In this paper, we address a set of findings from a larger study of
professional development for teachers who use or plan to use the Project
Approach. The Project Approach is considered by many to have particular
value when it is used in combination with comprehensive curricula such
as The Creative Curriculum for Preschool (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman,
2002) or High Scope (High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, 2003).
In the United States, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE)
encourages teachers in its state-sponsored prekindergarten programs
(called Preschool for All classrooms) to incorporate the Project
Approach and to that end has supported a series of professional
development institutes about the Project Approach for teachers.
Many educators are searching for "evidence-based
curricula" in response to the No Child Left Behind legislation and
the national standards movement. In general, research provides little
evidence to support the use of any particular early childhood
curriculum. Sometimes a curriculum will be called "evidence
based" if its approach, focus, or activities are based on research
about effective practices, even if no data have been collected about the
particular curriculum's effectiveness. Similarly, the research base
for the Project Approach is small. The current study was an effort to
expand on what is already known about the Project Approach and to begin
a foundation for future research on the efficacy of the Project Approach
in early childhood classrooms by identifying effective components or
factors. We have used interview data collected from seven teachers in
state-funded prekindergarten programs to address the following two
* To what extent do teachers in Preschool for All classrooms
perceive the Project Approach as an effective way to teach a group of
* What factors facilitate teachers' implementation of the
The Project Approach
The purpose of the Project Approach (Helm & Katz, 2001; Katz
& Chard, 2000) is to involve children in investigations of topics
that are worthwhile and of potential interest to them. The teacher
assesses the children's interest in and understanding of the topic,
helps the children develop a set of questions that their investigation
will find answers to, and then provides them with experiences that help
build further understanding. In project work, children have many
opportunities to explore relevant phenomena and to represent what they
observe and what they learn. Children often work together in small
groups on various project-related tasks. Project work allows children to
demonstrate their strengths by applying their knowledge, skills, and
dispositions in ways that are helpful to others. As teachers plan for
project work, they anticipate what individual children know and can do,
what they want to know or do, and how they can best accomplish their
investigation. Implementation of the Project Approach necessitates that
teachers engage in what Pianta (2006) calls intentionality (p. 239),
purposefully taking children's individual interests, skills, and
abilities into consideration when planning activities and responding to
The Project Approach is a multidimensional, interconnected approach
to teaching based on constructivist theory of how children learn. The
approach reflects a philosophy of teaching that permeates what and how
children are taught; the content of a project varies depending on the
interests and abilities of each group of children and their teacher. The
fact that it is an approach, rather than a curriculum with specific
content, makes it difficult to compare the Project Approach with other
early childhood curricula. The content, knowledge, dispositions, and
skills emphasized are likely to vary from project to project within a
given classroom and also to vary from classroom to classroom.
Consequently, the very responsiveness and elasticity that are
highlighted as the strengths of the Project Approach are likely to
increase the challenge of comparing uses of the approach across
classrooms. This challenge may account, in part, for the lack of
research on its implementation and effectiveness.
Many teachers believe that the Project Approach provides an
effective context for teaching and learning both academic (Helm, 2000)
and social skills (Schuler, 1998). Some teachers have reported that the
Project Approach is also beneficial in teaching young children with
disabilities (Donegan, Hong, Trepanier-Street, & Finkelstein, 2005;
Edmiaston, 1998; Scranton, 2003), in helping children meet state and
local standards for early learning (Beneke, 2002), and in providing
coherent programming for children who attend preschool on a part-time
basis (Beneke, 2000). Overall, however, there is little research on the
effectiveness of the Project Approach with preschool children, and only
three studies address the effectiveness of this approach with preschool
children with disabilities (Donegan et al., 2005; Edmiaston, 1998;
Teachers typically learn how to implement the Project Approach as
part of their teacher education programs, through inservice training, or
by accessing video or reading materials. For example, Young
Investigators (Helm & Katz, 2001), The Power of Projects (Helm &
Beneke, 2003), and Rearview Mirror (Beneke, 2004) are Project Approach
resources in the National Association for the Education of Young
Children (NAEYC) catalog, which is distributed to over 100,000 members
(National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2008).
Teachers also sometimes learn the Project Approach by working with other
teachers or a curriculum coach who might serve as a mentor. A small
number of articles describe methods for providing professional
development on the Project Approach (Beneke, 1998; Borgia &
McClellan, 1998; Clark, 2006; Wiggers & Wortham, 2003).
Context of the Study
Illinois is the first state in the United States to legislate the
availability of free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children
(Illinois Government News Network, Office of the Governor, 2006). The
Illinois Early Learning Council has recommended that these Preschool for
All programs include children with special needs, thus making it
possible for many children with disabilities who had not previously had
access to be included in part-day preschool programs (Illinois Early
Learning Council, 2006). Children who in the past received early
childhood services by attending two half-day programs in different
locations can now have a more seamless day. In fact, many children with
disabilities are already fully included in Illinois child care centers;
half of the 800 lead teachers who responded to a recent statewide survey
of center-based care indicated that at least one child with disabilities
was enrolled in their class (Fowler, Bloom, Talan, Beneke, & Kelton,
2008). Eighty percent of the 800 teachers surveyed for that study also
reported that their classrooms included children of racial and ethnic
groups other than their own (Fowler et al., 2008).
In addition, recent estimates indicate that 23% of Illinois
children under age 6 are linguistically isolated and speak a language
other than English at home (Illinois Early Childhood Asset Map, n.d.). A
linguistically isolated household is defined as one "in which no
member 14 years old and over (1) speaks only English or (2) speaks a
non-English language and speaks English very well. In other words, all
members of the household 14 years old and over have at least some
difficulty with English" (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). In response to
the presence of so many diverse learners, teachers in early childhood
classrooms in Illinois and elsewhere are likely to be looking for
methods that will help them provide diverse groups of preschoolers with
optimal learning experiences.
The Search for High-Quality Curricula
According to NAEYC (2003), "well-planned, evidence-based
curriculum, implemented by qualified teachers who promote learning in
appropriate ways, can contribute significantly to positive outcomes for
all children. Yet research on the effectiveness of specific curricula
for early childhood remains limited" (p. 4). Research focusing on
curriculum implementation is particularly difficult to locate with
regard to children with disabilities and children whose home language is
not English (Guralnick, Hammond, Connor, & Neville, 2006).
The advent of the standards movement (sometimes called national
standards-based school reform) presents a potential barrier for teachers
who want to individualize instruction and tailor curriculum in response
to diverse groups of students (Hardman & Dawson, 2008). Despite a
limited research base, this trend toward standardization has resulted in
increased pressure to use what are frequently called
"evidence-based curricula" that are meant to support young
children in meeting content area learning standards (National
Association for the Education of Young Children, 2003).
Meisels (1992) has pointed out that despite good intentions,
efforts to support children's learning with evidence-based
curricula can "backfire." For example, a curriculum may be
poorly aligned with the age, culture, or home language of children in
any given classroom (Fillmore & Snow, 2000), or the content of the
curriculum may not be worthy of implementing with children (Espinosa,
2002). In addition, even though a curriculum might be well designed, it
might not be implemented with fidelity or in ways that are
developmentally appropriate (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997).
Additionally, even if a curriculum is a compilation of evidence-based
strategies, the combination of these strategies into one curriculum does
not guarantee that the curriculum "works." Pretti-Frontczak,
Kowalski, and Brown (2002) state that comprehensive and well-articulated
curriculum frameworks include an assessment, scope, and sequence;
directions for using the activities, materials, environment, and
intervention strategies; and procedures for monitoring progress on an
ongoing basis. However, the degree to which available curricula are
comprehensive varies (Grisham-Brown, Hemmeter, & Pretti-Frontczak,
2005), so that "[i]t often takes multiple resources to construct a
curriculum framework" that will best serve a particular group of
children (Grisham-Brown et al., 2005, p. 31).
In an effort to help teachers and administrators decide which
curricula to incorporate into their programs, the Early Childhood
Division of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has identified
a list of criteria to be used by programs in selecting curricula to
support diverse groups of learners (see Appendix A). Such information is
important to the staff of Illinois Preschool for All programs as they
select strategies and curricula for their classrooms, especially in
light of the documented diversity these programs are likely to
experience among the children being served. This list, however, is not a
long-range substitute for scholarly research that documents the benefits
of the various curricula and approaches.
Seven Illinois certified early childhood teachers from child care
centers that had recently been awarded Preschool for All grants by the
ISBE Early Childhood Division participated in this study. The teachers
attended one of two 3-day institutes on the Project Approach funded
through a collaborative effort among ISBE, the Illinois Association for
the Education of Young Children (IAEYC), the Chicago Metro Association
for the Education of Young Children (CMAEYC), and the Illinois Resource
Center on Early Childhood (IRC:EC). One institute was held in north
central Illinois, and the other was held in a northwest suburb of
Chicago. The seven teachers were interviewed individually prior to and
then approximately 3 months after attending one of the institutes.
All seven teachers were Caucasian and had been in their current
positions for less than 2 years. Teachers were categorized based on
their description of prior experience with the Project Approach as
having no experience (NE), some experience (SE), or as being experienced
(E). Those who fell into the NE category had either never heard of the
Project Approach prior to the interview or had learned about it through
college coursework or workshops, although they had never tried
implementing the approach. Teachers in the SE category had learned about
the Project Approach through college coursework or workshops and had
attempted implementation prior to the interview. One teacher who was
categorized as experienced (E) had learned about the Project Approach
through college coursework and workshops, had attempted to implement the
approach in the past, and was implementing the approach at the time of
the first interview (see Table 1 for additional demographic
Interview Process. Data were gathered from pre- and post-training
interviews with seven certified Preschool for All (PFA) teachers who had
attended one of two 3-day institutes on the Project Approach with
administrators from their programs.
A research assistant, who was a doctoral candidate in Speech and
Hearing Science, conducted the teacher interviews. The interviews took
place at the sites where the preschool teachers' PFA classrooms
were housed. Each teacher was asked to select a quiet location where she
felt comfortable being interviewed. Each interview was audiotaped and
took no more than an hour to complete. Teachers were interviewed twice,
once prior to attending an institute for training on the Project
Approach and again after attending the institute. All pre-institute
interviews were completed within a 4-week period prior to the institute
that each participant was scheduled to attend, and all post-training
interviews were completed within a 16-week period following attendance
at the institute.
Data were transcribed and analyzed from the first set of
interviews. The findings from this analysis were then used to revise
questions and develop probes for the post-training interviews.
Interview Protocol. Interview questions were developed to address
gaps in the literature on the Project Approach. The first author has
extensive experience implementing the Project Approach in preschool
classrooms, including classrooms with children with disabilities (e.g.,
Beneke, 1998, 2000, 2004; Beneke, Ostrosky, & Katz, 2005; Helm &
Beneke, 2003). Interview questions were developed based on the
literature, based on Beneke's experiences, and through consultation
with other individuals who have expertise on the Project Approach, early
childhood curricula, and children with special needs. Prior to
conducting this study, a pilot study was conducted with five teachers to
evaluate the interview protocol for clarity, level of detail, and time
necessary to complete the interview. (See Appendix B for interview
Analysis of Interview Data
Audiotaped interviews were transcribed and reviewed for
inaccuracies by asking each interviewee to review her transcript for
accuracy and clarity (i.e., member checking). Analyses of the data began
once the participants had reviewed their transcripts or passively
consented to their accuracy. Across 14 interview transcripts, only one
participant made a minor edit to her transcript.
Following Johnson and LaMontagne's (1993) guidelines for
content analysis, the researchers independently coded the transcripts
and established categories, meeting regularly to compare findings and
reach consensus on disagreements. The data from each transcript were
merged by category, and themes emerged as the researchers looked for
commonalities across responses. Mutually exclusive definitions were
developed so that each participant comment fit only one definition. The
researchers discussed the emerging themes and definitions, and adapted
them as needed.
A naive graduate student and a teacher certified in early childhood
special education were trained to code the transcript data using
definitions created by the researchers. Coders were trained on sample
sets of 20 randomly selected responses from teachers' pre-institute
interviews. The first author met with the coders to discuss and resolve
disagreements in coding between the coders and the researchers.
Definitions were revised based on the discussions between the coders and
the first author. The two coders coded a total of 30.59% of the teacher
pre- and post-institute responses (n = 523). See Table 2 for reliability
Findings and Implications
Findings considered to be major were those that were voiced by
three or more teachers. Four major findings related to the research
questions emerged from the data regarding aspects of the Project
Approach that teachers found helpful: (1) the impact of the Project
Approach on diverse learners, (2) child outcomes and motivation, (3) the
provision of real objects and materials, and (4) planning with children.
Key findings and implications for professional development follow.
The Project Approach as an Effective Way to Teach Diverse Learners
Findings. Four of seven teachers reported that implementing the
Project Approach increased their ability to include diverse learners. In
this study, diverse learners encompassed children with special needs,
children with challenging behaviors, or children who came from
environments that put them at risk for academic failure.
Participants' comments indicated that they found increased
opportunities to adapt classroom activities, and consequently children
with a range of abilities were able to participate in project work. For
example, Fran had been teaching in the field for 4 years and had some
experience with the Project Approach through college coursework and
limited attempts at implementation. Fran stated that following the
institute where she learned about the Project Approach, she was better
able to plan meaningful instruction in response to data she gathered on
children's individual interests and weaknesses:
Similarly, the teacher participants described positive changes in
children's social development because of an increase in meaningful
activities and materials to talk about as a result of project work. For
example, Connie, who had 2 years of experience in the field and had no
prior experience with the Project Approach, shared her observations
about positive changes in children's self-esteem:
Four of the seven teachers also stated that the Project Approach
increased the interest, motivation, and attention span of diverse
learners in their classrooms. For example, Connie shared that engaging
in a high-interest topic (buses) increased the attention of a child who
typically had a short attention span: "He was interested for the
longest time, just sitting down and saying, 'I made a school
bus,' and 'I've been in one, and it does have four
wheels, and it is yellow.'"
Some participants also described a reduced need for guidance
techniques in response to challenging behavior as a result of
implementing the Project Approach. For example, Anna, the teacher with
the most previous experience in implementing the Project Approach
explained, "When kids are interested in what they're doing,
you're not going to have as many situations that you need to
guide." Anna also reported that she had delighted in sharing the
positive impact of the Project Approach on children's behavior with
her classroom paraprofessional, therefore being able to "bring her
into it." For example, when her paraprofessional expressed concern
about the children using hammers and nails to build an airplane, Anna
explained to her, "Oh we won't have behavior issues, because,
can you imagine how engaged and excited they're going to be? And
how focused they will be to be able to use those hammer and saws?"
Data from teachers participating in this study support research by
Stipek, Feiler, Byler, Ryan, Milburn, and Salmon (1998) who found that
children in preschool classrooms where teachers deemphasized direct
instruction and basic skills and concentrated on a positive climate had
a more positive affect and were less stressed, less dependent on adults,
and more compliant than were children in classrooms that emphasized
basic skills and direct instruction. Similarly, Smiley and Dweck (1994)
found that, regardless of ability, 4- and 5-year-old children with a
performance goal orientation (focused on documenting achievement of
goals) were more likely to exhibit helplessness and think of themselves
as "bad" when faced with a challenging task than were children
with a learning goal orientation (focused on acquiring or improving
their skills). Smiley and Dweck concluded that "children with
performance goals who lack confidence may avoid many new learning
situations in order to avoid feeling inadequate, restricting the
opportunities they have to acquire new skills" (p. 1742). They
emphasize that Ames' (1990) research with elementary school
children demonstrates that "exposure to a classroom atmosphere that
nurtures learning goals can lead to positive changes in ...
children's learning strategies, self-conceptions of ability and
competence, and achievement motivation" (p. 1742). These findings
indicate that challenging behaviors are reduced when classroom staff
emphasize learning rather than performance goals.
Four participating teachers also indicated that they perceived the
Project Approach as supporting diverse learners' academic learning
as well as social development. For example, teachers reported that the
Project Approach supported the language development of diverse learners,
as children engaged in conversations about their investigations of a
topic of study. For instance, Anna noted the new vocabulary acquired as
part of a project on airplanes:
This finding is in line with speculation by Odom and Wolery (2003)
that inclusive settings "may provide a developmental press through
a more cognitively, linguistically, and socially stimulating environment
than occurs in nonintegrated special education settings" (p. 168).
Reports from teachers in the current study indicate the belief that
participating in project work in the context of inclusive preschool
classrooms may increase opportunities for diverse learners to experience
this developmental press as they engage with typically developing
Implications for Professional Development. Professional development
focusing on the Project Approach may be beneficial for early childhood
educators who are attempting to support the inclusion of diverse
learners in classrooms with their more typically developing peers. For
example, in the course of a project on buses, a special educator could
take advantage of a child's interest in painting a large cardboard
bus constructed by the children to embed practice with sign language
(i.e., signing yellow, paint, help, more, lights, windows, etc.).
Learning the approach as a cross-disciplinary team may help special
educators and regular educators who work in inclusive settings realize
ways to collaborate in embedding children's Individualized
Education Plan (IEP) objectives throughout project work. Such
collaboration can support a focus on children's interests,
strengths, and needs as teachers motivate and engage diverse learners in
project work. Teaching teachers to incorporate project work in their
plans and providing mechanisms for embedding goals and objectives for
diverse learners within project work is also likely to help teachers
support increased child participation.
Some participants commented that identifying diverse learners'
interests helped them plan more effective instruction. Therefore, it may
be beneficial to provide teachers with professional development
experiences that sharpen their ability to recognize and capitalize on
children's interests. Professional development in observation and
documentation skills is likely to help teachers become more observant of
individual children's interests and subsequently help them identify
academic and social gains that result from children's participation
in project work.
Social and Academic Outcomes as a Result of Child Motivation
Findings. Themes that emerged from the data related to
children's development, interest, and motivation were often closely
related. For example, teachers described how the motivation that
resulted from project work helped children meet age-appropriate
expectations, including the Illinois Early Learning Standards (IELS)
(Illinois State Board of Education, 2002) and other readiness goals. As
Anna put it, "I think you get so much more from them, and
you're able to see so much more when they're engaged, and
you're talking about a topic they're really interested
in." Four of seven teachers described the Project Approach as
helping children integrate math and social skills, build self-esteem,
acquire new vocabulary, and develop scientific dispositions. For
example, Anna, who had observed that children's vocabulary
"blossoms," also reported gains in children's interest
and motivation toward science learning and dispositions:
Additionally, after engaging in a post-institute project on cars,
Fran was impressed with her students' ability to complete detailed
representational drawings. Their interest in the topic motivated
children to look closely and notice more. Instead of simple drawings
from memory, their drawings included "little stickers that were on
the windows of the cars and the numbers on the license plates, and ...
you know, the handles and the key locks and just very little
This view of children's development in response to the
motivation and interest generated by project work is consistent with
research by Marcon (2002), which demonstrated that preschoolers in
classrooms that encouraged child-initiated learning performed better
academically and socially later when they were observed at the 4th-grade
level compared to preschoolers in teacher-directed classrooms. Also, the
Home School Study (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001) demonstrated that
preschoolers who had more opportunities to engage in conversations
(using decontextualized language) with one another and with adults had
greater academic success in kindergarten. Cognitively challenging
conversation using decontextualized language "requires children to
remember, reason, fantasize, imagine, problem solve, predict, and
hypothesize" (Massey, Pence, Justice, & Bowles, 2008, p. 342).
Project work supports conversations that include opportunities to
remember, reason, imagine, problem solve, predict, and hypothesize. In
addition to communication gains, teachers in the current study reported
that the Project Approach supported social outcomes, a finding that is
consistent with other research on the benefits of teaching diverse
learners in natural settings (Kohler, Anthony, Steighner, & Hoyson,
2002; Kohler, Strain, Hoyson, & Jamieson, 1997; Odom, 2000; Odom et
al., 1999). For example, Barbara, a teacher with no prior experience
with the Project Approach, described her students' interest in a
project on apples:
Implications for Professional Development. Participants in this
study reported that when children were motivated and engaged in a
project, teachers' ability to teach and document learning or child
outcomes improved. It seems likely then that teachers may benefit from
professional development focused on learning how to select high-interest
topics for project investigations. In addition, professional development
on the Project Approach that enables teachers to participate in a
project simulation based on a high-interest topic may help inservice
participants better understand (from firsthand experience) the interest
and motivation that is likely to result from project work.
Benefits of Providing "Real Objects" and Materials in the
Findings. Six of the seven teachers who participated in the current
study reported that bringing concrete "actual objects" or
authentic materials related to the project topic into the classroom
(e.g., objects typically found in the children's homes or in the
topic context such as tools or machine parts) created heightened
interest in classroom activities when compared to simplified replicas
produced and marketed as preschool toys. These "real objects"
related to the project topic helped engage children and facilitated the
successful implementation of the Project Approach. Teachers believed
that using real objects improved children's ability to make
connections between classroom activities and the world outside of
school. Introducing everyday materials such as cardboard boxes,
containers, and various types of paper that children could use to
represent their understanding of a topic also was perceived by the
teachers as beneficial to inclusion. For example, Connie explained:
The shared perception of these teachers regarding children's
interest in objects and materials is compatible with research by Dunst
and his colleagues (2001), who found that young children with and
without disabilities were more likely to learn when they were provided
frequent opportunities to interact with objects of interest in natural
settings (i.e., during classroom play). Other researchers have reported
that children with and without disabilities are likely to participate in
more advanced social interchanges when they are engaged in
object-focused play (Pierce-Jordan & Lifter, 2005).
The ways in which teachers in the current study referred to play
with objects and materials parallel a taxonomy of pretend play developed
by Barton and Wolery (2008). Barton and Wolery define functional play
with pretense as "nonliteral use of actual or miniature objects in
the manner in which they were intended without the reality-based
outcome" (p. 113). For example, a child engaged in functional play
during a project on houses might put on a real tool belt and pretend to
build a house. In the context of the current study, teachers reported
that this type of object play took place when they brought real items
into the classroom.
Participants also referred to children's use of real or
recycled materials in their construction of representations. For
example, one teacher described how her class had built a car out of
cardboard packing boxes and pieces of lumber. This type of play,
categorized by Barton and Wolery (2008) as substitution play, involves
object substitution, imagining absent objects, and assigning attributes.
Substitution play is considered to be a higher level of play than
functional play because it requires children to pretend that one object
is another. For example, a group of preschoolers might substitute a
large cardboard box for the frame of the truck and substitute classroom
chairs for the seats in the truck.
In their review of the literature on young children's object
play, Barton and Wolery found that adult modeling and prompting helped
increase children's level of pretend play. The process of
investigating and representing findings in the context of a project
provides many occasions for children to engage in functional and
substitution play with objects and can create opportunities for teachers
and peers to model and support children in moving from one level of play
to another. For example, Anna stated that when she asked her students
what they would like to do next, they said they would like to
"build an airplane out of wood." At the time of her second
interview, she was in the process of gathering wood so her students
could "fully get it going" by constructing their own airplane.
Anna also reported:
Implications for Professional Development. It may be useful for
those who provide professional development in the Project Approach to
emphasize the benefits of bringing real, topic-related objects into the
classroom environment. Offering teachers examples of such objects and
providing them with opportunities to brainstorm types of objects related
to particular project topics may be a useful component of training in
the Project Approach. Training in how to evaluate the play value of
commercially available materials might enable teachers to become more
critical consumers of commercially marketed products and to recognize
additional possibilities for including real objects in their classrooms.
Also, by communicating with their administrators about the benefits of
using real objects, teachers may be able to access such materials more
easily. It may also be beneficial during professional development to
focus on identifying types of recyclable/reusable objects and materials
for substitution play construction and representation (e.g., shoeboxes,
large cardboard boxes, margarine tubs, egg cartons, bottle caps).
Support for teachers' implementation of the Project Approach might
also include identifying potential sources of recyclable/reusable
materials (e.g., parents, other teachers, businesses, service
organizations). Finally, beneficial professional development strategies
are likely to include sharing techniques for supporting the various
levels of play within the context of project work (e.g., adult modeling
or prompting more advanced play behaviors).
Learning to Plan with Children
Findings. Planning project-related activities with children was a
positive experience for five of the seven teachers who participated in
this study. They reported that when they shared control of planning
project activities, children seemed more motivated and increased their
participation in project work. Teachers also reported that their own
ability to ask open-ended questions, elicit questions from children,
engage in webbing, and identify children's interests increased over
the course of planning projects with children. One teacher described her
collaborations with children:
According to Siraj-Blatchford and Sylva (2004), when young children
were engaged in sustained thinking--where two or more individuals
"work together in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a
concept, evaluate activities, or extend a narrative"--over time,
more child-teacher and child-peer interactions were child-initiated (p.
718). The authors noted that for the benefits of sustained thinking to
occur, it is necessary for both parties to be "involved," and
if the resultant learning is to be worthwhile, the content must be
"instructive" in some way (p. 720). Because projects typically
last for several weeks, the increased opportunities for children to
regularly plan and then discuss the progress of the project with peers
and the teacher seem likely to result in increased child-initiated
sustained shared thinking. For example, Fran, a teacher identified as
having some experience with the Project Approach, described the
evolution of a class project on cars:
Implications for Professional Development. Professional development
about how to plan with children (e.g., learning to develop and use webs,
elicit children's ideas, share control of classroom activities,
encourage child-to-child conversations) may help teachers actively
engage children in project work. Also, it seems likely that including
professional development activities that focus on learning to ask
open-ended questions will help teachers elicit and rephrase
children's thoughts in order to scaffold children's
involvement in the planning process.
Since children's interests and ideas are often expressed
through nonverbal behaviors, professional development activities that
help teachers identify children's interests and thoughts as they
are expressed nonverbally also may be helpful. For example, a child who
is interested in going shopping might spend time in the dramatic play
area pretending to write shopping lists, packing a purse with play
money, or filling a shopping bag with objects. Teachers who notice these
communicative attempts can encourage children with a range of abilities
to share their ideas with the group.
Providing examples of ways that the Project Approach can be
incorporated into teachers' lesson plans and modeling techniques
for webbing and for asking and eliciting questions may help teachers
learn to better incorporate planning with children into their practice.
Similarly, project simulations during professional development may help
teachers better understand and implement the planning process; such
simulations should include opportunities to discuss and web ideas with
others and to share control of the direction of a project.
Implications for Those Who Help Others Learn the Project Approach
Findings from the current study reveal that the participating
teachers had positive perceptions of the effectiveness of the Project
Approach as a way to teach diverse learners. They believed that learning
the approach helped them to better include diverse learners, to motivate
children toward increased academic and social skills, to bring children
into the project planning, and to enable children to interact with
project-related "real objects" in the classroom. Therefore, it
is important that future professional development efforts include these
aspects of the Project Approach.
Such focused professional development is especially important for
teachers who are in the initial stages of learning the Project Approach.
Also, follow-up training is critical for teachers who have only had an
initial introduction to the Project Approach if they are to become
confident implementers. However, depending on the experience and
training of a teacher, providing this professional development through
workshops may not be the preferred vehicle.
While our findings suggest that the participants in this study
seemed to have benefited from attending a Project Approach institute,
research and theory suggest that other forms of professional development
may be more helpful for teachers who are just beginning to implement the
Project Approach. A number of scholars and researchers have suggested
that professional development through focused support such as continuous
coaching, mentoring, and consultation may be more helpful to
less-experienced teachers than typical technique-oriented workshops
(e.g., Katz, 1995; Pianta, 2006; Pianta, Mashburn, Downer, Hamre, &
Justice, 2008; Ackerman, 2007).
It may be instructive to consider the format for professional
development in systems where the Project Approach was successfully
practiced on a large scale. For example, teachers in the British Infant
Schools commonly used project work during the 1960s (Katz & Chard,
2000). A report of the Central Advisory Council for Education in England
(1967), commonly referred to as the Plowden Report, describes a
within-school system of ongoing professional development in which
teachers were "guided but not dominated" (p. 335) by a head
teacher who also had classroom duties. Professional development in the
British Infant Schools during the years was supported by "advisory
teachers who can work beside ... young teachers in the classroom"
(p. 356). These advisory teachers visited probationary teachers
The emphasis on individual guidance and consultation in the British
Infant Schools is similar to that of contemporary programs that utilize
individually focused professional development through coaching,
mentoring, and consultation practices. For example, the U.S. Department
of Defense provides professional development to early childhood
educators in its child development centers through a combination of
one-size-fits-all modules and "as needed" individualized
professional development delivered by an on-site Training and Curriculum
Specialist (Ackerman, 2007). Also, early childhood centers in Reggio
Emilia, Italy, have successfully implemented projects; the professional
development in these centers relies heavily on coaching, mentoring, and
consultation practices--a pedagogista or "teacher of teachers"
meets regularly with teaching teams to discuss and reflect on their
experiences and their professional development (Edwards, Gandini, &
A combination of formal workshop-based training and on-site
individually tailored consultation may be the best way to deliver
professional development on the Project Approach to early childhood
teachers. Katz (1995) noted, when discussing the training needs of
novice teachers, "training must be constantly and readily available
from someone who knows both the trainee and her teaching situation well.
The trainer should have enough time and flexibility to be on call as
needed by the trainee" (p. 206).
Perhaps learning new strategies that are part of the Project
Approach, such as planning with children or incorporating "real
objects" into the classroom environment, poses a large enough shift
for some teachers that it is akin to first-year teaching and
subsequently requires a coaching, mentoring, and consultation approach.
Limitations and Future Research
While the current study provides insight into teachers'
perceptions about implementing the Project Approach, which can be used
to inform future professional development efforts on the Project
Approach, it would have been helpful to have a larger and more diverse
group of participants. Furthermore, a pre- and post-institute
observational study focusing on implementation of the Project Approach
could shed light on additional factors that support or inhibit
implementation. Such an observational study could help identify future
areas for professional development to enhance implementation of the
Future research on the relative effectiveness of a variety of
supports for implementing the Project Approach with diverse learners may
provide guidance to those who provide professional development (i.e.,
the use of consultants, professional development communities, ongoing
inservice). Likewise, future research should focus on supports that are
needed to train trainers in the Project Approach.
Finally, research is needed to critically explore the four themes
identified by participants in this study: (1) including diverse
learners, (2) social and academic growth as a result of child
motivation, (3) providing authentic objects and materials in the
classroom, and (4) planning with children. Research to determine
effective professional development activities and materials related to
each of the four themes is needed.
In summary, the Project Approach appears to be an effective way to
support the learning of diverse learners. Professional development
opportunities that emphasize characteristics of the Project Approach
that other teachers have found helpful may be beneficial to teachers who
are new to the approach. Listening to the voices of early childhood
teachers who have learned about and attempted implementation of the
Project Approach can move the field forward in designing professional
development opportunities that represent recommended practice and
support the learning and development of diverse groups of young
Appendix A Prekindergarten/Preschool for All Curriculum Criteria
* Alignment with the Illinois Early Learning Standards
* Inclusion of content to be taught with intentionality and
* Provision for child initiation and engagement
* Use of content based on research of how young children learn
* Provision for parent involvement, through meaningful
communication with families
* Alignment with an authentic assessment tool that is ongoing and
* Consideration of the child's linguistic and cultural
* Consideration of the range of experience and qualifications of
early childhood teachers
* Consideration of a wide range of children's abilities,
including those of children with IEPs
* Provision of research evidence of the effectiveness of the
Appendix B Post-Training Interview Protocol
* What experience did you have with the Project Approach since the
last time we met?
* Did you try implementing it? If so, what happened?
* What did you notice about the way it developed?
* What, if anything, did you learn about the Project Approach that
was new to you?
* How did you get started using the Project Approach?
* What did you do first? How did the children respond?
* Then second? How did the children respond?
* Third? How did the children respond?
* Do you think the Project Approach impacted the way you teach? If
* What looks different? What makes you think this?
* What looks the same? What makes you think this?
* Do you think the Project Approach impacted the way children
learn? If so, how?
* What changed?
* What looks different? What makes you think this?
* How does it look the same? What makes you think this?
* How did the Project Approach work in combination with your
* Daily and weekly schedule?
* Parent involvement?
* Guidance techniques?
* Teaching style?
* Did the Project Approach impact the teaching strategies you
currently use? If so, how?
* If I were watching you use these strategies, what would I see?
Please describe 2-3 scenarios.
* How did teaching children who have differing abilities look when
implementing the Project Approach?
* How, if at all, did using the PA impact the way you help children
meet the Illinois Early Learning Standards? Please describe.
* How, if at all, did using the PA impact the way you manage
challenging behaviors? Please describe.
* What are the pros of implementing the Project Approach?
* How, if at all, did PA positively impact lesson planning?
* Writing lesson plans?
* Implementing lesson plans?
* How, if at all, did the Project Approach positively impact
inclusion of diverse learners?
* What are the cons or downsides of implementing the Project
* How, if at all, did PA negatively impact lesson planning?
* Writing lesson plans?
* Implementing lesson plans?
* How, if at all, did the Project Approach negatively impact
including diverse learners?
* What kind of impact, if any, do you think using the Project
Approach had on children's overall development?
* Language skills? Examples?
* Math skills? Examples?
* Personal/Social skills? Examples?
* What do you think was most helpful to you in implementing the
Project Approach with your selected curriculum?
* Training received? How so?
* Training materials? How so?
* Colleagues? How so?
* Support from your administrator? How so?
* Curriculum coach? How so?
* Tell me about the curriculum you use in your Preschool for All
classroom? (i.e., High/Scope, Creative Curriculum, or Scholastic)
* What, if anything, do you like about this curriculum?
* What, if anything, do you dislike about this curriculum?
* How do you think this curriculum works in combination with the
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Sallee Beneke & Michaelene M. Ostrosky
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Sallee Beneke is currently a Ph.D. student in special education at
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her M.Ed.
from the University of Illinois in 2000. Her research has focused on two
areas: inclusion and the Project Approach and topics and methods for
effective professional development for teachers in Preschool for All
classrooms. Sallee has been a resource specialist for STARnet,
kindergarten teacher, director of a lab school, college instructor,
master teacher, prekindergarten at-risk teacher, early childhood special
education teacher, and child care center director.
Department of Special Education
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
1310 S. Sixth St. Champaign, IL 61820
Dr. Michaelene M. Ostrosky is interim department head and a
professor of special education at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Ostrosky received her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt
University and has been the principal investigator or co-investigator on
several research, training/technical assistance, and personnel
preparation grants since arriving at the University of Illinois in 1991.
She has been involved in research and dissemination on social
interaction interventions, naturalistic language interventions,
social-emotional competence, challenging behavior, and transitions.
Currently she is a co-principal investigator on an IES grant addressing
attitudes of kindergarten children toward their peers with disabilities.
Dr. Ostrosky is a former editor of Young Exceptional Children.
You're more able to collect information about what they like and
what their interests are, and where you want to go from here ... to
move on to a new project or a new activity, you can pull out to
work on maybe some of their weaker areas. [You can document] that
they're able to achieve success through different methods.
I think for some of the children it actually helped them to be able
to say, "Hey, this is something that I know a little bit about."
And they almost took on the teacher role. And then, some of the
children who were sometimes excluded or sometimes kind of played by
themselves a little bit, they were able to actually find something
that they know, and then their other classmates look up to them.
The other day he was reading through a book and saying, "Look, Miss
Anna, there's a propeller.... Look, Miss Anna, there's a propeller!"
And he turned the page, and he'd go to the next airplane and say,
"Look, Miss Anna, there's a propeller, there's a propeller." And
just to see that he learned that word, that he got that, is
awesome. So I think, especially the language blossoms a lot with
the Project Approach.
Because you're teaching those dispositions--to be curious and to
question, and to investigate, and to want to, just that urge to
find out the answers to your questions, and that's basically what
science is, is finding out the answers to questions and finding
out how things work.
They would see it [apples] everywhere. I'd be reading a book in the
middle of the day, and they'd be like, "apples!" And they'd find it
[the apple]. So they were really getting into it. Once we immersed
them in it, they were really into it.
We brought in more concrete materials for sure. Before we would
have small blocks and all the little tubs of toys, but now it's
more focused on their direct learning, as far as their interests.
And we're interested in making [representations] of everything. And
the cardboard boxes and stuff like that, we've got things that
they've never seen in our classroom before, and now they're able to
use [these materials] and build.
And if they want to know how some things work together, I do bring
resources from home. I'll bring in the cardboard boxes and
everything and let them really figure out, through their hands-on
play, how everything works, how everything fits together. That's
changed a little bit from my prior teaching. More hands-on, now.
I think I just probably tried to be consciously better at asking
more open-ended questions and eliciting questions from them. I
think I'm learning better how to figure out what they want to learn
about, what things they're interested in, what kind of questions
they have, and I'm learning how to get that out of them a little
bit more, rather than just saying, "so what questions do you have?"
I'm learning how to think, observe, and ask other questions to get
to what they want to know, so I think that's probably a change.
We did an initial web and said, "we're going to start learning
about cars ... what do you guys already know about cars?" We put
cars in the middle [of the web] and then some of them told us parts
they knew or where cars go. Like, "my mom drives a car to the
store" and "if the police pulled you over you went too fast," and
so they knew quite a few things about it, so we just went off of
their original thoughts and asked them questions.... "Well what do
you think you want to learn about cars?" We made some notes about
what they wanted to learn, and one of the first days, I parked my
car in the back of the parking lot, and we all went out with our
clipboards, and they got to draw and ask questions about where I
take my car, and [they made comments such as] "there's a dent in
the hood" and "Why does it have it? Were you in an accident?" ...
We went from there and as they asked more questions we'd get more
for a half day, a full day or even several consecutive days if this
is needed.... Advisors or advisory teachers can arrange
conferences, courses and visits for young teachers when they are
sufficiently experienced to profit from them. Conferences and
courses should be informal and provide opportunities for young
teachers to meet one another to talk over common problems. (p. 356)
Name Experience * Certificate Years in Field
Anna E 4 5
Barbara NE 4 16
Connie NE 4 2
Dawn NE 4 14
Eleanor NE 4 4
Fran SE 4 4
Grace SE 4 3
* Note. NE = no experience, SE = some experience, E = experienced.
Pre-Institute Average Post-Institute Average
(mean, range) (mean, range)
87.5% (85% - 90%) 88.75% (80%-95%)