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Knowledge Versus Understanding

Originally published:

knowledge blog image of fish

One reason that I love project work is that it builds deep understanding, as opposed to surface knowledge. Having deep understanding of a topic benefits children in many ways. It helps them make connections with prior learning and provides them with the opportunity to confidently share their expertise with others. They also are more likely to come up with questions about related concepts and skills. Some strategies that support this type of learning include:

  • Developing a class culture in which children are encouraged to share their ideas for the good of the group, rather than one where children compete with one another to see who is doing the best (e.g., getting an A, coming in first, winning a prize).
  • Creating displays in the classroom that help children remember prior learning experiences and make connections with them.
  • Creating routine and spontaneous opportunities for children to share their expertise. For example, instead of the teacher explaining that fish are covered with scales, a teacher might ask a child to provide the explanation.

There are many opportunities in project work for children to represent their growing understanding. For example, in a project on fish, children’s first drawings revealed that they knew that fish had tails, eyes, a mouth, and a nose. These first drawings also often included different-colored rounded scales, which reflected their familiarity with the book Rainbow Fish (Pfister, 1999).

Children’s first-hand exploration of real fish was then facilitated by providing them with experiences painting and making prints using tilapia from the local market. Whole tilapia were purchased, and during center time the children could paint the fish with tempera paints and then press paper down on the fish to make a print. As they engaged in this process, they noticed many features of the fish.

The next drawings by these same children revealed that many of them were beginning to understand that fish had gills as well as a growing awareness of the existence and placement of multiple fins on the fish. Instead of random colored scales, several of the children covered their fish with connected scales.

Teachers can support children’s opportunities to reflect their growing understanding by:

  • Collecting beginning representations to use as a baseline.
  • Providing props that prompt children to represent their understanding through dramatic play in the block, dramatic play, and family living areas.
  • Providing many opportunities for ongoing representation.
  • Providing and modeling the use of art media to represent observation of topic-related objects and artifacts.

Children with disabilities often memorize facts and skills without understanding their value or function. The long-term, in-depth nature of project work provides many opportunities for information to be presented on many occasions and in a variety of ways, which lead them to deeper understanding. In addition, project work takes place in a social context, so children with disabilities have the opportunity to hear peers discuss or explain topic-related topics. There also are many chances to see peers model topic-related skills in the natural environment. Peer modeling and dialogue can be very powerful teaching tools. Strategies that support children with disabilities in project work include:

  • Selecting topics that are rich and multifaceted enough to support long-term investigation.
  • Planning opportunities for children to plan next steps in a project in small, inclusive groups.
  • Providing many props, artifacts, and real-life experiences as contexts for project investigation.

The Project Approach is not a cookie-cutter method for planning preschool curricula. It can be complex and challenging, but the benefits to all children in terms of deepening their understanding of how their world works is worthy of our time and effort as teachers.


Beneke, S., Ostrosky, M. M., & Katz, L. G. (2019). The Project Approach for all learners: A hands-on guide for inclusive early childhood classrooms. Paul H. Brookes.

Sallee Beneke

Sallee Beneke

Sallee (BenekeSalleeJ@sau.edu) is Professor and Director of Graduate Programs in ECE at St Ambrose University, Iowa. She coauthored The Project Approach for All Learners (2019) with Michaelene Ostrosky and Lilian Katz. Sallee used the Project Approach as a teacher and has worked to build the implementation of the approach via training and consulting. Sallee co-founded the IEL Project Approach Web site, and Facebook page with Lilian Katz, and she continues to contribute to the site.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2024