Issues in Selecting Topics for Projects

Lilian G. Katz
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Sylvia C. Chard
University of Alberta, Canada

Children's Interests

Extensive experience working with teachers implementing the Project Approach all over the world suggests that their first consideration in topic selection is usually the children's actual or potential interests. However, using children's interests as a starting point in topic selection raises some complex issues. While the strategy of responding to children's expressed interests can often yield appropriate and enriching topics, it also presents several potential pitfalls.

The first issue this strategy raises is the question: What does it mean to say that a child or group of children, or even a whole class, is "interested" in a topic? The term "interest" in this context is not entirely clear. Interests can be of relatively low value; Wilson (1971) gives the example of a young boy in his class whose main "interest" for some time was how to pull the legs off a fly!

It is often hard to determine whether "interests" might be passing thoughts, fleeting concerns, phobias, fetishes, obsessions, or occasionally, a topic nominated by a child whose main desire is to please or impress the teacher.

Second, just because an individual or group expresses interest in a given topic (e.g., dinosaurs or pirates) does not mean that the topic deserves to be supported and strengthened by the serious attention of the teacher. It may happen that children become interested in pirates after having seen an entertaining movie about them. In such cases the children can be given opportunity for spontaneous dramatic play involving pirates; they can be encouraged to discuss their reactions to the film, and perhaps create drawings and paintings about them. But such interest does not imply that an in-depth investigation of the topic of pirates is in their best developmental, educational, or even moral interests. We are suggesting that there is an important and useful distinction between (a) providing opportunity for child-initiated spontaneous discussion and play around a topic, and (b) the teacher investing high energy in organizing a long-range effort focused on it, and thereby according the topic greater value than it warrants.

Third, we suggest that the topic should reflect our general commitment to taking children and their intellectual powers seriously and to treating them matter-of-factly as serious young investigators of worthwhile phenomena. Our experience of working with many teachers on projects suggests that it is easy to underestimate children's capacities to find the persistent hard work involved in close observation of everyday phenomena satisfying and meaningful.

Fourth, one of the responsibilities of adults is to educate children's interests. Children's awareness of the teacher's real and deep interest in a topic-for example, the changes in the natural environment over a six-week period-is likely to engender in them some level of interest in the topic as well.

Finally, in a class of twenty or more children, the number of possible "interests" is too large to address in any single year! How can the selection be made? Again, the teacher carries central responsibility for major decisions about the activities of the children, including selecting the project topics.

Exciting and Motivating Children

Sometimes adults promote exotic and exciting topics for projects in the hope of capturing or motivating children, especially those who often seem reluctant to join in the work of the class. For example, projects revolving around the rain forest undertaken in schools on the northern plains of the United States may very well entice young children into enthusiastic participation. We have observed many projects focused on medieval castles in countries where there are none, and the projects usually achieve the children's animated participation.

Similarly, we know of several teachers who have responded to young children's lively spontaneous discussions about the sinking of the Titanic that were stimulated by a movie and television documentaries. While their interest was certainly palpable, the topic does not lend itself to first-hand investigations. Reading good books on the topic and being involved in discussions through which the teacher helps them interpret the new knowledge would be more appropriate in such cases. Furthermore, though such topics do no harm, our experience indicates that young children can be just as absorbed and intrigued by close observation and study of their own environments, whether they are prairies, corn fields, apple orchards, or a nearby bicycle shop.

Children do not have to be fascinated, spellbound, enchanted, or bewitched by a topic. Indeed, one of the main aims of project work is to strengthen children's dispositions to be interested, absorbed, and involved in in-depth observation, investigation, and representation of worthwhile phenomena in their own environments.

Furthermore, if the topic of a project is an exotic and therefore remote one, it is difficult for the children to offer predictions, hypotheses, and questions and therefore contribute to the project's direction and design. In principle, the less first-hand experience the children have in relation to the topic, the more dependent they are on the teacher for the ideas, information, questions, hypotheses, and planning that constitute the essence of good project work. Young children are indeed dependent on adults for many important aspects of their lives. However, project work is that part of the curriculum in which children are encouraged to take initiative in setting the questions to be answered, influencing the direction of the work to be undertaken, and accepting responsibility for what is accomplished.

Along similar lines, topics are sometimes chosen because they are expected to amuse or even entertain the children. Such topics are thought by teachers to stimulate children's imaginations (e.g., The Little Mermaid, teddy bears, the circus). However, these topics are more fanciful than imaginative; they are unlikely to provide contexts for direct investigation and observation. In good project work children have ample opportunity to use and strengthen their imaginations. Their imaginations are challenged when they make predictions about what they will find on a forthcoming field trip, when they predict the answers to their interview questions, and when they argue with each other about possible causes and effects related to the phenomena under investigation. Children's imaginative powers are stimulated and strengthened during the early phases of the project as they share and represent their own memories related to the topic, and make up their own stories related to them (e.g., stories of actual incidents on a tricycle, or fictional stories of bike rides).

Optimal Use of School Time

Concern for optimal use of school time includes assessing the appropriateness of a topic in terms of whether the children are likely to be able to explore it outside of school. Inasmuch as time and energy are given to the work of the project, teachers may need to decide not only that the topic is worth close study, but that such study is unlikely to occur outside of the school.

On the other hand, some teachers select topics with the intention of "sneaking" learning into the children through a so-called hands-on activity "while they are not looking," so to speak. Thus a teacher might initiate a project on "The Dentist" as a way of getting the children to remember the basics of dental hygiene. If dental hygiene is an important topic, it should be addressed directly, in its own right, and not as a project. Not everything that is important for children to know and learn is appropriate for project work. However, a close-up investigation of what goes on in the dentist's office, the tools and procedures used, and so forth could be a good project topic.

Diversity Concerns

Diversity of experiences. In some classes, the diversity of the incoming pupils' experiences might be so great that it would be beneficial to beginthe year with a topic the teacher believes is familiar to all children. A sense of community in the class is more likely to develop when all the children have sufficient experience related to the topic to be able to participate in discussion with some confidence, and to be able to recognize and recount their own relevant experiences. As the school year progresses and children become adept and accustomed to project work, they can more readily appreciate the fact that individuals and groups have different experiences, backgrounds, and interests, and prefer to work on different topics or sub-topics. In this way they can learn to share with the whole class what each of them has learned about his or her own topic. The diversity of work can stimulate and deepen children's appreciation and prizing of differences in experience, interests, and abilities among their peers.

Diversity of cultures. The Project Approach is a useful way to respond to diversity of cultural backgrounds within the group of participating children. However, we find it useful to make a distinction between a child's culture and a child's heritage. The former refers to the current day-to-day experiences and environment of the children; the latter refers to historic and ancestral attributes associated with their origins, ancestors, and families. In the early years projects are most likely to be enriching if the topics are taken from the children's culture rather than heritage, though aspects of the latter can and should be introduced to the children in other parts of the curriculum. Not all of the topics that are important for children to know about are suitable for project work.

Preparation for Participation in a Democratic Society

One important consideration in topic selection is our commitment to helping children become competent participants in a democratic society. In the service of this goal, good topics are those that deepen children's understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of the contribution others in the wider community make to their well-being.

Second, one of the many benefits of project work is that within the classroom itself contexts are provided in which many processes and skills useful for participation in a democracy occur. Good project work provides contexts for developing agreements on actions to be taken, sharing responsibility for carrying out plans, resolving conflicts about observations and findings, making suggestions to one another, prizing the different ways individuals can contribute to the total work accomplished, and so forth. Topics that allow for close-up first-hand investigation are more likely to lead to children's vigorous discussions and debates than are remote and abstract ones.

Relationship of the Topic to Subsequent Learning

In many cases, the knowledge gained by children working on a given project would be learned or "picked up" later on in other ways. For example, all children eventually learn the basics about the behavior of shadows, or about what goes on behind the scenes of a supermarket. Thus one could ask why these might be worthwhile topics for young children. (Note that the opposite is also true: much that is learned through formal instruction in school that is thought to be essential to later life or to "cultural literacy" is forgotten soon after the instruction is over!) We are not claiming that the process (e.g., of studying the behavior of shadows) is more important than the new knowledge. We suggest that educators at every level are responsible equally for the value of the processes and the content involved in children's work. Though we are not primarily concerned with a particular product or pre-specified knowledge-acquisition outcome, all of the kinds of learning we are concerned about-knowledge, skills, dispositions, and feelings-should be addressed while investigating worthwhile topics. While project work provides pretexts, texts, and contexts for strengthening a wide range of important skills and dispositions, ideally these experiences occur in the course of investigating worthwhile topics.

Delicacy of the Topic

Some topics are potentially delicate because of their religious or highly personal implications, or because they might in some way offend some of the families served by the early childhood program or the school. Some topics might also be delicate in the sense that they touch on matters about which individual children may not want to share their experiences. For example, some children may not want to talk about their own houses or even their own families. The teacher can evaluate the potential delicacy of a topic as she comes to know the children well.

Clinical Considerations

Occasionally a teacher is responsible for an individual child or small group of children whose personal situations are such that a topic ordinarily not particularly appropriate would be selected in order to address the special case. For example, you might have a child concerned about military dangers faced by her parent serving in the armed services. Even though it might not be a familiar topic to all the others in the class, a teacher might introduce some relevant activity to encourage that individual child to share what she knows of such matters. On the other hand is the example of many teachers of young children supporting them in a detailed study of the local hospital. On occasion it might be the case that a child has had a very recent traumatic experience there-perhaps involving the death of a loved one or a frightening hospitalization experience of her own-suggesting that the study of that topic might best be postponed until a later time.

Curriculum and Accountability Requirements

It is a good idea to examine carefully in advance of selecting project topics what knowledge, skills, and other subjects and topics are required by the state or local educational agencies' curriculum or achievement guidelines. Most official curriculum guides are cast in such broad terms that it is invariably possible to select good project topics from among the lists of knowledge and concepts mandated or recommended.

Occasionally teachers say they are conducting particular lessons because of state or district demands, even though no such requirement actually exists. On the other hand, sometimes teachers claim they are prevented from introducing a certain project topic-often explained as set aside for other grade levels-even though no such restrictions are actually there. In any case, checking the relevant official requirements can often ease teachers' accountability pressures.

Making the relationship between the topic of the project and the prescribed curriculum requirements explicit for the parents can help reassure them that their children's education conforms to official guidelines.

A Tentative List of Criteria

Based on the issues raised above, we offer a tentative set of criteria for topic selection.

A topic is appropriate if:

  1. relevant phenomena are directly observable in the children's own environments;
  2. aspects of it are within many children's experiences, but not necessarily all the children who will be involved in the work;
  3. first-hand direct investigation of important aspects of the topic is feasible (and presents no potentially dangerous situations);
  4. local resources (e.g., field sites and experts) are favorable and readily accessible;
  5. it has good potential representation in a variety of media (e.g., role play, construction, graphics, multidimensional models, graphic organizers, etc.);
  6. parental participation and contributions are likely and parents can become involved fairly easily;
  7. it is sensitive to the local culture as well as culturally appropriate in general;
  8. it is potentially interesting to many of the children, or the topic is one that adults consider worthy of developing the children's interest in;
  9. it is related to curriculum goals of the school, district, etc., and the knowledge and skills gained contribute to meeting demands for accountability;
  10. it provides ample opportunity to apply basic skills (depending somewhat on the ages of the children);
  11. it is optimally specific-neither too narrow (e.g., a study of buttons or of the teacher's own dog), or too broad (e.g., "music" or "the seasons"). However, the narrow topics could provoke good mini-projects, and most broad topics can provide some of the optimal specificity following webbing and discussion with the children.

As can be seen in the examples of projects included in this catalog, the number of potential topics worthy of children's effort and of potential interest to them is almost unlimited.

Reference

Wilson, P. S. (1971). Interests and the discipline of education. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


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