University of Warsaw
Organizing project work at schools is becoming more and more popular. The main purpose of this literature review is to explain to the readers the concept of project work and encourage to include it in the teaching syllabus. The reader will find a review of definitions of project work according to Lilian Katz & Sylvia Chard, Magdalena Szpotowicz & Małgorzata Szulc-Kurpaska and Jeremy Harmer. The second part presents all the stages required during the project work. Afterwards, we discuss the advantages and challenging aspects of project work.
“Not having heard something is not as good as having heard it; having heard it is not as good as having seen it; having seen it is not as good as knowing it; knowing it is not as good as putting it into practice.” According to this famous Chinese proverb introduced by Xun Kuang, a philosopher from the 3rd-century B.C, the most effective method of learning is bringing it into use. In the last few years, there has been a growing interest in finding the best method to teach. There has been a discussion of various teaching approaches such as teacher-centered or learner-centered, teacher dominated or interactive, disciplinal or integrated, individualistic or guided. However, most of the previous studies do not take into account the important role of Project Work, which is a kind of guided approach, sometimes called the exploratory or indirect method. This paper focuses on publications dedicated to using projects in education and it covers the following aspects of this topic: what project work is, how to organize project work into stages, the advantages of project work and project work as a challenge for teachers.
What is project work?
Projects may find their origins in the theory of John Dewey about “learning by doing”, although at that time it was common to qualify them into “experiential learning”. Nowadays, there are many methods that encourage the students to explore real-world issues, ask questions and solve problems through investigation. In other words, there have been many initiatives to define this authentic and student-driven approach, but as the result, there is not one definitive name of this method. Although we may come across names such as inquiry-based learning, project-based learning (PBL), problem-based learning and also simply project work, they share the common objectives – involve the children, make them interested, let them investigate and discover to solve the practical problem.
But what does the project really mean? One of the first and a very precise definition is presented in the book Engaging children’s minds. Lilian Katz and Sylvia Chard define a project as “an in-depth study of the particular topic, usually undertaken by a whole class working on subtopics in small groups, sometimes by a small group of children within a class, and occasionally by an individual child. The key feature of a project is that it is an investigation – a piece of research which involves children in seeking answers to questions that they have formulated by themselves or in cooperation with their teacher and that arise as the investigation proceeds” (Katz & Chard, 2000, p. 2).
Moreover, the authors point out that project work is extremely flexible in terms of the organization of work or timing. The duration of a project is not strictly defined and depends on many factors such as the age of the students, the type of the project, objectives and unexpected events. Long-term projects that require in-depth research and observation of changes may be extended over several weeks if there is a special need. On the other hand, even the short project may be prolonged because of an unsuspected finding, problem or visitor. Katz and Chard also underline that in contrast to spontaneous play, projects always demand advanced planning and a big variety of tasks involving long-standing effort. The age of the students determines the division of labour, children from kindergarten are more likely to work in small groups and older students may divide the whole class project into smaller sections guided by the leaders.
Magdalena Szpotowicz and Małgorzata Szulc-Kurpaska in Teaching English to Young Learners offer a division of projects into 4 different types based on the size, i.e. the time of the project or the number of students involved. The authors distinguish international school projects that engage different schools from various places in the world in preparation of the project on the common topic. The second type is called local projects, and, as the name suggests, they focus on projects for children from the same city, but they are relatively large-scale. Whole-school projects are considered very important because students from the same school but from different classes prepare projects to cover a general topic. The last type is believed to be very effective in lower-primary and kindergarten classes and consists of mini-projects which last from one to a few lessons and involve the pupils from the same group.
A slightly different definition of a project is presented in English Language Teaching by Jeremy Harmer who describes projects as “assignments that last for longer than 45 minutes or one or two lessons”. What is more, he states that project work is a perfect method that develops and integrates all learners’ skills and practice data gathering. Harmer has also found that sometimes it is difficult to differentiate regular written tasks from projects, because sometimes this difference may be almost invisible (Harmer, 2015, p.312).
Very often the project work and its procedures depend on the teacher. But as Jeremy Harmer points out, there are some steps that follow the same order. While planning the project work the teacher should bear in mind the following steps:
Following the stages presented above may not only ease the whole project work process but also make it fully effective for the learners (Harmer, 2015, p.312-313).
Advantages of project work
Projects with Young Learners by Phillips, Burwood & Dunford is a perfect guide for all teachers interested in projects. The authors present many advantages of this approach. First of all, as it was mentioned before, while working on a project children develop many different skills. They have to use their intellectual skills while describing, reading, planning, drawing conclusions and hypothesizing, their motor skills of writing, cutting, drawing, folding, gluing and colouring, social skills while working in the team, co-operating, making decisions and dividing tasks and, finally, their learner independence skills of planning the work, data collection, being responsible for the whole project and being able to assess own work. Furthermore, projects are a great opportunity for students not only to develop emotionally, but also personally. This approach lets the students share their knowledge with the classmates. Very often the topic is chosen on the basis of students’ interests so it stimulates the natural engagement in the work. Via project work, learners may express their feelings, reflect on new ideas, discover and deepen the information gathered. The authors also point out that project approach is suitable for mixed-ability classes. During the class project, the different tasks are divided between learners. Hence, with the help of the teacher, students may get the activity appropriate for their needs and abilities. The last advantage stated in the Projects with Young Learners regards the flexibility within the curriculum. Projects are practical because they are good for every kind of classes we conduct. The syllabus of the class might be constructed and based only on projects or the projects may be an extra supplement that fits into class curricula.
The advantage that is highlighted by Magdalena Szpotowicz and Małgorzata Szulc-Kurpaska is that project work leads the students through different tasks towards a specific goal. Hence, very often the “hidden target” of practicing the foreign language is not noticed. As authors reported, working on a project “has a very strong team-building effect on the students” and it also includes the teacher (Szpotowicz & Szulc- Kurpaska, 2009, p. 243). However, we cannot forget that it is a student-centered approach where the teacher performs the role of the supporter and ready-to-help guide (Maley & Peachey, 2015, p. 104).
Other authors also appreciate the value of projects in language teaching. In the introduction to their book Creativity in the English Language Classroom Alan Maley and Nik Peachey state that creativity in teaching and learning is a crucial issue (Maley & Peachey, 2015, p. 9). Not only does it influence the kids in a positive way but it also protects the teachers from burnout. The book includes the article by Malu Sciamarelli about mascot-inspired projects. She describes this approach as ”motivational, empowering and challenging, and [one that] stimulates creativity” (Sciamarelli, 2015, p. 104). According to her, projects focus on content learning rather than on specific targets, which not only leads the students’ skills to authentic integration but also helps them in processing the gathered information. When it comes to language learners, the whole process of working on a project is product-oriented, which means that students have an opportunity to practice and develop their fluency and accuracy at different stages.
Another important advantage of project work is its resemblance to the real life. As grown-ups we constantly get involved in enterprises which we have to conceive of, plan, start, research for, carry out, finish, assess, improve and get out of. We do it in all areas of life, and our projects have a different scale and duration, from cooking a new dish to building a house or running a business, but the pattern is the same. It involves acquiring new information and new skills, co-operation and communication with others, setting goals, finding and evaluating options, predicting and assessing outcomes, making decisions, giving things up, not giving things up, assuming new roles – and all these can practiced in the safe environment of the classroom before we start risking our effort, money and relationships in the real life.
The final advantage which is worth mentioning is the novelty factor. Both for the students and the teacher projects involve a considerable amount of unpredictability, which rules out the boredom and repetitiveness of the traditional classroom routines and curricula. This can motivate not only the learners, but also the teacher by offering constant change and challenge. Although project work may seem demanding we should keep in mind that without challenges our life would be really boring, so we should definitely give a try.
Project work as a challenge for teachers
Project work is considered a very effective approach but all the educators admit that it is a challenging approach, as well. According to Magdalena Szpotowicz and Małgorzata Szulc-Kurpaska, the teacher has to accept the learner-centered approach and be able to monitor the class work discretely but with an empathetic support. Moreover, the whole project must be well and carefully planned, the aims should be set and the teacher should be ready for unexpected problems, or the noise caused by the students working together in groups. The authors also point out that project work requires cooperative work of the whole group. The teacher has to trust his/her students and make sure that the children are able to co-operate and they will create a positive learning environment. It is advised to introduce to the students the principles and features of successful cooperation. Additionally, Katz and Chard point out that just like children need challenges in their lives, the same applies to the teachers. Instead of looking for excuses and telling themselves that project work is impossible to introduce in their classroom because of different factors, all teachers should take a risk and try to organize a project, even in the most unexpected moment.
A very important challenge which faces the teachers introducing project work into their teaching is the difficulty in assessment. If the school demands grades, they have to consider what elements of the work to grade, how to grade the contributions of different group participants, how to incorporate assessing the process as well as the product into the grade, how to reflect the effort etc. Working in groups involves many roles, and not all of them are visible in the final product, but all of them are equally important and worth learning through the process. However, the teacher is not present during most of the work, so he/she is not able to grade all the important factors. In effect some students may have the feeling that the grade is “unfair”.
All challenges considered, it seems reasonable to suggest some possible solutions to prevent problems and undesirable outcomes. As we mentioned before, children have to know how to cooperate but also it is important to plan and divide the work so all the children know what is their task. Teachers should also make sure that the students have understood the project idea, their tasks and they know what to do and when the deadline is. The forms and criteria of assessment have to be clearly stated at the beginning, too, so that the students know what to focus on. Sometimes there may occur some social or personal difficulties so the teacher’s task is to group the children carefully, remember about their abilities and personal preferences. At the beginning, it is better to start with smaller projects to check the effectiveness of group work and learn from mistakes, refining the details, particularly the planning process.
Even though project work considerably differs from what we understand as traditional teaching and learning, this paper shows that it may become a very reliable and efficient approach in education. Incorporating projects into the syllabus should be considered by all dedicated teachers who want to make a change. Nowadays, we live in a world where everything is possible, old and traditional forms are getting less effective and all the things that are different seem intriguing. Considering that it is increasingly difficult to engage young people I believe that projects may be a perfect solution.
Projects do not only develop different skills but primarily they integrate the group and involve the students in the deep, real-world, practical and intriguing investigation. We cannot forget that students’ creativity is endless so it is worth engaging our pupils in original projects. It will transform our pupils into inquirers and discoverers with a full desire of sharing their knowledge with others.
Although project work is very challenging and includes some difficulties for the teacher, we have to remember that it is not about us – teachers, it is about the children. They will not learn anything from the boring lecture where the teacher talks for 45 minutes but they will remember and understand when we give them a chance to try, think, plan, experiment, investigate, ask, cooperate, hypothesise and inquire into a problem that interests them. So finally, I would like to challenge all the teachers who care for the young people to have a try and implement the project work into practice. You will not regret it.
Harmer, J. (2015), The Practice of English Language Teaching. Essex, England: Pearson
Katz, L. & Chard, S.C. (2000). Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach. Stamford, Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Co-operation
Maley, A., & Peachey, N., (2015). Creativity in the English language classroom. London: British Council
Szpotowicz, M., & Szulc- Kurpaska, M. (2009). Teaching English to Young Learners, Warszawa: PWN
Sciamarelli, M. (2015). Teaching children with mascot-inspired projects. In A. Maley & N. Peachey (Eds.). Creativity in the English language classroom (pp. 104-114) London: British Council