The project method is an educational enterprise in which children solve a practical problem over a period of several days or weeks. It may involve building a rocket, designing a playground, or publishing a class newspaper. The projects may be suggested by the teacher, but they are planned and executed as far as possible by the students themselves, individually or in groups. Project work focuses on applying, not imparting, specific knowledge or skills, and on improving student involvement and motivation in order to foster independent thinking, self-confidence, and social responsibility.
According to traditional historiography, the project idea is a genuine product of the American Progressive education movement. The idea was thought to have originally been introduced in 1908 as a new method of teaching agriculture, but educator William H. Kilpatrick elaborated the concept and popularized it worldwide in his famous article, "The Project Method" (1918). More recently, Michael Knoll has traced the project method to architectural education in sixteenth-century Italy and to engineering education in eighteenth-century France. This illustrates that the project of the architect–like the experiment of the scientist, the sandbox exercise of the staff officer, and the case study of the jurist–originated in the professionalization of an occupation.
The project method was first introduced into colleges and schools when graduating students had to apply on their own the skills and knowledge they had learned in the course of their studies to problems they had to solve as practicians of their trade. With some simplification, five phases in the history of the project method can be differentiated:
- 1590–1765: At the academies of architecture in Rome and Paris, advanced students work on a given problem, such as designing a monument, fountain, or palace.
- 1765–1880: The project becomes a regular teaching method; newly established schools of engineering in France, Germany, and Switzerland adopt the idea. In 1865, the project is introduced by William B. Rogers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology into the United States.
- 1880–1918: Calvin M. Woodward adapts the project concept to schoolwork. At his Manual Training School students actually produce the projects they designed. Gradually the idea spreads from manual training (Charles R. Richards) to vocational education (David. S. Snedden, Rufus W. Stimson) and general science (John F. Woodhull).
- 1918–1965: Kilpatrick conceives the project broadly as "whole-hearted purposeful activity proceeding in a social environment." After being criticized by Boyd H. Bode, John Dewey, and other leading American Progressive educators, Kilpatrick's approach loses its attraction in the United States, yet receives general approval in Europe, India, and the Soviet Union.
- The 1970s: Kilpatrick's project method, now taken as the only adequate method of teaching in a democratic society, is rediscovered in Germany, the Netherlands, and other European countries. Under the influence of British primary school education, U.S. educators attempt to redefine the project, viewing it as an important supplement to the traditional teacher-oriented, subject-centered curriculum.
There are two basic approaches for implementing the project method. According to the historically older approach, the students take two steps: initially, they are taught in a systematic course of study certain skills and facts, then they apply these skills and knowledge, creatively and self-directed to suitable projects. According to the second approach, the instruction by the teacher does not precede the project but is integrated in it. In other words the students first choose the project, then they discuss what they need to know for solving the problem and learn the required techniques and concepts. Finally they execute the chosen project by themselves. In both approaches, time for reflection should be provided during all phases of project learning, giving students the opportunity to evaluate their progress. Many teachers–especially vocational and industrial arts educators–use a series of small-scale projects to help students develop continuously increasing competence in practical problem solving.
See also: Kilpatrick, William H.
Grubb, W. Norton, ed. 1995. Education through Occupations in American High Schools, Vol. 1: Approaches to Integrating Academic and Vocational Education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Helm, Judy H., and Katz, Lilian G. 2001. Young Investigators: The Project Approach in the Early Years. New York: Teachers College Press.
Katz, Lilian G., and Chard, Sylvia C. 1989. Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.
Knoll, Michael. 1995. "The Project Method: Its Origin and International Influence." In Progressive Education across the Continents. A Handbook, ed. Volker Lenhart and Hermann Röhrs. New York: Lang.