The Value of Projects in Education

A number of years back, my daughter was at a school who were to bring in a new concept called something like the ‘school project’. The idea was to frame everything around ‘the project’, from English composition, through to music and dance. To think about maths and history through ‘the project’ and as far as possible every subject area. I can’t remember exactly what the first project was, but let us say it was something like ‘Rain Forests’. Again I don’t want to pretend this is exactly how it happened, but something similar occurred where children wrote stories about Rain Forests; they designed posters and tee-shirts with Rain Forest themes on them; songs were sung about the Rain Forest; some cookies and cup-cakes were adorned with Rain Forest decorations and given exotic names such as “Amazon Delight”; maths lessons were done to the sound of recorded tropical Rain Forest ambient sounds; the natural histories of many Rain Forest species of both plants and animals were learned about.

Sounds great doesn’t it?

In principle it does seem like a brilliant idea but in reality, in my opinion, it turned into a mess mainly because the project approach missed the ‘purpose’ of why the children were at school. Many of us parents were asking ‘Why are the children doing this?’ and the answer seem to be because the school had become a slave to ‘the project’. In other words there was an artificiality to fit the subject material to ‘the project’. I mean seriously, what does a child learn of real world significance from baking a cup-cake with some decoration on it and then titling it ‘Amazon Delight’?

Yet a project approach can be an incredibly important, empowering, motivational and ‘real world’ context in which to learn. Psychologists have demonstrated a long time ago that the context in which (new) information is presented makes all the difference because it acts as a kind of mental scaffolding on which to ‘hang’ new information (it’s called ‘schema theory’ for those that read psychology literature). So a project could in principle be a scaffold through which to learn new information. In addition the project might reinforce itself because the children would encounter the topic but through the different lenses of the various subject disciplines (Rain Forest through English, science, music, art & history).

Simply put, the way a project is set up and how it is executed in an educational setting, that makes the critical difference. With the example of my daughter’s old school, I believe that the school was on the right track, but missed out a few critical features. Perhaps the main one being that a project can define a scaffold through which learning can take place – but it is not supposed to be ‘the’ learning. So the children were learning the different ways that one could associate different subject disciplines to ‘Rain Forests’ but they were not actually learning about their subject disciplines. The phrase ‘the cart before the horse’ or ‘the tail that wags the dog’ springs to mind.

Here is a slightly different way to consider the use of projects in an educational setting and it uses two working principles:

  • Don’t remain slaves to the project if there is no easy ‘fit’ for a subject discipline. Trying to learn one’s multiplication tables is not enhanced by artificially associating with a ‘Rain Forest’ or other project scope.
  • Secondly, use projects as a ‘filter’ since the amount of work that children have to do in order to get through a curriculum is at best ‘significant’. This is particularly so when a school curriculum is based on factual knowledge that needs to be acquired (as opposed to a curriculum that focusses on understanding and processes). A project approach may actually ‘filter out’ things which are perhaps desirable but not essential to a curriculum.

Our own school uses an additional two principles which is because we have aspects of our education that may not be common in every school:

  • Thirdly, and following on from the final point made above, we have a conservation stance as an overall filter to our projects. Not that we are a ‘tree-hugging’ school (but see the next and final point), but because conservation endeavours are perfect vehicles to explain and demonstrate real world inter-disciplinary subjects that need to be mastered at the same time. To name a few of the skills: project management; team work; working with communities; working with government organisations; economics; social psychology; planning and development; science research; monitoring and evaluation; mathematics; technology(-ies); great communication skills. In essence, pretty much the whole of the curriculum gets covered when one considers a conservation project. These are the same skill sets that a dyed in the wool capitalist business person needs in order to be effective and competitive. In other words a suite of projects focussed on conservation does not turn a child into a ‘Greenie’.
  • Finally, we have a stated school aim of ensuring that our children grow up through our school system and finally leave us as socially and environmentally responsible citizens. We are saying that today’s children need an awareness and ethical stance to be concerned about the medium and long term welfare of our social and physical environment. Our projects that take on a conservation or environmental filter tends to further underscore this part of our educational aim.

So much for the theory, what about the practice? Aren’t schools just as likely to fall into the same superficial sense of integration and covering of subject material that I mentioned previously? I must be frank here and state that there is a chance, but it is minimised if one considers the first two working principles (and for us the final two as well) that I mentioned above. Two projects we’ve taken on for this academic year that were chosen using the criteria above during an intense set of staff workshops we held are: shark conservation; and swimming for survival & safety. 

We have been thinking about water safety for a number of years and are greatly encouraged that Fiji appears to be doing so too with the formation of a Fiji Water Safety Council. We’ve also been touched and informed by the many articles that have appeared in the Fiji Times covering the issues around shark conservation. Both these projects we considered were suitable ‘scaffolds’ on which to build the teaching and learning experience, mainly because we were already engaged in them one way or another.

I’ll focus in this article though on the shark conservation theme that we’ve taken on board and which our upper school is engaged in. The children are engaged in creating a shark conservation theme aimed particularly at school children. The idea is that in principle it could be ‘farmed out’ to other schools. Whether we have the actual resources to do so is another matter. When we considered the number of things that the children could do in this area, we debated amongst ourselves which part of the curriculum these potential activities would cover. We were hyper-sensitive to the notion that activities might be about sharks (did someone say ‘make cup-cakes decorated with sharks’?) but were not relevant to any part of our curriculum. Needless to say things like shark conservation as a theme in home economics and PE went out of the window after our initial brainstorming session. We arrived at the following activities.

An art competition to design a poster or a tee-shirt with anti-shark finning messages or shark conservation as a central theme. Design of the competition required considering what the criteria for successful entry needed to be, a set of criteria for what was ‘good’, efficient communication of the ideas for the competition and forward planning as to when, where and with whom the competition might be done. (We’re looking for sponsorship now to make this a reality not just an exercise). 

A ‘museum’ about sharks and shark conservation. Every participating class has a small ‘museum’ display about a chosen shark species (that must be found in Fiji waters). The children must have good writing, art and modelling skills as well as a sense of spatial orientation to display their work in a corner or section of their class room. The museum displays are being built slowly throughout the year. Eventually towards the end of the year, we aim to collect all the displays in one room or hall and make it an open day (or three) for anyone to come and learn about sharks. The senior class is involved in managing all the displays and their eventual inclusion into an exhibition which involves time management, planning and effective communication. These are meta-skill sets which are covered throughout our curriculum such as ‘communication skills’ in English, and project management in technology projects. A small example of our work can be found in the Fiji Museum as a small adjunct to an exhibition hosted by Nature Fiji in the Fiji Museum for the next few months on endangered endemic species. 

We’ve been making puppets out of recycled material, with the incredible advice and guidance of a master puppet maker (thank you Anne O’Brian). Aspects of material science (properties of materials) are covered as well as technology (to design, build and paint an object that has to move), as well as conservation (recycle material) and of course visual arts in the construction of the puppet. The whole endeavour comes together in dramatic performances that the children are writing & performing around shark conservation. One two and a half minute video has already been scripted, filmed, edited and placed online using their own hand made finger puppets and matte painting backdrops. 

Another drama is shortly due to be filmed that incorporates large stick controlled puppets, and a final drama will be filmed and performed live with body sized puppets at the end of the school year. Staff members act as facilitators rather than the actual writers of these productions to ensure that children’s creative processes are engaged; their drama performances are of course part of their art curriculum. Children are also learning the principles about the technological aspects of video filming, editing and production exposing them to modern ICTs, as well as valuable skills such as story-boarding and group work. 

A petition was to be written and signed that could be presented to the government to support the idea of a total ban on shark fishing/finning in Fiji waters. Our children got an incredible experience to be able to participate in a government consultation held by the Ministry of Fisheries on the very same notion. Members of the Coral Reef Alliance knew of our project and were able to inform us of this meeting which was convened at very short notice. We took the opportunity for some of our senior pupils to attend. The children got to see first hand how modern democracy actually works (cultural studies); they got to hear arguments on those that supported a total ban (the conservationists) and those that favoured a partial ban (the fishing industry); they even got to see and even participate in the corridor meetings on the conservation side of the argument (social studies). The event was in addition a golden opportunity to hand over their petition that had been constructed and signed by all the relevant school pupils and staff members (community engagement). There’s absolutely no substitute for the real thing as they say, and our children were incredibly engaged and were most disappointed to have to leave before the end of the whole day’s consultation process. 

The educational activities operate on the scaffolding of shark conservation, but in an inter-connected fashion. The ‘real world’ experience brought the relevance of education to life in a way that is not possible to do simply by talking about it.

In summary, the use of an overall project approach in education appears initially to be a fantastic medium in which to teach and learn. However, some approaches to projects may create more problems than they solve, mainly I believe because a school, or more specifically the teachers can become ‘slaves’ to the project as they frantically try to ‘shoe-horn’ their curriculum items into ‘the project’. Projects can be used successfully, if they are considered in an appropriate context in which the curriculum can be constructed as a suitable ‘scaffold’ (or ‘schema’). I’m not trying to suggest that we are the only school doing projects this way – I know we’re not. However, I would be keen to explore how others involved in other schools either as educators, administrators or as parents (or even pupils), have examples of how projects can be used as ‘filters’ or as ‘scaffolding’. If so, why not leave a comment here so that we may generate a discussion and learn from each other?

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.  -Will Durant