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Explicit Instruction and the Project Approach

Below is an overview of how project work and explicit instruction work together in the classroom. For more information, see The Project Approach (Book One): Making Curriculum Come Alive.

Project work is not the only kind of learning experience that students will have in preschool child-care programs or in elementary, middle, and high school. In the case of younger children, there will be opportunities for spontaneous play, story time, singing, dancing, and more. And in the case of older students, project work and explicit instruction work together to enhance learning in a variety of ways.

At the elementary, middle, and high school levels, there are some parts of the curriculum in which students are necessarily dependent on the teacher, and others in which students can work more independently. In particular, two aspects of the curriculum provide for students’ learning needs:

  1. explicit instruction for the acquisition of skills

  2. project work for the application of skills acquired earlier

Students not only need to know how to use a skill but also when to use it. They need to learn to recognize for themselves the contexts in which the skill might be useful and the purposes it can most appropriately serve. Project work and explicit instruction can be seen as providing complementary learning opportunities. In explicit instruction, the students acquire the skills, and in project work, they apply those skills in meaningful contexts. Project work can thus be seen as the part of the curriculum planned in negotiation with the students and supportive of (and extending) the more formal and teacher-directed instructional elements.

Distinctions between Explicit Instruction and Project Work

Explicit Instruction

  • For acquiring skills

  • Activity at instructional level

  • Teacher directs the student's work

  • Student follows instruction

  • Extrinsic motivation may be important

  • Teacher addresses student's deficiencies

Project Work

  • For applying skills

  • Activity at independent level

  • Teacher guides the student's work

  • Student chooses from alternatives

  • Intrinsic motivation characterizes the work particularly 

  • Teacher builds on student's proficiencies 

When a teacher instructs a student in a new level of skill, the learning tasks have to be carefully matched to the student’s current abilities. When a student applies skills with which she already has some fluency, she can work independently (and with more confidence), make decisions, formulate and solve problems as they arise, and be creative in applying the skills appropriately. The types of activity or task the teacher plans will be different according to which kind of learning is intended.

Explicit Instruction for Acquiring Skills


  • telling the time

  • bar graphs

  • designing experiments


  • unknown, new

  • challenging

  • required

  • closed, limited steps


  • instructs

  • prescribes

  • directs

  • encourages effort


  • is as yet incapable 

  • follows instructions

  • acts with help

  • is uncertain about ability

  • works alone

Project Work for Applying Skills


  • investigating change

  • doing a survey and representing the results

  • investigating water pollution


  • familiar (maybe in new context)

  • intrinsically satisfying

  • chosen

  • exploratory, open-ended


  • gives guidance

  • suggests alternatives

  • observes, listens 

  • encourages ideas


  • is capable, proficient

  • practices skills unaided

  • acts independently 

  • judges own success

  • often consults, collaborates

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