The Project Approach to Learning

by Rick Allen
Spring 2001

To take advantage of the new research on early childhood learning and the desire of parents and educators to create better programs for their children, Lilian Katz advocates the use of the project approach for kindergarten and other early childhood settings. It's an American invention, says Katz, that has been used successfully in the pre-schools of Italy's Reggio Emilia district.

The project approach involves a sustained, in-depth exploration of events or objects in a child's environment and is carried out in such a way that children are encouraged to raise questions and search for answers about a topic that holds their interest. Literacy and numeracy skills and higher-order thinking can be applied in the three-phase process:

  • Phase I: Determining the research questions by exploring and sharing ideas, experiences, and information about the topic.
  • Phase II: Gathering data through first-hand observations, interviews with experts, and other age-appropriate information gathering tasks. During this phase, children represent what they've found using different media and their basic skills.
  • Phase III: Debriefing about what has been discovered and preparation of reports to share with other classes, families, and the larger community.

    For example, children at one school decided to explore a nearby building site. They went to the site, talked to the contractors, examined architectural drawings, and as a result were able to raise questions such as "Why does so much steel need to be in that building?" explains Katz.

    The project has to be worthwhile, both in terms of engaging children and making use of a teacher's time, Katz advises. So she questions whether a project designed around "pirates," for example, would be worth exploring. It might hold the children's interest, but "why would you want children to study criminals?" she asks.

    And a project does not have to involve extensive off-site exploration, Katz says. One class of 4- and 5-year-olds in an inner-city school collected 36 balls—everything from a bowling ball, to a beach ball, to a globe—from family, friends, and neighbors. Spending time each day over a month, the children learned about classification by defining what a ball is—surface texture, size, circumference, weight, height of bounce, and how balls are played with. Students made predictions about weight and bounce heights based on a ball's appearance, then tested their hypotheses. Children also learned persistence during more difficult tasks, such as using string to measure circumference or figuring out how to measure a ball's bounce.

    In the final phase, which involved sharing their findings with parents in an open house, children had made drawings, written captions, designed graphs, and had taken advantage of opportunities for individual and group work, Katz notes. Such projects, where literacy and numeracy skills are applied in a purposeful context, are "intellectually engaging and not academic boot camps," she states.

    Andrew Stremmel, director of the Virginia Tech Child Development Lab School, hopes that the methods of the project approach, as refined by Reggio Emilia educators, can be used in more U.S. schools at any level. "In Italy there's this idea of children being strong, intellectual, and competent—protagonists in their own learning—as opposed to being consumers of knowledge. Let's look at what children bring with them. Look at them as capable of having intentions and making decisions. It's not an outlook that our culture necessarily embraces," Stremmel observes. "One thing we can do is embrace this more humane, respectful look at children."

    The Reggio Emilia approach also promotes collaboration in learning among children, teachers, and parents. Educators have much to learn from parents interacting with their children, or vice versa, and adults become "co-researchers" with their children, says Stremmel. Documentation and reflections of the projects in the form of children's work, videos, and portfolios can reveal the learning process to parents, teachers, and to children themselves.

    But children's investigations of what the Reggio Emilia or project approach calls "the questions worth living"—the how and why of the world around them—are getting more competition from the demands of the accountability movement. Teachers she has taught, says Katz, confide that they "don't dare take the time for doing in-depth projects."

    Even with the emphasis on teaching reading earlier, however, it is still crucial that a child's disposition to analyze, question, and hypothesize be instilled, Katz urges. "It's important for democracy," she emphasizes. "In a dictatorship, it doesn't matter what you think."