HMCo College


The Basics

Features of Project-Based Instruction

Issues Raised About Project-Based Learning

The Student in Project-Based Instruction

Instructional Sequence in Project-Based Instruction


Four Stages of Inquiry: Applying Theory to Projects in This Web Site

Project "Warm-ups" in Social Studies


The Basics

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 being learned.

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 Instruction

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 ways

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. (Bruner, 1963)

    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 essential.

    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 experts.

  • 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 question.

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 artifacts.

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 [1993] 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 learning
(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 posters.

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 stored?"



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 learning!


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

1) location
2) environment
3) chronology


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.


Spatial Ideas

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.

Physical Systems

The third element, 'Physical Systems,' looks at such things as climate, landforms, and mineral resources and then organizes these units into ecosystems.

Human Systems

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 Inquiry in this web site and the inquiry skills listed below from the Guidelines for Geographic Education in Elementary and Secondary School (Geography for Life: National Geography Standards. Washington, DC: National Geographic Research and Exploration.)


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 & Action

General inquiry

  • 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 questions.


Specific strategies

  • 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 graphs.



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

  • interviews
  • maps
  • old television shows
  • library


Examples of Strategic Thinking &Action

General inquiry

  • Locate, gather, and process information from different sources, both primary and secondary. Make sure to make use of maps that are student generated.
  • Make and record observations about the physical and human characteristics of a place.
  • Use a variety of research skills to locate and collect geographic data.

Specific strategies

  • 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 landscape.
  • 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 & Action

General inquiry

  • Prepare maps to display geographic, economic, or population information.
  • Construct graphs, diagrams, or tables to display geographic information.

Specific strategies

  • Use weather data to produce climagraphs.
  • Use computer programs to graph data from geographic databases.
  • Create a table to compare data on a specific topic for different geographic regions (e.g., birth and death rates for nations in South America).


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 explanation.

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 & Action

General inquiry

  • Use maps to observe and interpret geographic relationships
  • Use tables and graphs to observe and interpret geographic trends and relationships.
  • Use texts, photographs, and documents to observe and interpret economic, political, or cultural trends and relationships.
  • Use simple mathematics to analyze geographic data.

Specific strategies

  • 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 analyzed.

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


Inductive 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 students.



Examples of Strategic Thinking & Action

General inquiry

  • 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 generalizations.
  • Apply generalizations to solve historical and geographical problems and make reasoned decisions.

Specific strategies

  • 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 requirements.
  • Identify populations at risk for specific natural hazards (tornadoes, hazards, earthquakes) by using a topographic map of population distribution.


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