This blog entry was sparked by a discussion about small groups that took place on the PIP-L listserv. A teacher was beginning a project on restaurants and had the opportunity to take her students to visit five different restaurants. She asked her colleagues on the listserv whether they thought that all the children should visit each restaurant or whether individual groups of children should visit different restaurants. It was an interesting question without an easy answer. It seems to me that thinking about the goals and priorities that she has for the children in the group might be one method that a teacher could use as a basis for her decision.
On one hand, a teacher might provoke discussion of a project topic in hopes that small groups of children will begin investigations of subtopics that are interesting to them. In this case, each small group would do a separate project, and the emphasis would be on the breadth of the investigation and on the content knowledge that might be gained. A teacher with these priorities for project work would likely take different groups to visit each of the five restaurants. They might report on what they found to the other groups and develop representations of their findings about the particular restaurant that they decided to study.
On the other hand, a teacher might begin an investigation of the project topic with the intention of building a classroom community and social interactions among children. In this case, it might be beneficial for all class members to share experience of one particular restaurant. Field trip visits could be made in small groups, but the children would all visit the same site. The priority in this case is on developing a shared understanding or frame of reference among class members. Within this shared frame of reference, children might be more likely to participate and work collaboratively with a variety of their peers. They would be likely to participate in multiple small groups. For example, in a project on a Pizza Hut restaurant, a child might work in a small group one day on investigating and representing the menu, and on another day, he might work with a different small group on investigating and representing the oven or the drive-up window.
Based on the discussion among the listserv members, some teachers are in the habit of implementing projects the first way I describe above, and some are in the habit of doing projects the second way. In my view, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to implement projects, but I do think it is important for teachers to be thoughtful about choosing the way that is likely to be most beneficial for their particular group of students. Some useful factors to consider might be the children’s familiarity with one another, their ages, diversity of prior experience with the topic, diversity of abilities, and familiarity with project work.