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GETTING A GRIP ON PROJECT-BASED LEARNING:
THEORY, CASES AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Michael M. Grant

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Abstract

Project-based learning is centered on the learner and affords learners the opportunity for in-depth investigations of worthy topics. The learners are more autonomous as they construct personally-meaningful artifacts that are representations of their learning. This article examines the theoretical foundations of project-based learning, particularly constructivism and constructionism, and notes the similarities and differences among implementations, including project-based science (Blulmenfeld et al., 1991), disciplined inquiry (Levstik & Barton, 2001) and WebQuests (Dodge, 1995). In addition, an anatomy of a model case will be considered using a WebQuest example developed by the author, describing seven characteristics common among the various implementations of project-based learning. Finally, practical advice and recommendations for project-based learning are discussed, including beginning slowly with the implementation, teaching students to negotiate cooperative/collaborative groups and establishing multiple forms of performance assessments.

Introduction and Background

Project-based learning is an instructional method centered on the learner. Instead of using a rigid lesson plan that directs a learner down a specific path of learning outcomes or objectives, project-based learning allows in-depth investigation of a topic worth learning more about (Harris & Katz, 2001). Through the construction of a personally-meaningful artifact, which may be a play, a multimedia presentation or a poem, learners represent what they've learned (Harel & Papert, 1991; Kafai & Resnick, 1996). In addition, learners typically have more autonomy over what they learn, maintaining interest and motivating learners to take more responsibility for their learning (Tassinari, 1996; Wolk, 1994; Worthy, 2000). With more autonomy, learners "shape their projects to fit their own interests and abilities" (Moursund, 1998, p. 4). So, project-based learning and the construction of artifacts enable the expression of diversity in learners, such as interests, abilities and learning styles. This article will explore the theoretical foundations of project-based learning and examine cases from the literature to note variations and similarities of how project-based learning has been implemented. Next, the anatomy of a model case will be considered. Finally, some practical advice and recommendations for trying project-based learning in the classroom will be provided.


Theoretical Foundations

Project-based learning has a long history. As far back as the early 1900s, John Dewey supported "learning by doing." This sentiment is also reflected in constructivism and constructionism. Constructivism (Perkins, 1991; Piaget, 1969; Vygotsky, 1978) explains that individuals construct knowledge through interactions with their environment, and each individual's knowledge construction is different. So, through conducting investigations, conversations or activities, an individual is learning by constructing new knowledge by building on their current knowledge.

Constructionism takes the notion of individuals constructing knowledge one step further. Constructionism (Harel & Papert, 1991; Kafai & Resnick, 1996) posits that individuals learn best when they are constructing an artifact that can be shared with others and reflected upon, such as plays, poems, pie charts or toothpick bridges. Another important element to constructionism is that the artifacts must be personally meaningful, where individuals are most likely to become engaged in learning. By focusing on the individual learner, project-based learning strives for "considerable individualization of curriculum, instruction and assessment-in other words, the project is learner-centered" (Moursund, 1998, p.4).

Examples from the Literature

In the literature, examples of project-based learning vary in both context and implementation. In project-based science, for example, emphasis is placed on a driving question to guide an investigation (Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Marx, Blumenfeld, Krajcik, & Soloway, 1997). In teams, the class performs similar experiments and collects data to help answer the driving question, and the students help determine how the data is analyzed, what it means and how the results will be presented. This inquiry process takes considerable amounts of time and requires students to work well with each other (see e.g. Scott, 1994), but the process is representative of authentic scientific investigations.

Authentic and purposeful investigations are also the hallmark of disciplined inquiry (Levstik & Barton, 2001). In the social sciences, many students roll their eyes as they memorize names, dates and places. But, by encouraging students to "do history," Levstik and Barton underscore the contexts for studying the past: history is interpretive and history is often explained through narratives. "Doing history" involves in-depth understanding through inquiry, building on prior knowledge, scaffolding learners and providing multiple forms of assessment (e.g. Hoover & Taylor, 1998). Though similar in structure to the project-based science example, disciplined inquiry seems to allow more flexibility for learners to make the learning more personally relevant by situating themselves into the content. For example, learners are able to ask themselves "What does this mean for us today?" or "How does this affect my family and friends?"

While the previous two examples were linked to content-specific domains, WebQuests (Dodge, 1995, 1998) can be created for just about any discipline and are typically interdisciplinary. WebQuests are also inquiry-oriented. They require an engaging task or project and use a predefined list of resources from primarily the World Wide Web, but may also include textbooks, CD-ROM's, videos, and subject-matter experts. By using a predefined list of resources, a learner's time is maximized by not having to search for references. Also, the resources have been prescreened by the instructor to prevent misinformation or to prevent students visiting inappropriate sites. The focus of WebQuests is on
using information instead of looking for it (Starr, 2000). Like project-based science and disciplined inquiry, WebQuests can incorporate cooperative or collaborative learning and provide scaffolding for learners, often through templates for artifacts and guidance on cognitive and social skills. Also, like many of the projects in disciplined inquiry, WebQuests often include an embedded scenario or role for the student to play, sometimes called the anchor (see Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1992). However, while other examples of project-based learning may suggest reflection, WebQuests are explicit in providing an opportunity to reflect on the inquiry process and an individual's results (Dodge, 1995, 1998; Yoder, 1999).


Anatomy of a model case

Project-based science, disciplined inquiry and WebQuests are only three examples of project-based learning. Though all the models of project-based learning have distinguishing characteristics, there are common features across all the various implementations. These include:

(a) an introduction to "set the stage" or anchor the activity;
(b) a task, guiding question or driving question;
(c) a process or investigation that results in the creation of one or more sharable artifacts;
(d) resources, such as subject-matter experts, textbooks and hypertext links;
(e) scaffolding, such as teacher conferences to help learners assess their progress, computer-based questioning and project templates;
(f) collaborations, including teams, peer reviews and external content specialists; and
(g) opportunities for reflection and transfer, such as classroom debriefing sessions, journal entries and extension activities.

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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
a service of NC State University, Raleigh, NC
Volume 5, Issue 1, Winter 2002
ISSN 1097 9778
URL: http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/win2002/514
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