Jane writes about control and responsibilities between
teachers and learners in project learning.
The most effective way of promoting a shift to student-centered teaching
and learning is through project-centered curriculum. Instead of teaching
traditional, compartmentalized subjects, teachers present students with
broad projects that call for the integration of the academic disciplines
in a meaningful way. Good projects are authentic in nature, are relevant
to the learner, and promote processes that generalize to future learning.
In the best projects, students and teachers share decision-making responsibilities,
and make choices together about what is learned. The more choice students
have, the more meaningful their projects become, and the more invested
they are in their own learning.
Planning a student-centered project is like planning a voyage across
uncharted seas. You have a destination in mind, but not knowing your
route you build a trusty ship, and, bringing all your seamanship to
bear, get wind in your sails and set off. It helps to have a clear picture
of your destination so you'll recognize it when you see it! With projects,
a teacher has general aims, but the students set the course through
their original work. Scoring guides and work outlines help students
plan their course. A balance must be struck between giving enough structure
to the project and at the same time allowing freedom so students can
complete creative efforts.
If a project is too structured or teacher driven, it becomes nothing
more than a set of steps students follow to predictable results. None
of the higher aims of project work (thoughtful decision-making, creativity,
and collaboration) are met. On the other hand, if a project has too
little structure, students may toil aimlessly and produce questionable
work that is difficult to evaluate. Striking a balance between too much
and too little structure is a big challenge. I chose to address it by
starting with a teacher-directed project that teaches a lot of the skills
and work attitudes that are repeated in the student-directed project.
Clear communication is essential when setting students to work on projects.
Having the project well laid out and then clearly explained at the beginning
allows for less confusion later on. Ongoing conferencing and discussion
occur as the project progresses. Helping students develop their own
ideas and decisions is the aim of these interactions; a teacher should
ask clarifying questions whenever possible, instead of giving in to
the easy temptation of simply explaining or demonstrating what a child
should do. Visual aids such as handouts, overheads, models, or demonstrations
After initial instruction, teaching shifts to guidance as students start
working on projects. The teacher spends time trouble-shooting, evaluating
progress, and providing for the material needs of the students. This
can feel a little crazy at times, as diverse needs seem to arise for
many students at once. Referring students to others who have successfully
resolved similar problems is helpful, and this encourages interdependence
among classmates. Monitoring tools such as self-evaluation forms serve
to promote thoughtful discussion between the student and teacher. Having
a schedule for regular conferencing will help students stay on track,
and informal, day-to-day monitoring will occur "on the fly". A visual
timeline helps students and teacher keep track of progress-- I mount
a poster-sized calendar with milestones of the project to keep project
work on track. I also make as mall version of the calendar for myself
where I keep a schedule for formal conferencing. I also keep a summary
grading sheet to record completed assignments and evaluation scores.
Project Learning in Travel USA
The three main segments of the Travel USA project represent a
continuum that flows from teacher-centered to student-centered learning.
With this continuum goes a shift in the teacher and student roles. The
first segment, the state report, is narrow in scope and teacher-defined
in terms of processes and outcomes. A high level of teacher control
is appropriate here because specific research processes are taught.
Students apply these processes learned during the state report with
greater independence as they progress to the later parts of the project.
In the second segment, the virtual travel agency, children collaborate
with each other and with their teacher to make decisions about strategy,
content, and products. This part allows students more latitude, but
underlying parameters structure the work in a fundamental way. The third
segment, the "burning question", is thoroughly open-ended, and children
choose every aspect of the project.
The Teacher Role in Project Learning
With project learning the teacher has a lot of "up front" planning and
preparation to do. Here are some of the activities the teacher engages
in before presenting a project:
- Choosing a broad theme
- Deciding the parameters of the project (length, products, assessment,
- Writing curriculum
- Addressing content benchmarks and developing scoring systems (scoring
guides, self-evaluations, etc.)
- Writing lesson plans
- Outlining a schedule of the project on a calendar
- Planning discrete lessons (example: how to take notes from a print
source, or how to use an electronic library browser)
- Collecting or preparing materials such as library books and films
- Selecting groups for team work
- Scheduling groups for work in the library, computer lab, or in the
- Enlisting help from parents and the community
- Collaborating with specialists who may work with TAG or special
- Preparing calendars, outlines and other materials that help students
structure time and products
- Preparing culminating activities, or "celebrations of learning"