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.
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
(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
(g) opportunities for reflection and transfer, such as classroom debriefing
sessions, journal entries and extension activities.