A Classroom for All Students: Project-Based Learning

May 25th, 2018 | Category: Uncategorized
By Lauren Wellen


With the institution of the Common Core Standards in classrooms, educators are challenged to explore ways to meet the learning needs of their students. This is having a huge effect on teaching practices and what is happening in schools in the United States. It was and is the intention that with the development and use of the national Common Core Standards (2010), students would receive a high quality education consistent with best practices from state to state. In an article by Porter, McMaken, Hwang, and Yang, “Common Core Standards: The New U.S. Intended Curriculum” (2011), they state,

The Common Core State Standards both for mathematics and for English language arts and literacy are explicit in their focus on what students are to learn, what we call here “the content of the intended curriculum,” and not on how that content is to be taught, what often is referred to as “pedagogy and curriculum. (p. 103)

With the Common Core Standards, the New Generation Science Standards (2013) and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education (2014), the standards have brought changes to states and differences in content and assessments in classrooms. In order to learn the content and skill from the STEM initiative, students from preschool through 12th grade will need engagement and application in the world through thoughtful teaching and learning. If this is true, teachers will need to discover ways to help students understand the content material while following the curricular standards and initiatives.

Many times, curriculum planning focuses on teaching the intended curriculum of the unit, theme, or project, with limited practice and application of the content with reference to the students’ lives and content studies. Bredekamp (2017) states, “Curriculum is a written plan that describes the goals for children’s learning and development and the learning experiences, materials, and teaching strategies that are used to help children achieve goals” (NCQTL as cited in Bredekamp, 2017, p. 311). This is where, pedagogically, teachers will need to choose ways to teach the content. In order to provide the best teaching practices while supporting standards, but most importantly, meeting the learning needs of the students, it is the teacher’s responsibility to decide how to best teach the content. If pedagogy is considered, then teachers will want to help students interact with the material in real-world experiences that lead to challenges and problem solving.

As a result of meeting national standards, teaching practices are changing to help students’ learning required for the 21st century. This article will examine recommendations for all teachers to enhance the learning in the classroom. If students are required to be prepared to make lasting contributions to society, they will need to work with the materials and the content of today’s curriculum in real and engaging ways.

One way to meet and teach the skills needed for future learning will be to use project-based learning strategies with students of all ages. Teachers must be knowledgeable about the benefits of project-based learning, and how it will provide a successful way to teach the curriculum. Preservice teachers, teacher educators, and other professionals must value project-based learning so that they can help students learn and create an environment for successful school experiences.

In order to influence appropriate practices for teachers to meet students’ learning needs, this article discusses an explanation of the history of project-based learning, theories that support the approach, a comparison of systematic or traditional instruction to project-based learning, the barriers that prevent using project-based learning, and how project-based learning benefits and supports all students in 21st century classrooms.

What is Project-based Learning?

Project-based learning is not a new approach to teaching. In William Heard Kilpatrick’s (1918), The Project Method: The Use of the Purposeful Act in the Educative Process, he stated, “The word project is perhaps the latest arrival to knock for admittance at the door of educational terminology” (p. 3). Kilpatrick continued, “I did not invent the word nor did I start it on its educational career” (p. 4).  More recently, Nell Duke (2016) in the article, “Project-Based Instruction” from American Educator defined project-based learning, stating that in

Project-based learning, students work over an extended time period for the purpose beyond satisfying a school requirement—to build something, to create something, to respond to a question they have, to solve a real problem, or address a real need. (p. 5)

These quotes support the use of a type of instruction that has students learning by doing. Projects that are well-planned, and integrate the curriculum provide the opportunities for learning. Consider the following project-based work that was completed in a university undergraduate course taught by the author that involved preservice teachers and children from Concordia University Chicago’s Early Childhood Education Center:

The preservice teachers and children visited the Trailside Museum in River Forest, Illinois to learn about the care and rehabilitation of wild animals for an Animal Project. The children became interested in animals as a mother rabbit had given birth to a litter of babies under the climbing structure on the playground. The children met in the classroom, asked questions about rabbits, the babies, and other animals. The strategy of a KWL (what we know, what we want to know, and what we learned) was started. A class web was also used to assess the students’ initial knowledge of animals. The students were also involved in researching animals through the internet and in books to learn about how they live, what they eat, and lastly, their care. An additional part of their research was the visit to the museum that allowed them to gain more knowledge and hear from an expert. They came back to the classroom, wrote about their visit, illustrated pictures of the animals, completed another web to show what they had learned, and also completed the “L,” their learnings, from the KWL strategy. A Memory Book was created which helped the students practice reading and writing skills. In order to celebrate the learning, parents were invited into the classroom to view the Memory Books and hear about the project.

The topic of animals aligns to the content area of Science, but other curricular areas were included such as reading and writing and technology. The project-based learning described gave the children learning experiences about animals, but its main focus provided the college preservice teachers with the knowledge of how to facilitate, and how to teach within a project. This is needed for these preservice teachers to be able to envision their future teaching in their own classrooms.

Further, project-based learning can be viewed from another course. The following examples are from a Multiliteracies and New Literacies graduate course taught to college doctoral literacy students who had an assignment to implement a multiliteracies project, including literacy and another discipline, in their own classrooms. The 15 students created, planned, and would teach their projects in the following classrooms: an early childhood special education language arts, second grade language arts, grades 3, 4, and 6 science, 10th grade Honors English, grades 11–12 environmental science, grades 4th and 5th social studies, and two college courses. Some of the graduate students had been using project-based learning and adapted their projects, but others learned this as a new teaching approach. The students included the reading standards being studied in the course, but also included science, communication, history, and other standards while incorporating visual, oral, written, and audio activities to enhance the learning. In the book, Classroom Instruction that Works, Dean, Hubbell, Pitler, and Stone (2012) state,

By helping students use a variety of media to produce nonlinguistic representations (e.g. drawings, audio, video, presentations) that demonstrate their learning and help them understand new concepts, teachers are tapping into more creative methods of working with content than simply memorizing information or completing worksheets. (p. 45)

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) provides a website and standards for educators, students, administrators, coaches, and computer science specialists to help bring teachers to rethink their teaching and to create innovative learning environments as they are transforming to the digital age, teaching, and leading (ISTE Standards, n. d.). Because practicing and experienced teachers must be current in what is happening in the field of education, it is imperative that all teachers use resources inside and outside the classroom that are available so that they can enhance and deepen the learning of all of their students. Teachers must be knowledgeable and apply appropriate practices to their classrooms. Project-based learning can and will become a reality in the classroom.

Support for Project-based Learning

When educators are asked by parents and administrators what they are planning and how they are teaching the content, they should be able to explain and understand the foundation and reasons for teaching so that they can communicate the importance of using an appropriate approach to teaching, and how it helps students develop and learn. One way of demonstrating understanding and explaining this is by knowing two of the most common theorists in contemporary education. These theorists are Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky whose theories support the growth and development that occurs when using the project-based learning approach. Piaget is known for his stages of cognitive development. Saul McLeod (2015) states,

Piaget’s (1936) theory of cognitive development explains how a child constructs a mental model of the world. He disagreed with the idea that intelligence was a fixed trait, and regarded cognitive development as a process which occurs due to biological maturation and interaction with the environment. (p. 1)

As McLeod (2015) discusses, it is children’s interactions and experiences with real situations and objects that help students move from a lower level of Piaget’s stages to a higher level. The more real-life experiences students have, the more they can contribute to what is being taught and engage in what they are to learn. Learning about the world and how it functions will also help students prepare for future learning and to be ready to move out into the world (p. 1).

Lev Vygotsky theorized that it was the contact with others who can scaffold (Woods et. al., 1976) learning that will help students gain more knowledge and learn. “Vygotsky’s theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition (Vygotsky, 1978), as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of ‘making meaning’” (McLeod, 2014, p. 1). It is the social interactions of working with the teacher and with peers that helps students problem solve and critically think through their learning of the content.

These two theorists focus on providing authentic experiences that will enhance students’ learning. Dr. Lilian Katz, professor emerita from University of Illinois, in her seminal ERIC digest (1994g) article, supports this in her definition of the Project Approach. She said,

A project is an in-depth investigation of a topic worth learning more about. The key feature of a project is that it is a research effort deliberately focused on finding answers to questions about a topic posed either by the children, the teacher, or the teacher working with the children. The goal of a project is to learn more about the topic rather than to seek right answers to questions posed by the teacher. (p.1)

The Project Approach is a complement to the curriculum. It is not a separate subject “nor is project work an ‘add on’ to the basics; it should be treated as integral to all the other work included in the curriculum” (Katz, 1994g, p. 1). It allows the students thinking and practicing time to apply the skills that they have learned.

Teachers need to ensure that students are provided with appropriate strategies to promote development and learning in the classroom. The project-based approach allows teachers to integrate academic content with development and practice of skills. Projects where students work together and develop questions for which they will seek answers engage in the learning process in ways that will help them apply the skills that they are learning in classrooms.

Systematic Instruction and Project-based Learning

In the book, Engaging Children’s Minds (2000), Lilian Katz and Sylvia Chard define systematic instruction as,

…an approach to teaching individual children a progression of interrelated sub-skills, each of which contributes to greater overall proficiency in skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Systematic instruction refers to processes by which those skills require specific and sequential sub-skills to attain proficiency are learned. (Katz & Chard, 2000, p. 13).

They provide five distinctions between Systematic Instruction and Project Work. These distinctions are:

a. In Systematic Instruction, teachers focus on students acquiring skills while in Project Work, the teacher provides opportunities for the students to apply the skills;

b. Systematic Instruction involves extrinsic motivation which is mostly by the teacher, while Project Work involves intrinsic motivation where students are developing their interests by helping to decide what they will study or explore;

c. The teacher chooses the activities in Systematic Instruction as compared to the teacher and children choosing them in Project Work;

d. The teacher is the expert in Systematic Instruction, while the students are the experts in Project Work, with the teacher encouraging and developing the students’ proficiencies; and

e. Only the teacher is accountable in Systematic Instruction, while the teacher and students are accountable in Project Work. (p. 13)

The five distinctions provide reasons for using project-based learning. In many classrooms, teachers are teaching (telling) and students are sitting in their desks doing the work assigned by the teacher. Students certainly need to learn the skills that teachers teach, but in order to internalize what they are learn, the students must have time to practice what they are learning. Project-based learning allows students to learn the material that has been aligned to standards, to research what they are learning, and to integrate a variety of subjects or content areas as they gain an understanding of the topic or content.

Included in the American Educator article, Duke, (2016) as a literacy professor, also lists the benefits of using project-based learning for informational texts. These benefits are:

1. The skills are consistent with 21st century skills—creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration among other skills—that are in demand for work and citizenship.

2. The approach improves students’ knowledge and skills.

3. The approach keeps the students more engaged than many traditional forms of instruction.

4. The approach is well-suited to addressing today’s standards. (p. 5–6)

Duke’s research has included children in high poverty areas as well as students with disabilities. “Furthermore, the more strongly teachers implemented the projects, the higher growth students made in informational reading and writing and motivation” (p. 8). Her work is convincing for use with informational texts, and also that it can be used across the curriculum in all content areas. Also she states, “…it can be used with non-informational genres” (p. 42). As students are internalizing and owning the information, teachers can facilitate and guide students in their learning as both students and teacher remain involved in the project whether is for literacy or other disciplines.

Barriers to Project-based Learning

In tracking all states that are using Common Core Standards, 36 originally adopted the Common Core, 10 states are currently involved in revisions, four never adopted Common Core, and only one adopted the English/Language Arts standards (Ujikusa, 2017). Therefore, examining the number of states using the Common Core Standards, the college- and career-ready Common Core Standards are present in most schools across the United States. With these statistics, this is a perfect time to include project-based learning in all classrooms. The American Educator issue on Project-Based Instruction includes the President’s Page of Randy Weingarten (2016), president of the American Federation of Teachers. Weingarten discusses the idea that barriers such as schools’ focusing on standardized tests, how the school day is organized, and teachers needing the time and resources to develop and refine projects prevent this type of instruction (p. 1). These barriers are preventing teachers from doing what they should be doing in the classroom.

Teachers are concerned about teaching the strategies for the tests, while in many classrooms allowing students to practice the skills to learn the content are eliminated. Teachers are following the curriculum, practicing the strategies, but students need guidance on how to communicate what they want to say and write in order to help them problem solve and think critically. An example is students working on the concepts of “the main idea and details,” but they cannot write or spell the words they need to use in order to describe “the main idea and details.” By using the curriculum to focus only on the test strategy of “main idea and details” and not considering the other basic reading and writing skills needed to complete the strategy, students are virtually prevented from being successful.

Another aspect is that the school day is so scheduled that there is no time for doing projects. Projects do take time. “Another is the way the school day is organized, with class periods that are too brief to undertake in-depth projects” (Weingarten, 2016, p. 1). Time for project work must be made available. Adequate time will encourage students to work in depth with materials and ideas. This in-depth work will provide students with enduring concepts and skills that they will take into the workplace.

Materials and resources are necessary to complete projects. Those materials need to be included in school budgets, possibly in the place of the workbooks and worksheets which are a sizable part of most school budgets. Teachers need time to work with colleagues, to share successes and challenges as they experiment with different projects and approaches to project work. These provisions of both materials and time are important for growth.

Weingarten concludes, “project-based learning helps develop skills students need and employers value, such as collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking” (p. 1). If projects develop the skills and use values that are needed for careers and employment, project-based learning must be made a priority for all teachers to incorporate into their classrooms.

As mentioned previously, training and professional development for teachers is equally important. Because teachers in classrooms will have to design curriculum to meet the Common Core standards, teachers will need to be trained in how to implement the standards for their grade level while also incorporating project work. In fact, teachers will need support through professional development to be effective educators as they pedagogically develop curriculum to meet the twenty-first-century standards and forward-focused approaches to learning.

Why Project-Based Learning Works

Project-based learning encourages students to apply the skills that they are learning in the classroom. It promotes student success and long-term growth. They may be learning extrinsically, but they can begin to use internal motivation to learn the content because they are working with real materials and answering real questions. The teacher may choose the content, but the students use their knowledge and skills to help them learn. The students and the teacher become experts as the students use complex questions, solve problems, and research the content and related questions to further their knowledge. The teacher helps by facilitating the project and aligning the standards, yet the students become accountable as they have a voice, interest, and concern about the content, the issues, and their own learning (“What is Problem Based Learning?” n.d.). Copple and Bredekamp (2009) support these practices as they discuss developmentally appropriate teaching to enhance development and learning. They state,

To extend children’s ideas, challenge their thinking, and further develop their social skills, teachers encourage involvement in collaborative learning and group problem solving, both of which require children to share their own perspectives, listen to the views of others, and negotiate shared plans and strategies. (2009, p. 297)

Dean, et al. (2012) reiterates the same thoughts, “Almost every model and iteration of what constitutes 21st-century learning includes two concepts that have become keystones of preparing students for future endeavors: collaborating and creativity” (p. 45). Dean, et al. continue,

…a project that exemplifies cooperative learning and the concepts outlined in the standards is the Flat Classroom Project…This project involves middle and high school students collaborating with peers around the world to identify key emerging technological and global trends…Students learn how the way they collaborate and communicate are affected by the tools they are using for the project…By giving students opportunities to learn and lead in cooperative groups, we are helping them develop those essential skills for higher education and the workplace. (2012, p. 45)

Skills for the 21st century support project-based learning. Project-based learning works in that students learn how to personally take the responsibility for their learning as they socially interact with their peers in order to clarify and deepen the concepts they are exploring. As students progress through the grades, they need the skills to think, interact, be independent, communicate, and reason. These key learning skills are ones that they will be able to take with them into their lives beyond school. These skills will benefit them not only in school, but also in future careers and life.


This article supports the use of project-based learning. It discussed an explanation of the history and theories behind project-based learning, a comparison of systematic or traditional instruction to project-based learning, the barriers and benefits of project-based learning to students. Project-based learning encourages development of the mind and inquiry of content. These activities support learning and thinking. There is integration of curricular areas, and performance on content and skills are easily assessed. Positive communication and collaboration are created as students interact and work with each other in the project. Project-based learning meets the needs of all students and encourages those students who are not as willing to participate in the learning.

Project-based learning allows students to explore their world and construct knowledge through genuine, authentic interaction with the environment. Students are engaged in the quest for knowledge, skills, and understandings. This quest encourages students to construct problem-solving techniques, implement research methods, and develop questioning strategies. The students become life-long learners.

Currently, in the United States, many aspects of education are fluctuating. While many of the shifts are focused on educational standards and initiatives, it is imperative that the teachers’ practices and students’ learning be in the forefront. One way to ensure these emphases is the integration of project-based learning in the classroom. While there are barriers that prevent project-based learning, the benefits far surpass the obstacles. As students move forward in the 21st century, teachers, administrators, school districts, and governing bodies need to find ways to help students learn through project-based learning experiences so that all students find success in school and are ready to move forward as future learners, leaders, and workers in the today’s society. LEJ


Bredekamp, S. (2017). Effective practices in early childhood education: Building a foundation. Upper Saddle, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Bredekamp, S. & Copple, C. (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs (Revised). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H. & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement (2nd ed.). Denver, CO: Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning.

Duke, N. (2016). Project-based instruction. American Educator, 30 (3), pp. 4-11, 42.

ISTE Standards. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards

Katz, L. G. & Chard, S. C. (2000). Engaging children’s minds: The project approach. Stamford, CN: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Kilpatrick, W. H. (1918). The Project Method: The use of the purposeful act in the educative process. Teachers College Record 19, (4), 319-334.

McLeod, S. (2015). Jean Piaget. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html

McLeod, S. (2014). Lev Vygotsky. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html

National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning. (NCQTL). (2014). Choosing a preschool curriculum. Office of Head Start. Retrieved from https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/curriculum-choosing.pdf

Next Generation Science. (2013). Retrieved from https://www.nextgenscience.org/

Porter, A., McMaken, J., Hwang, J. & Yang, R. (2011, April). Common core standards: The new U. S. intended curriculum. Educational Researcher, 40 (3), p. 103.

STEM (2014). Retrieved from https://www.ed.gov/stem

Ujifusa, K. (2015, Update 2017). Snapshot: Tracking the Common Core. Education Week, 36 (11), 16. https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/map-states-academic-standards-common-core-or.html?cmp=cpc-goog-ew-dynamic+ads&ccid=dynamic+ads&ccag=common+core+dynamic&cckw=&cccv=dynamic+ad&gclid=Cj0KCQjw5fDWBRDaARIsAA5uWTildVrT6yvTlqVpqfnnNwjcQBH5atEA0OMgpkN1Il1nQ9D_rL74apgaAh9REALw_wcB

What is Project-Based Learning? Educators of America. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.educatorsusa.org/project-based-learning?gclid=Cj0KCQjw5fDWBRDaARIsAA5uWTjmgHZNUJoD3c2EQzfn5w_Ulv9bjk9AND1L0eN07LKaa7CrOGJwmN0aAihjEALw_wcB

Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89−100.

Author Information

Lauren Wellen received her Doctor of Education degree from Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois in Curriculum Instruction and Elementary Education. She is currently the Program Leader for the Masters and Doctoral courses in Early Childhood Education. She is a member of the Department of Literacy and Early Childhood and teaches literacy and early childhood courses to masters and doctoral students. Previously, she was an administrator and teacher at Concordia University Chicago’s Early Childhood Education Center.