Features of Project-Based
Issues Raised About Project-Based
The Student in Project-Based
Sequence in Project-Based Instruction
Four Stages of Inquiry:
Applying Theory to Projects in This Web Site
Project "Warm-ups" in Social Studies
Project-based learning is a comprehensive
instructional approach to engage students in sustained,
cooperative investigation (Bransford & Stein, 1993).
Within its framework students collaborate, working
together to make sense of what is going on. Project-based
instruction differs from inquiry-based activity -- activity
most of us have experienced during our own schooling -- by
its emphasis on cooperative learning. Inquiry is
traditionally thought of as an individually done, somewhat
isolated activity. Additionally, project-based instruction
differs from traditional inquiry by its emphasis on
students' own artifact construction to represent what is
Students pursue solutions to nontrivial problems by
- asking and refining questions
- debating ideas
- making predictions
- designing plans and/or experiments
- collecting and analyzing data
- drawing conclusions
- communicating their ideas and findings to others
- asking new questions
- creating artifacts (Blumenfeld et al., 1991).
There are two essential components of projects:
1. A driving question or problem that serves
to organize and drive activities, which taken as a whole
amount to a meaningful project
2. Culminating product(s) or multiple representations as
a series of artifacts, personal communication (Krajcik), or
consequential task that meaningfully addresses the driving
question. (Brown & Campione, 1994).
Features of Project-Based
Let's take a closer look at four features that facilitate
use of project-based instruction in K-12 classrooms.
1. A "driving question" that is anchored in a
real-world problem and ideally uses multiple content areas
2. Opportunities for students to make active
investigations that enable them to learn concepts, apply
information, and represent their knowledge in a variety of
3. Collaboration among students, teachers, and others in
the community so that knowledge can be shared and
distributed between the members of the "learning community"
4. The use of cognitive tools in learning environments
that support students in the representation of their ideas:
cognitive tools such as computer-based laboratories,
hypermedia, graphing applications, and telecommunications
(Blumenfeld et al., 1991).
Issues Raised About Project-Based Learning
- Support is essential.
Despite considerable potential, project-based
education is not without problems. The idea that projects
represent learning by doing certainly is not new (Dewey,
1933; Kilpatrick, 1918).
However, lessons from the past suggest that without
adequate attention to ways of supporting teachers and
students, these innovative educational approaches will
not be widely adopted. Previous attempts at reform of
curriculum and instruction in the 1960s used
"investigative" and discovery learning as central themes.
Although evidence suggests that such curricula
enhanced student learning and motivation (e.g.,
Bredderman, 1983), their adoption and success were not as
widespread as desired. According to Blumenfeld et al.
(1991) the reasons for this included the fact that the
projects were developed and disseminated without
sufficient appreciation for the complex nature of
motivation and knowledge required to engage students in
difficult and reflective work.
- Questions developed from novice learners are
Moreover, there was little regard for considering
questions from the point of view of students [as novices]
versus question formation from the vantage point of
- Focus on teacher knowledge and classroom
environment is essential.
Lastly, little attention was paid to the nature and
extent of teacher knowledge and commitment to the
complexity of classroom organization.
The Student in Project-Based Instruction
Students can be responsible for the creation of both the
question and the activities, as well as the nature of the
artifacts. Additionally, teachers or curriculum developers
can create questions and activities.
Regardless of who generates it, the question cannot be so
constrained that outcomes are predetermined, leaving
students with little opportunity to develop their own
approaches to investigating and answering the initial
Students' freedom to generate artifacts is
critical, because it is through this process of
generation that students construct their own knowledge.
Because artifacts are concrete and explicit (e.g., a model,
report, consequential task, videotape, or film) they can be
shared and critiqued. This allows others to provide
feedback, makes the activity authentic, and permits learners
to reflect on and extend their knowledge and revise their
Projects are decidedly different from conventional
activities that are designed to help students learn
information in the absence of a driving question. Such
conventional activities might relate to each other and help
students learn curricular content, but without the presence
of a driving question, they do not hold the same promise
that learning will occur as do activities orchestrated in
the service of an important intellectual purpose (Sizer,
1984). Supporters of project-based learning claim that as
students investigate and seek resolutions to problems, they
acquire an understanding of key principles and concepts
(Blumenfeld et al.,1991). Project-based learning also places
students in realistic, contextualized problem-solving
environments (CTGV, 1992).
Projects can thus serve as bridges between
phenomena in the classroom and real-life experiences.
Questions and answers that arise in daily enterprise are
given value and are proven open to systematic inquiry.
- Project-based education requires active engagement of
students' effort over an extended period of time.
- Project-based learning also promotes links among
subject matter disciplines and presents an expanded,
rather than narrow, view of subject matter.
- Projects are adaptable to different types of learners
and learning situations (Blumenfeld et al., 1991).
Instructional Sequence in Project-Based Instruction
The Mission to Mars unit
(Petrosino, 1995) is a prototypical example of a model of
project-based instruction. Beginning with a problem
generation anchor video (Hickey et al., 1994) a context is
set for students to generate their own problems in which
they will be engaged for the remainder of the unit. Let's
break down the instructional sequence:
The problem generation consists of problem posing,
problem definition, and problem categorization.
This leads directly into the project-based portion
of the instructional sequence
Next is the creation of cooperative teams (see
Linn & Burbules  for discussion on group learning
in science classrooms) in which individual expertise will be
acquired as groups begin to solve the problems posed and
categorized in the preceding section.
After sustained study students break into Jigsaw
groups, which provide a forum for the distribution of
individual expertise to that of other students in the class.
It culminates with a consequential task in which
students' thinking is made both visible and public (Brown
& Campione, in press; Glaser, 1994).
Problem-based learning & project-based
(Moore et al., 1996).
1) Although schools attempt to prepare students for
everyday life, school cultures are vastly different, and
"success within this culture often has little bearing on
performance elsewhere" (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989).
2) In fact, schools may actually be antithetical to any
useful domain learning because resources, promotion of
analytical skills, and types of activities differ
dramatically in their use in out-of-school settings,
including scientific activity (Roth & Bowen, 1995).
3) These apparent discrepancies are particularly
noticeable in school science classes, which, in general,
appear to be made to promote rites of passage rather than
enculturating students into habits of mind and the high
standards of experts (Roth & Bowen, 1995).
4) The long-term goal is to assist in the development of
the students' abilities to learn for themselves (Bransford,
Sherwood, Vye, & Rieser, 1986; Bruer, 1993; Resnick,
1987). If learning is properly understood as an activity of
constructing knowledge, then students need to be mentally
active. Since this type of thinking activity is consistent
with that of experts in the field, it is unrealistic for
students to "come upon" these habits of mind on their own.
5) Science as inquiry can no longer be interpreted by
teachers as simply an investigative approach to science
(Duschl & Gitomer, 1991). Science as inquiry must now
also mean a minds-on approach.
Four Stages of Inquiry: Applying Theory to Projects in
This Web Site
Here is a process you can use as you work through the
problems and projects included in this web site.
Searching: requires the identification and
representation of a scientific problem. Students studying
the environment in the sixth grade might suggest, for
example, air pollution, rainfall last year, and energy from
the sun as suitable topics for a project. They might even
divide into groups by interest area and narrow their focus,
putting their ideas into a question format. As they are
doing so, they are identifying and representing a problem. A
"solar energy" group, for example, may decide to measure
"how solar energy can be used to heat buildings."
Solving: solving the problem involves gathering
information and generating a solution. In this phase, the
groups collect and analyze data. The sixth-grade solar
energy group, for example, might gather information about
the ways solar energy is used to heat buildings, or about
the number of hours of sunshine in different regions.
Another group might gather information to predict rainfall
in the state or county this year, based on comparisons with
previous years. A third group might conduct a survey of
students concentrating on what they believe to be the most
important source of air pollution. Use of the
Searching/Solving/Creating/Sharing model with higher
grade levels might involve computers as tools for recording
or manipulating data. Each group may require some guidance
in determining how to gather information and answer research
questions but, given this guidance, will be capable of
solving the problem.
Creating: creating refers to the creation of a
product, such as a presentation to class members or the
school. In this phase, the solar energy group might devise
an oral report with visual aids about how different
buildings are heated with solar energy. In addition, group
members might construct models or make bar graphs on
Sharing: sharing involves the actual communication
of findings. It should also result in the generation of
future search questions, such as "Can heat from the sun be
A project is an extended inquiry into
various aspects of a real-world topic that is of interest to
participants and judged worthy by teachers. Because of its
real-world appeal, students are motivated to investigate,
record, and report their findings. The hallmark of project
learning is greater independence of inquiry and "ownership"
of the work on the part of students. When contrasted with
more formal instruction, it allows students a greater degree
of choice and capitalizes on internal motivation.
Work through a project and you will learn more about
Project "Warm-ups" in Social Studies
Warming up is a way to build muscle tone for sustained
project inquiry! Today's social studies standards, content,
and inquiry skills share assumptions about learning with
multiple other sources in education, including those in
The IDEAL Problem Solver (Bransford & Stein,
1993). Warm-up exercises in this section will help you
become familiar with major components of project inquiry.
A. Content: Using Social Studies Standards
Social Studies investigators, historians and geographers
are essentially in agreement that the complex story of human
civilization should be told within the context of three
related, and integrated, points of view
The recent National Geography Standards, [Geography Education
Standards Project (1994). Geography for Life: National
Geography Standards. Washington, DC: National Geographic
Research & Exploration.]
gives six essential elements as a framework
students should use when beginning to look at the world.
The first element is 'The World in Spatial Terms.' How we
structure geographic information, create our own mental
maps, and analyze the spatial information of the globe is
the province of this element.
Places & Regions
The second element, 'Places and Regions,' looks at the
two basic units of geography, and how they are viewed
differently by different people.
The third element, 'Physical Systems,' looks at such
things as climate, landforms, and mineral resources and then
organizes these units into ecosystems.
Fourth, is 'Human Systems,' which typically concentrates
on population and then considers other human activities such
as politics, economics and labor.
Environment & Society
The fifth element, 'Environment and Society,' emphasizes
interaction between physical and human systems (elements
three and four) and identifies the central role of resources
in environment-society connections.
Uses of Geography
The sixth element, 'The Uses of Geography,' shows how
social studies, taken as a whole, enables us to understand
the past, interpret the present, and plan the future.
B. Inquiry Skills and Strategies Applied To Social Studies
In an age of
information literacy, an educated person needs to master
inquiry or problem-solving skills. Multiple sources provide
you with the basics on using inquiry and problem-solving
skills, including the Four Stages in Project
this web site and the inquiry skills listed below from the
Geographic Education in Elementary and Secondary
(Geography for Life: National Geography Standards.
Washington, DC: National Geographic Research and
1) Asking Geographic Questions
Successful inquiry includes ability and desire to ask,
speculate about, and answer questions about why things are
where they are and how they got there.
Examples of Strategic Thinking
- Where is it located? Why is it there? What
is significant about its location? In what ways
is its location related to the locations of
other people, places, and environments?
- Identify social studies issues, define
social studies problems, and pose social studies
- Analyze newspaper and magazine articles and
identify geographic issues and problems evident
in those articles.
- Ask questions about geographic problems in
local issues relating to housing, traffic, or
land use and then summarize these problems by
preparing written or oral statements, maps, and
2) Acquiring Social Studies Information
Social studies is information about locations, the human
and physical characteristics of those locations, and the
geographic activities and conditions of the people who
inhabit those places.
To answer social studies questions, students should
gather information using multiple venues, sources, and
methods - - such as
- old television shows
Examples of Strategic Thinking
- Locate, gather, and process information from
different sources, both primary and secondary.
Make sure to make use of maps that are student
- Make and record observations about the
physical and human characteristics of a
- Use a variety of research skills to locate
and collect geographic data.
- Read aerial photographs to recognize
patterns from the air and identify the patterns
on a topographic map of the same area.
- Take photographs and/or shoot videos of
human features (architecture) and physical
features (landforms and vegetation) of the
- View pictures of the same area during each
season of the year and record your observations.
3) Organization of Information
Once acquired, the information should be organized and
displayed in ways that help analysis and interpretation.
Different types of data should be arranged, separated, and
classified in visual, graphic forms: photographs, charts,
aerial photographs, tables. Maps play a key role in social
studies inquiry, but also important are graphs, tables,
spreadsheets, and time lines.
Visuals are especially enhanced when accompanied by clear oral or written communication.
Since creativity and skill are needed to arrange social
studies information effectively, decisions about color,
design, and clarity make for wonderful learning
opportunities for all students.
Examples of Strategic Thinking
- Prepare maps to display geographic,
economic, or population information.
- Construct graphs, diagrams, or tables to
display geographic information.
- Use weather data to produce climagraphs.
- Use computer programs to graph data from
- Create a table to compare data on a specific
topic for different geographic regions (e.g.,
birth and death rates for nations in South
4) Analyzing Geographic Information
Analysis involves seeking patterns, relationships, and
connections. As students begin to interpret information,
meaningful patterns emerge. Students should then have the
opportunity to synthesize their observations into a coherent
For instance, students should spot associations and
similarities, make analogies, recognize patterns, and draw
inferences from maps, graphs, and diagrams. See John
Wakefield's text (pp. 467, 464, 465). Using simple
statistics, students can identify trends and teachers can
create meaningful, integrated curricula.
Examples of Strategic Thinking
- Use maps to observe and interpret geographic
- Use tables and graphs to observe and
interpret geographic trends and
- Use texts, photographs, and documents to
observe and interpret economic, political, or
cultural trends and relationships.
- Use simple mathematics to analyze geographic
- Interpret information from map overlays to
prepare a description of the geography of a
region or place.
- Produce summaries of geographic information
(i.e., rainfall by state).
- Compare maps of voting patterns and
congressional districts to make inferences about
political power in the United States during a
particular era (e.g., Revolutionary Period,
post-World War II).
5) Answering Social Studies Questions
Any successful attempt at social studies inquiry
culminates in the development of generalizations and
conclusions based on data collected, organized, and
Essential social studies skills include:
- distinquishing between generalizations at the local
level (such as a cold winter) from those at the global
level (such as global warming)
- understanding issues of scale for developing answers
to social studies and geographic questions.
- making social studies generalizations using inductive
or deductive reasoning
requires students to synthesize information to answer
questions and reach conclusions. Deductive reasoning
requires students to decide whether generalizations are
appropriate by testing them against the real world.
Discriminating, understanding, and gaining experience
using both forms of reasoning are critical skills for all
Examples of Strategic Thinking
- Present social studies information in the
form of both oral and written reports
supported with maps and graphics.
- Use general methods of historical and
geographic inquiry to acquire information,
draw conclusions, and make
- Apply generalizations to solve historical
and geographical problems and make reasoned
- Develop and present a multimedia report
on a geographic topic, making use of maps,
graphs, video and pictures.
- Prepare a research account about the best
locations for a crop by comparing its
requirements for moisture with maps for
rainfall, temperature, and soil
- Identify populations at risk for specific
natural hazards (tornadoes, hazards,
earthquakes) by using a topographic map of