Projects, like good stories, have a beginning, middle, and end. This temporal structure helps teachers align the progression of activities with the development of students’ interests and personal involvement with the topic of study. This structure also helps teachers integrate and meet curricula benchmarks—a crucial part of the process. Unlike a number of project-based learning strategies, which provide a theoretical framework but leave out the practical details, the Project Approach offers a step-by-step guide for planning and implementing projects—and for allowing the work to evolve with students’ interests and needs.

Below is an outline of the process involved in planning and implementing projects. More information, along with specific examples and advice from teachers in the field, can be found in two guidebooks two guidebooks written for teachers by Sylvia Chard: The Project Approach (Book Two): Managing Successful Projects and The Project Approach (Book One): Making Curriculum Come Alive. The material in these books is also presented in a .pdf format in a new series of six practical guides. Also download our free Project Approach Study Guide [link to Study Guide pdf]. 

First Steps

During the preliminary planning stage, teachers select a topic of study based on students’ interests, the curriculum, and the availability of local resources. Teachers also brainstorm (and represent) their own experience with and knowledge and ideas about the topic in a web. This web becomes a central part of the project process, with teachers—and students—using it to record the progress of their work.

Phase 1: Beginning the Project
Teachers discuss the topic with students to find out about their related experiences and pre-existing knowledge. Often, this process evolves over a few days, with teachers eliciting prior knowledge through the use of related stories, discussions, journals, or other activities. Students then represent their experiences and show their understanding of the concepts involved in explaining them. Teachers help students develop questions to pursue during their investigation; they also send a letter about the study home to parents, who are encouraged to speak with their children about the topic and to share any relevant personal experience of their own.
Phase 2: Developing the Project
Opportunities for students to conduct field work and to speak with experts are arranged. Teachers provide resources to help students with their investigations, such as authentic objects, books, magazines, newspapers, music, Web sites, and other research materials. Teachers then suggest ways for students to carry out their investigations. Meanwhile, each student is involved in representing what he or she is learning in a variety of ways; with younger children, this may take the form of basic skills, such as 3D constructions, drawing, music, or dramatic play, and with older children, this could include journaling, editing magazines, dramatic performance, experimental design, Web site development, I-movies, PowerPoint, comic books, and more.

Throughout the process, teachers use group discussions and displays to enable students to take note of the diverse range of work. The topic web designed earlier provides a shorthand means of documenting the many branches of the project.

Phase 3: Concluding the Project
Teachers arrange a culminating event through which students share what they’ve learned with others (parents, administrators, other classes, experts). Students spend several days preparing for the event and selecting appropriate materials and displays. Teachers help students in this planning process, and, in doing so, involve them purposefully in reviewing and evaluating the whole project. Teachers also offer students imaginative ways of personalizing their new knowledge through art, stories, and drama. Finally, teachers use the students’ ideas and interests to make a meaningful transition between the concluding project and the topic of study in the next project.

Note: This outline summarizes some of the common features of projects, but each project is also unique. The teachers, students, topic, and location of the school all contribute to the distinctiveness of each project.