I remember my first experiences implementing the Project Approach and my recognition that it allowed me to teach at a higher level. I felt so much better connected with the children. They were engaged in learning about the project topic, and I was engaged in learning about them!
Over time I’ve often reflected on the benefits of this approach. Typically I reflect on things that are generally considered “outcomes” or results of high-quality learning experiences for children, such as meeting standards, developing literacy skills, or increasing children’s participation. However, describing the benefits of the Project Approach doesn’t explain what produces them.
In a way, successful project implementation can be compared to baking a cake. I know that if I take certain steps and combine certain ingredients I will end up with a delicious dessert. I don’t usually consider the science involved; I’m too busy baking and serving!
However, implementing the Project Approach is much more complicated than following a simple recipe. The sequence of events and the experiences involved vary from project to project and across groups of teachers and children.
Those who consume my cakes and lick the frosting from the bowl probably don’t care whether I understand the science behind it. But parents, administrators, and other taxpayers typically expect teachers to be able to explain why they use the Project Approach. So, we search for answers. For example, recently a teacher on the ILPIP listserv shared her impression that “the philosophy and process of projects aligns well with common core and 21st century skills.” Another listserv member then asked this teacher if she had any resources to support her claim. As I thought about this exchange, I reflected again on what makes the Project Approach beneficial and made a connection with my recent training and certification as a CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System) observer.
The CLASS tool is too complex to explain in detail here. It focuses on teacher/child and child/child classroom interactions across 10 dimensions in three domains (emotional support, classroom organization, and concept development). Observers rate interactions on a scale of 1 to 7. As I went through the CLASS training, it dawned on me that the types of interactions rated highest on the CLASS tool are more likely to take place in the context of project work than in other approaches to curriculum. This was especially true in the domain of instructional support.
A summary of research on the CLASS tool reported that “across several thousand [Pre-K to fifth-grade] classrooms observed throughout the country, students tend to experience moderate to high levels of effective interactions for emotional support and classroom organization” (Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, 2010, p. 2). However, most classrooms are characterized by very low levels of instructional support, “interactions that teach students to think, provide ongoing feedback and support, and facilitate language and vocabulary” (p. 1).
Under the CLASS tool (Pianta, La Paro, & Hamre, 2008), the teachers who are rated highest for their interactions with children in the dimension of concept development are those who:
- Engage children in analysis and reasoning.
- Ask the children many open-ended questions.
- Support children’s problem-solving, predicting, experimenting, classify/comparing, and evaluating.
- Involve children in creating ways to show what they are learning through brainstorming, planning, and producing representations of what they know.
- Encourage children to integrate knowledge by helping them connect concepts.
- Help make connections to the real world through activities related to the children’s lives.
Sound familiar? It seems to me that these are the very types of interactions that occur as teachers and children engage in project work! So, perhaps when we try to identify what it is about the Project Approach that leads to beneficial outcomes for children, we can point to the types of teacher/child and child/child interactions that project work supports. Similarly, I would suggest that teachers who want to have higher-level interactions in their classrooms would do well to learn how to implement the Project Approach.
Neither the CLASS nor the Project Approach is simple, but both lead to better learning experiences for young children.