Here’s a description of a classroom where a wealth of learning occurs.
Students choose small groups and the teacher asks them to plan a vacation. They can go anywhere.
The first group decides on Washington, D.C. After they do some online research they mark on a map the sites they hope to visit while they’re there. The teacher suggests one student check to see what the average March temperature is for D.C. so they’ll know if they need to dress for snow or sunshine. The teacher also talks to them a bit about what “average” means.
Someone else in the group points out that Virginia is very near the Capital and wants to know if they can drive to Virginia and see some historical sites while they’re so nearby. The teacher tells them to do a little online research and determine if they can fit that into their four days in D.C., given the full schedule they’ve already developed.
She also gives the group one iPad and asks them to find two people who already have been to D.C. They must develop five questions to ask these travelers about the destination and use the iPad to videotape the responses.
The first-graders fire up the iPad and get to work on finding the driving distance between D.C. and Williamsburg.
That’s right, first-graders.
Decades of research show that project-based learning – an approach that encourages students to create, design and implement project ideas that interest them – promotes deeper learning of academic content, boosts problem-solving skills and increases students’ motivation to learn.
It’s only recently, though, that scholars and teachers have embraced the approach for the youngest students.
“Before children enter school their lives are about exploration and learning – they’re going through an extremely rich, rapid phase of development and then, all of a sudden, that can be shut down when they get in the classroom,” said Dr. Jennifer Keys Adair, a College of Education assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and an early childhood education expert.
“Children are made up of a plethora of capabilities, and in the early years they’re developing very quickly in several different domains. When you have children this young sit still at a desk and listen, for 45 minutes at a time, about one way of doing something, you’re only addressing a miniscule area of their capabilities. And you’re shutting down their natural curiosity and drive to figure things out.”
According to Adair project-based learning gets to more of those capabilities quicker, more deeply and more effectively, and children retain the content longer.
Research also shows that children taught with project-based instruction reach academic benchmarks and tend to perform on standardized tests as well as or better than traditionally taught peers.
“Standardized scores are not the reason to embrace project-based learning, however,” said Adair. “The reason is to develop children who become adults who have a wide array of capabilities. They’ll be able to become scientists, problem-solvers and thinkers who can tackle the issues facing their families and communities.”
“Adults may worry that if students are given freedom, they’ll just mess around or waste time, but the project-based learning approach, under the direction of a well-trained teacher, improves everything from confidence and initiative to math and reading abilities – even in the youngest children.” – Dr. Jennifer Adair
In a class where project-based instruction happens, activities start with an inquiry, with children pondering and then formulating questions that puzzle or interest them. The teacher acts as a facilitator and guide in their exploration.
Students, even as early as pre-kindergarten, are motivated to search through books, conduct online research, interview fellow students, consult experts and do experiments to answer questions that excite them.
“The students don’t just choose a topic to pursue but they also get to choose the way they want to learn more it ” said Adair, who has spent over 10 years in classrooms with varying levels of what she calls “school-based agency,” or the ability to influence how and what you learn in a classroom. “They’re given the opportunity to fail and then pick right up again and keep exploring. The teacher gives them direction and pushes them to keep moving when they stall, but it’s amazing what children are able to figure out on their own and through discussion with their peers.”
Adair noted that project-based learning also has been successful at narrowing the achievement gap and promoting learning in traditionally low-achieving student populations.
“Adults may worry that if students are given freedom, they’ll just mess around or waste time,” said Adair. “But the project-based learning approach, under the direction of a well-trained teacher, improves everything from confidence and initiative to math and reading abilities – even in the youngest children. Young children are capable of so much more than we give them credit for.”
Photo by: Christina S. Murrey
- Dr. Jennifer Adair examines how much autonomy young children can manage in the classroom.
- Traditional instruction limits the amount children learn.
- Project-based teaching yields deeper learning, better problem-solving skills, increased student motivation.
- Low-achieving student populations benefit from project-based instruction.