Project Approach to Learning

Try It…You May Like It!!
The Project Approach to Learning

by Sharon Haag1

Experiencing a bit of the doldrums after the holidays? Seem like a looong road till the end of the school year? Need something to spice up life a bit? A short-term theme study could be just what you need to rekindle excitement and motivation for learning! Why not try one for a couple of weeks, then decide if you’d like to include more in next year’s plan?

It’s been a while since we have devoted any articles to this style of teaching/learning (February & August ’97). However, I am still convinced it is one of the best, most motivating ways for children to learn. I thought it might be good to revisit the topic because I have come across and used several great resources since then. More and more already-prepared theme studies are becoming available for homeschooling families.

Why it is worth a try…

  • It is something children of different ages can do together.
  • It provides opportunities for children to make choices and take responsibility for their own learning.
  • It is “active” rather than passive learning.
  • It allows exploring areas of special interest and encourages sharing what is learned in creative ways (not just writing or discussing). Each child can be given individual projects to complete which will benefit everyone.
  • It allows children to shine in and develop individual areas of giftedness. See November ’96 and February ’97 PTOs for lists of further benefits.

How to go about it (with limited planning time and resources)

You don’t need a lot of preplanning to do a two- or three-week study. A key is to involve your children in the planning process. The planning itself is an important process to learn. Here could be some simple steps to follow:

  1. Choose a topic. It needs to be broad enough so that at least a portion of it would be interesting and researchable for every child in the family.
    • It can focus on some area of science or social studies you plan to study later in the curriculum and for which you have several references and/or observable phenomena.
    • It can focus on a place you will all visit during furlough.
    • It can relate to a certain time period in history.
    • It can focus on a type of literature, like adventure stories or folk tales.
  2. Along with your children, gather all the resources you can find related to the topic. Include objects and nonprint material if available; speculate regarding people you know who might be knowledgeable about aspects of the topic.
  3. Let your children browse through the resources, looking at pictures, arousing curiosity and questions about the topic. Make “I wonder…” statements related to the topic.
  4. Brainstorm with your children about “what we already know” and “what we would like to find out” about the topic. Have them express what they would like to find out in the form of questions; you can add some of your own questions to the list as well.
  5. With your children, group the questions into categories, or subtopics. Emphasize that there can be many different ways of organizing, but see if you can come to some agreement of subtopics it would be good to explore.
  6. Allow each child to choose at least one subtopic which they would like to explore…on which they would like to become “the expert.” Each will research his own area, then report on it to the whole family. Topics they do not choose can be skipped, or you can model presenting that material in various ways throughout the theme period.
  7. Decide upon what type of “reporting” is appropriate for each subtopic. That would depend on the topic itself and on the age, skills, and needs of each child. You may require some kind of written report (newspaper article, diagram with written labels or procedures) and/or an oral presentation, plus some kind of visual/model or demonstration that each chooses.
  8. Each child will then need to make a plan about “How I Will Do My Report.” This may include the following steps: use three information sources; write to/interview Uncle Harry to ask about ….; make a web of my notes; write sentences for each cluster on my web; write a rough draft; conference with Mom; write my final draft; decide what kind of visual I want to include when I share the information orally; prepare speech notes and my visual; make up three “test” questions from my information. You can help the younger children make a schedule. Older ones should estimate what their deadlines need to be for finishing each part of their project so it will be completed by the end of the time period. Let them find out through experience how their plan/schedule is working, and guide them in adapting it along the way if needed.
  9. Plan a Celebration Day when information is shared with the family and each child is celebrated for the part they contributed. A quiz game can be part of the celebration, using the questions the children prepared from their presentations. Go back to your chart of questions and see if all were answered.
  10. Evaluate with each child, asking what they were happy with about their project and what they feel they should do differently the next time. If you have a set of criteria that has been laid out and understood beforehand, have the child evaluate himself on each point. You can share which parts you were especially impressed with, then choose only one point on which to make suggestions for next time if the child has not already done that for himself.

Remember that very important learning comes out of the process: the decision-making, the planning, the organizing, and the evaluating. Of course, facts will be learned as well and probably remembered much better since they were actively sought out and worked with by the learners.

If your children get excited by this kind of active, hands-on learning, you might consider ordering for next year some of the resources listed in this publication. The process above is thoroughly explained and expanded in the Scholastic Professional Book, Theme Studies: A Practical Guide, by Penny Strube.

To learn from other families’ experiences and tips for doing themes/ projects, you can read the following articles:

Permission to copy, but not for commercial use.

  1. Sharon Haag grew up as a third culture kid (TCK) along the northern border of Mexico. She received her K-8 teaching degree through Biola University and an MS in school counseling and School Psychologist’s credential through Cal State Long Beach. She joined SIL in 1974 and taught TCKs in southern Mexico, piloted the Field Education System (FES – a support program for homeschooling families) in Guatemala, and was an itinerant teacher in Cameroon. She later worked from the United States supporting homeschooling families overseas and doing educational evaluations and consultation. She is now retired.