reaction to the required use of Power Point and other technologies was to drop the course. However, after having experienced both the project work and developing greater technological skill, all agreed that if they had to do it over again they would use Power Point, because they felt they had an opportunity to master the medium as well as the message.

As the Park Forest project progressed, I was struck by the enthusiasm the students demonstrated in studying local history. Many remarked that they had never guessed that history could be so interesting. Their respect and comfort level with one another grew into friendship, and multicultural insights were discussed within a meaningful context rather than as a separate subject.

The Project Approach in an Intensive Two-Week Course

Eileen Borgia developed and offered an intensive summer course for practicing elementary and early childhood teachers at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville from 1995 through 1998. The three-credit graduate workshop met for ten days, five hours each day. An outline of the course follows.

Day One: An introductory day consisting of an orientation to project work through slides and video presentations, resource sharing, warm-up activities, and a review of course requirements, which includes a daily log with written reflections on experiences and assigned readings.

Day Two: The class is divided into small working groups. Several important skills are addressed separately: cooperative learning, observational drawing, and the process for selecting a topic.

For example, an exercise in observational drawing includes the following. When students arrive in class, plain paper and pencils are provided, and they are asked to draw something they saw outside on their way into the building. Usually they begin tentatively, and several students whisper that they do not know how to draw. The drawings are usually rough sketches, made with light pencil strokes. Next, students are asked to take more blank paper, pencils, and a clipboard and go outdoors and find the object they had just drawn. They then draw the same object, this time observing the object as they draw.

Students exit the room feeling somewhat skeptical but willing to partake of the adventure. They spread out around the immediate vicinity of the building and sketch. The group reconvenes outdoors and visits each student's drawing site, noticing the actual object and the student's rendition of it. During this time, each student describes the object they selected and why it was selected. As the discussion proceeds, they often remark on the power of drawing in helping them to see objects more clearly.

Upon returning to the classroom, students are asked to re-create their observational drawing in another media. Paints, clay, play-dough, crayons, markers, paper, found objects, and other supplies are on hand. After allowing time for the students to work on their re-creations, the three examples of their work are labeled and displayed on a bulletin board-Time 1: drawing from memory; Time 2: observational drawing; Time 3: refinement. Next, students view the videotape "Jed Draws His Bicycle" (Forman, 1996) and discuss the importance of observational drawing in project work. This event has become a powerful influence on teachers' willingness to attempt observational drawing as a way of learning.

Day Three. A topic is negotiated and agreed upon by consensus in each group. Participants begin a topic web and share written reflections on their memories related to the topic. The instructor/facilitator makes initial contacts with potential experts and the hosts at site visits. A session in the university computer lab is scheduled, to introduce students to the Project Approach Home Page, the ERIC Clearinghouse Web site, and other useful Web sites about project work.

Days Four and Five. Students continue Phase 1 and enter Phase 2. Overlapping of phases occurs since the time to conduct the project is limited, and schedules to visit sites and interview experts must be flexible. Equipped with clipboards, paper, pencils, cameras, binoculars, magnifying glasses, insect repellent, sun screen, collecting jars, baggies, and snacks, they embark on investigations, exploring a site, interviewing experts or fellow students. Sites on campus and in the neighboring community are preferred. Throughout this time the dual roles of student learners and teachers-in-training are acknowledged. Participation becomes simultaneously a direct experience of the Project Approach and a simulation of project work with children.

Day Five. By the afternoon of the fifth day, Friday, student enthusiasm is usually high. The importance of nurturing the disposition to learn is well understood, and even though the work is interrupted by the weekend, participants continue their work on the project during the weekend.

Days Six and Seven. The importance of documentation is introduced through lecture, photos, slides, and discussion, and project work continues.

Day Eight. By the eighth day, the value of culmination and practical principles of display are reiterated. Students complete documentation, and depending upon the need for flexibility in completing tasks, plan the culmination for day nine or ten. Invitational flyers are distributed around campus, and experts and faculty teaching other courses are invited to bring their classes to the culmination. In their enthusiasm while planning, a compatible refreshment to serve to the guests is suggested, the aesthetically pleasing display is prepared, and communicating through documentation is emphasized.

Days Nine and Ten: Project Culmination. Students arrive dressed for guests, often bring special artifacts to enhance their display, and enthusiastically convey to a rotation of audiences what they have learned, not only about the topic, but about the pedagogy as well. For the instructor, culmination serves as authentic assessment. Little more is needed than to observe as the students explain their project, what they learned, and why. As they convey their project work to their colleagues, their high level of knowledge gained during the nine days is obvious. Our experience suggests that culmination is truly a celebration. On the last day, the final tasks include dismantling displays and choosing documents to keep. Borrowed items are returned, and the groups debrief and discuss their experiences related to the process and documentation of their projects. Journals are finished, and an evaluation of the course and their own learning is completed.

Reflections of the Instructor. Eileen Borgia found this two-week intensive course to have special benefits in teaching the Project Approach. First, the Project Approach created unexpected collaborations among faculty. Instructors with classes meeting at the same time as the Project Approach course allotted time in their own class schedules for their students to attend the culmination. By the second year of teaching the course, attending culmination had become somewhat of a tradition for some courses. The instructor of "Introduction to Education," a first course for preservice education majors, included time in each section of her course to attend a culmination. A colleague who taught a curriculum course to graduate level inservice teachers used the Project Approach culmination to exemplify curriculum issues included in that course.

Second, the Project Approach course contributed to a feeling of rapport and visibility within the School of Education. Students visited many campus departments and offices during their investigations. Several people who had provided expertise attended the culmination and indicated that they were impressed with the students' work. Once, a group of students studied St. Louis Street, a stately avenue of Victorian homes in the Edwardsville community. The topic appealed to participants who taught upper elementary and high school classes because of its emphasis on history, architecture, and the community. The display of the St. Louis Street Project was transferred to the Edwardsville Public Library, where it remained for a month following the course.

Third, in two separate courses, students chose to investigate woodland trails near the university and asked Dr. Bob Williams, a professor of Science Education who had also been responsible for building the trails, to serve as an expert. Dr. Williams and his class of fifteen inservice science teachers served as experts for the Project Approach students. Thus, an unexpected form of peer teaching emerged.

An unexpected affirmation of the power of the Project Approach emerged as students who had taken the course during a former summer returned to see what the next group had done and to recall fondly their own class experiences with project work.


Learning to effectively facilitate children's learning through in-depth investigations is a challenge. A beginning step is to participate in simulations similar to the ones described in this article, and then thoughtfully reflect and consider ways to try project work with children. Although adult students are sometimes reluctant at first, they are reminded of what it is like to be a learner, and they usually leave with an enthusiastic reaction to using the Project Approach. They come to view the Project Approach and children's encounters with "real world" environments as a valuable addition to the tool kit needed for effective learning and teaching. Finally, their professional development continues as they venture forth in their classrooms to implement the Project Approach with children.


Forman, G. (1996). Jed draws his bicycle [Videotape]. (Available from Performanetics, 19 The Hollow, Amherst, MA 01002)

Helm, J., Beneke, S., & Steinheimer, C. (1998). Windows on learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

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

Rogoff, B. (1997). Presentation at the biannual conference of the Society for Research in Child Development, Washington, DC.

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