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In: Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy, ed. D.C. Phillips. Thousend Oaks, CA: Sage 2014. Vol. 2. Pp. 665-669.

The project method, also discussed under headings like project work, project approach, and project-based learning, is one of the standard teaching methods. It is a sub-form of action-centered and student-directed learning and an enterprise in which children engage in practical problem solving for a certain period of time. Projects, for example, may consist of building a motor boat, designing a playground, or producing a video film. For the most part, projects are initiated by the teacher but as far as possible they are planned and executed by the students themselves, individually or in groups. In project work, the students generate tangible products that frequently transcend disciplinary boundaries and are typically displayed to the general public on parents days or at school fairs. Contrary to traditional methods, projects focus on applying, not imparting, specific knowledge or skills, and more rigorously than lecture, demonstration, or recitation, they aim at the enhancement of intrinsic motivation, independent thinking, self-esteem, and social responsibility.

Origins in Europe

Historically, the project method emerged in 1577 when master builders founded the Accademia di San Lucca in Rome to advance their social standing by developing their profession into a science and improve the education of their apprentices by offering lessons in the theory and history of architecture, in mathematics, geometry, and perspective. To bridge the gap between theory and practice, science and reality, the architects subsequently expanded their repertoire beyond teacher-centered methods and transferred their daily work of designing buildings from the studio to the academy so that the students acquired, through learning by doing and simulating real life situations, already at school the experience and dexterity they later needed as professionals. These beginnings indicate that the project method – like the experiment of the scientist, the case study of the lawyer, and the sand-box exercise of the staff officer – has its origin in the academization of a profession and that the concept of teaching by projects is not the result of abstract philosophical deliberations, for instance, of Rousseau, Froebel, or Dewey but of practical thinking of vocational education teachers who tried to activate their students’ minds and make their training interesting, lively, and, as far as possible, authentic and useful.

It took, however, more than 150 years and the transfer from Italy to France that the project work evolved from a sporadic and voluntary event for few people to a recurring and compulsory part of the curriculum for all students. Indeed, only in 1763 the advanced students of the Académie Royale d’Architecture in Paris got regularly design problems (now known as “projets”) to demonstrate that they were fit to apply the principles of composition and construction they had previously learned. From the start, the project method served two functions: first, to supplement the bookish and theoretical training of the students, and second, to test their artistic and practical capabilities. In fact, the most difficult, and most cherished, part of the final examination the French students of architecture and, since 1829, of engineering (at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufacture) had to cope with was the imaginative design of fountains, churches, and palaces, of turbines, cranes, and bridges.

Three Basic Models


Studying the best European practices, William B. Rogers, the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), discovered the “project” at Karlsruhe and Zürich and, in 1865, was the first to adopt it as a new method of instruction in the U.S.. In 1876, his successor as president of the MIT, John D. Runkle, noticed a disturbing absence of manual skills among his engineering students and established a school of mechanical arts to remedy the defect. More importantly, he propagated the introduction of manual training as a vital branch of the common school curriculum and thus, at the same time, paved the way for the dissemination of the project method top down from the college to the school and, eventually, the kindergarten. During the four decades that followed, notable educators established three distinct types of project work which have retained their appeal and importance until today.

The linear model, developed in 1879 by Calvin M. Woodward, professor of mechanical engineering at Washington University and founder of the first Manual Training School in St. Louis, complied with the main didactic principle that teaching to be successful has to progress from the easy, simple, and known to the difficult, complex, and unknown. At the Manual Training High School the classes in handicraft and mechanical drawing were therefore conducted in two steps. Following the “Russian system,” the students initially learned the alphabet of tools and techniques by passing through a series of basic exercises, then they got time to carry out “projects.” Woodward regarded the projects as synthetic exercises. The skills the students had earlier learned in isolation and under direction of the teacher, they now applied in context and on their own, for example, by designing and making book racks, fire tools, or steam engines. In this way, the training advanced systematically from principles to applications, or – in Woodward’s words – from “instruction” to “construction.” At the close of the fourth year, the manual training course was completed by what he called the “project for graduation.”

The holistic model, put forward around 1900 by Charles R. Richards, professor of Manual training at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, and influenced by Froebel and Dewey’s concept of active occupations, replaced Woodward’s consecutive system of instruction and construction by an integrative system of “natural wholes” so that the students could work together and participate in the planning and executing of the project right away. Proposed by the teacher, pupils of the Horace Mann Elementary School decided, for example, to reconstruct a Greek temple. Having planned the project and acquired the necessary skills, each child made a column, a capital, and a gable out of clay, as well as a segment for the foundations, the wall, and the roof. Evaluating the results, the students picked the best pieces of work, cast them in plaster, and put them together in a temple three yards long. According to Richards, the pupils were motivated by the fact that they cooperated in a meaningful way and obtained at the appropriate moment that knowledge and skill they needed to achieve their goal. Consequently, “instruction” did not – as with Woodward – precede the project, but was an integral part of “construction.”

The universal model, propagated by William H. Kilpatrick of Columbia’s Teachers College in his world famous article “The Project Method” of 1918, defined the project broadly calling it a “hearty purposeful act.” Whatever children undertook, as long as they did it with purpose, it was a project. No aspect of valuable life should be excluded. For Kilpatrick, the project was not a specific method restricted to manual training and certain stages of teaching but was a general method that could be used all the time, in all subjects, and comprise all forms of behaving and learning, from making a dress, solving a mathematical problem, and writing a letter to memorizing a poem, watching a sunset, and listening to a sonata. Apart from reading, writing, and arithmetic, there was no prescribed curriculum, and the project work did not even require active doing. Children who presented a drama realized a project, as did those children who sat in the audience and enjoyed the play. Ideally, the project was proposed and carried through by the students themselves, i.e. without any help from the teacher; for only if the students got “freedom for practice” and exercised “practice with satisfaction,” could they increase their self-confidence, self-reliance, self-efficacy and improve their ability to initiate, plan, execute, and judge – abilities Kilpatrick believed were essential for the preservation and advancement of democracy.

Kilpatrick's Failure and America's Democratic Mission

From the outset, the third model – unlike the first two – has been heatedly disputed among conservative as well as progressive educators. Even the two colleagues at Teachers College whose psychologies of learning Kilpatrick used to buttress his position raised their voices and objected to his broad definition and his child-centered concept. Edward L. Thorndike and John Dewey, commonly characterized as proponents of opposing educational philosophies, unanimously warned of employing Kilpatrick’s project method as the only or even major teaching device since learning limited to incidental and instrumental actions was likely to be too disjointed, scattered, and haphazard to provide the children with the continuous development they needed for a thorough mastery of the fundamentals and a deeper understanding of the issues and subjects involved in the project.

Generally speaking, and summarizing the criticism put forward by educators such as Ernest Horn, W.W. Charters, Boyd H. Bode, Ernest E. Bayles, Philip W. Jackson, and Ellen C. Lagemann, Kilpatrick’s project method had four serious shortcomings:

(1) it accepted as valid only the momentary interests of the children, and claimed that high intrinsic motivation would guarantee best results in learning;
(2) it offered no practical solutions for the everyday business of the teacher pertaining to subject matter, classroom management, and student performance;
(3) it propagated a concept of freedom which encouraged the development of selfish and individualistic attitudes rather than the – intended – formation of democratic and social virtues; and
(4) it was a philosophy of education while pretending to be a method of teaching, promising help, advice, and guidance.

In the late 1920’s, Kilpatrick recognized that he had made a mistake by extending the project beyond its traditional sphere and quietly refrained from using the term for his educational program. Despite scathing criticism by Dewey and all important American educators of the past and present, and despite the fact that Kilpatrick’s concept has never successfully been implemented, his article of 1918 is still world-wide regarded as the classic text of the project approach and as the best statement of putting Dewey’s educational theory into practice.

In the U.S., the call for practical learning was part of the national creed. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Americans considered learning by book and rote as “aristocratic,” whereas they regarded learning by training and doing as “democratic” because it utilized the experiences of the productive classes, facilitated the advancement of practically inclined children, and promoted the formation of socially responsible citizens. Like laboratory and field work, the project method seemed to fulfill perfectly the public desire for life activity and equal opportunity for all.

No wonder that the project once again crossed the Atlantic and was fiercely debated especially in countries struggling to overcome their autocratic or fascist past. In the 1920’s, Soviet educators appreciated the project as the ideal approach to accelerate the transition from Czarist feudalism to democratic socialism, but in 1931 they were silenced when the Central Committee of the Communist Party intervened and forbade the implementation of project curricula, declaring that project work would disagree with the party’s notion of systematic teaching and dogmatic indoctrination. Nearly 50 years later, in connection with the student rebellion, a powerful movement emerged in West Germany and, by explicitly mentioning Dewey’s “Democracy and Education” and Kilpatrick’s “Project Method,” identified the project taken in its wide sense as the one and only means to vitalize learning, humanize teaching, democratize school, and transform society. The movement rapidly spread to Denmark, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. In the late 1980’s, the project broadly defined experienced a revival in the U.S. where the method narrowly defined had outlasted the crisis provoked by Kilpatrick in technical, agricultural, and science education.

Current Concepts and Empirical Findings

Today, the project method is being discussed primarily under two headings. As project approach, propagated by Lillian G. Katz and Sylvia C. Chard, the method refers to any “in-depth investigation of a real-world topic worthy of a student’s attention and effort,” that is taken up and carried through rather independently by a class, a group, or an individual student (Chard's Project Approach website provides an overview of the approach and the resources for implementing it.) In preschool and kindergarten, the project could be used as the only method, but in elementary school, high school and college, it has to be supplemented by systematic instruction. Without knowing it, Katz and Chard follow in the footsteps of Woodward and his linear model. While systematic instruction addresses the deficiencies of students and ensures the acquisition of skills, they say, project work builds on the proficiency of students and stands for the unaided application of skills acquired earlier. But unlike Woodward, Katz and Chard do not confine the project to manual work and construction, i.e. the students are allowed to grapple with any real phenomenon they cannot explore and attend to through internet and library research alone.

Developed in particular by teams around Phyllis C. Blumenfeld and John R. Mergendoller, project-based learning differs from the project approach in that it follows Richards’ and Dewey’s holistic model and integrates both phases, i.e. the acquisition of skills and their application, into one single process. Frequently, the phrase project-based learning is interchangeably used with problem-based learning, but – in accordance with Dewey – one should clearly distinguish between both concepts. Whereas problem-based learning is inquiry-centered and restricted to abstract problem solving, project-based learning is production-centered and requires the use of theoretical as well as practical problem solving strategies. There are still educators who adhere to Kilpatrick’s child-centered project method, yet in most cases they advocate projects that – although “allowing for some degree of student ‘voice and choice’” – are “carefully planned, managed, and assessed to help students learn key academic content, practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products & presentations,” according to the website of the Buck Institute for Education, whose work focuses on project-based learning.

Referring specifically to Dewey, Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner, all modern educators situate the project method within a constructivist-based theoretical framework. They regard students as active agents engaged in authentic tasks, solving real problems, and generating knowledge and skills in dynamic interaction with their physical and social environment, thus creating meaning of themselves and the surrounding world. They acknowledge, however, that the constructivist approach must be balanced by a concept of structured teaching and direct, strong instructional guidance.

According to recent research, project work meets, to some degree, the expectations of its proponents in that the method improves – besides factual learning – the students’ motivation, self-confidence, and critical thinking as well as their problem solving, decision making, investigative, collaborative skills. But there is evidence, too, that there exist barriers hindering the achievement of the objectives intended and striven for since neither students nor teachers always fulfill the necessary premises and qualifications completely. Teachers, for example, have difficulties to suggest and design challenging projects, monitor progress, give feedback and support when and where is needed, to create and maintain an atmosphere of study and work, and lastly develop tools for assessing the results. Correspondingly, students often feel ill prepared and overwhelmed by the complexity of the tasks at hand, i.e. they have not a clue how to define the problem, choose the proper methodology, find the necessary resources, revise plans and procedures if appropriate, keep deadlines and present the results fittingly. After all, projects can fail since few students are constantly disposed to self-directed, creative, innovative learning. In principle, they enjoy the freedom of action the project method offers them but, as in traditional settings, they frequently employ strategies of bargaining, shirking, and playing dumb in order to lessen, avoid or even resist the additional time, energy, and imagination required by project work.

Further Readings

Bleeke, M. H. (1968). The project: From a device for teaching to a principle of curriculum. Diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Chard, S. C. (2011). The project approach. Retrieved November 30, 2012, from http://www.projectapproach.org/project_approach.php.

Knoll, M. (1997). The project method: Its vocational education origin and international development. Retrieved November 30, 2012, from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JITE/v34n3/Knoll.html.

Knoll, M. (2012). “I had made a mistake”: William H. Kilpatrick and the project method. Teachers College Record 114 (2), 45 pages.

Buck Institute for Education (2012). Project-based learning for the 21st century. Retrieved November 30, 2012, from http://www.bie.org/about/what_is_pbl.

Thomas, J. W. (2000). A review of research on project-based learning. Retrieved November 30, 2012, from http://173.226.50.98/sites/default/files/news/pbl_research2.pdf.