You are on page 1of 10

Universidad Central de Venezuela

Towards project-based
learning:
The case of Laura Castell
and her sixth grade
students
Aurora Lacueva

Caracas, 2002
Towards project-based learning:
the case of Laura Castell and her sixth grade students1
Aurora Lacueva, Universidad Central de Venezuela
(Data collected during a stay at Universidad de Barcelona, Spain)

Abstract
This is a case study about a teacher and her students enacting project-based learning.
The aim of the investigation is to increase understanding of project-based learning in action,
with its successes, difficulties and occasional shortcomings. During the project observed,
students made plans, searched for information in different sources, collaborated with peers,
wrote reports, communicated results to the class, participated in classroom government, and
performed co-evaluation and self-evaluation. However, their project suffered the impact of
too many hetero-structured activities, which the teacher included to ensure the fulfillment of
official curricular requirements. Also, the topic was chosen mainly because it was required,
and its approach was too “academic”. Individual mini-projects, developed in parallel with this
main endeavor, proved to be more authentic and investigative in nature. At the end of the
paper, some proposals for project-work at schools are presented.

Background, Aims and Framework


Project-based learning, adequately developed, is probably the best pedagogical answer
to the need for a science education addressed to all students. In our conception, project-based
learning is any school-work which tries to reach these characteristics: it rises from a question
that the students have proposed, with intelligent encouragement and support from the school;
it implies, in order to answer this question, an inquiry, which the students plan with the aid of
their teacher, and which may take several weeks of activity; this inquiry should normally
encompass periods of library research and others of empirical research of some kind; the work
results in products, which are presented or communicated to others.
Several features of project-work lead to its preeminence as a pedagogical strategy:
projects start from the notions students already have, and encourage their application, their
empirical and theoretical confrontation and their development; they mobilize children’s
affectivity in favor of the learning process, since the students express their interests, take on
challenges and make decisions; for the same reasons, they call for the participation of
sophisticated metacognitive mechanisms; additionally, projects promote collaboration among
peers and with the teacher and other experts; and they can stimulate problematization and
critical thinking. Projects are usually interdisciplinary or, better, metadisciplinary in nature,
and allow students to go beyond the limits of each scientific discipline, using the sciences to
understand the world from the point of view of the educated, critical citizen. For interesting
recent research on project-based learning see Manning, Manning & Long, 1994 and Short et
al., 1996. See also Brown, 1994; Giordan & Souchon, 1995; Marx et al., 1997.
However, the systematization and the ways of implementation of this profound
proposal are not clear, in spite of efforts that extend back at least to the first decades of the
20th. century, with names as Freinet, Dewey and Kilpatrick standing out: many good
experiences are little known, some past solutions need updating to be still useful, and others
drive us towards not so fruitful routes because of their intricate features and/or their
formalism. Also, once good strategies have been developed, they need to be extended and

1
A more extensive report of this research is available in Spanish: Lacueva, A., Imbernon, F. and Llobera, R.
(2003). Enseñando por proyectos en la escuela: la clase de Laura Castell. Revista de Educación. 332: 131-148.

2
adapted to other schools and other pupils throughout the world, being enriched in the process.
Besides, when and where project-based school learning is successfully established, then the
opportunity opens up for the in-depth study of learning not in laboratory, artificial contexts, or
in rigid and limited traditional classrooms, but in naturalistic and propitious settings.
In this investigation, we studied the case of one teacher developing project-based
learning with her students. Our aim was to increase understanding of this methodology in
action, with its successes, difficulties and occasional shortcomings. This research, together
with related ones developed by the author individually or in collaboration with others
(Lacueva, 2000; Lacueva & López, 1995; Lacueva & Viloria, 1994; Lacueva & Viloria,
1996), is being used as an input for further collaborative work with teachers on the practical
development of project-based learning and on the enrichment of its theoretical foundation.

Mode of Inquiry
This is a case-study along the lines of what Stenhouse (1991) calls an “educative case-
study”, because the main purpose of the investigation is to improve the educational practice
and, therefore, the condition of children and the professionalism of teachers. It is a kind of
work that aims to the development of educational theory and/or the refinement of prudence,
using systematic and reflective documentation of experience.
I conducted this particular study, together with two others, during a stay in Barcelona,
Spain, taking advantage from the existence in that country of some schools and educators with
a history of pedagogical innovation around project-work.
The cases were chosen after consultation with twelve educational experts, visits to
eleven schools, participation in two educational seminars and the perusal of three pedagogical
publications (two locals and one national).
I observed the class of the teacher Laura Castell (not her real name) from the
beginning to the end of one classroom project. I took daily notes, compiled students’
productions and teacher’s handouts, videotaped two class periods and audio-recorded another
one, took photographs, and sketched a plan of the classroom. I also interviewed the teacher
both at the beginning and at the end of the experience, and interviewed three pairs of students
at the end. The teacher kindly agreed to keep a weekly diary, using forms I supplied.
I organized and interpreted the information collected thanks to issues pre and post-
generated (Eisner, 1998; Stake, 1995) and also appealing to the narrative presentation of the
whole experience, arranged in phases. In this way, I tried to make sense of the process studied
without fragmenting it, but keeping its unity and fluidity. The teacher read the complete
finished investigation and made some precise observations about it, which were taken into
account. She also expressed:
The truth is I have enjoyed reading your report, I have really felt reflected
in it my own work, the work of the school, and that of the children. (LC-comtes-
012601).
In the study there is triangulation of sources, methods and theoretical frames.
Ms. Castell teaches sixth grade in a public school, run by the Catalonian
administration. At the time of the observation (1999), Ms. Castell had 20 years of experience
at the same school, and had been working with projects for 14 years. The school is small (one
section of each grade) and the teachers work as a team, all following this approach. There
were 24 children in the class, most of them at the school since kindergarten. In this paper real
names have been replaced by pseudonyms.

Outcomes
Conception of projects at this school

3
According to Laura Castell, projects at her school are conceived as “a way to generate
knowledge through information” (LC-entr1:2). She adds:
With projects, we aim for the students to have a need to… to have
information, a need to know how to look for this information and, afterwards, how
to process this information. That is, more than anything else what is behind
[project-based learning] is a work of information processing. And to give them
[the students] resources, give them strategies, so as to be a little… uh…, to
know…, to learn by themselves. I mean, that when they need to look for some
information, when they need to learn something they do not know, they will know
how to locate information and what to do with it. (LC-entr1:3).
In this initial interview with the teacher, it is shown what was a constant in my
interchange with teachers and university professors in Barcelona: we do not completely agree
in our conception of project work. For them, projects are an activity of library research,
elaboration and synthesis. For me, as for many pedagogues, projects should go beyond that
and encompass empirical research. However, it is to be noted and valued both the teacher’s
clarity in her vision of project work, and her capacity to explain and justify her pedagogical
approach. Also, the effort of “library research” projects cannot be disregarded, as it offers the
students opportunity for developing important competencies.

Origin of the project observed


At this school, topics are usually chosen by children during several discussion
sessions, where they suggest and debate different proposals. Says one student:
The topics are chosen by children, not by teachers. (Alba, LC-alum:5).
And, in another interview, the following dialogue took place:
Aurora Lacueva (AL): [Talking with students about how to decide what to
study in a project] - How do you do to…/
Valerio: - /(Interrupting) We vote.
Elisenda: - And you also have to say why you propose a theme. That is, it
is not to say: “This theme because…” I don’t know…
AL: - Because!
Elisenda: - “…because I like it a lot”. You have to say why you like it and
how you think it could be researched. (LC-alum:10).
However, in 5th and 6th grades the teacher also puts for consideration the need to
include the study of topics required by the official elementary school curriculum. The project
of this study was chosen because pupils agreed the topic was required and they had not
considered it before. Its theme was “Relief of the Iberian Peninsula”, and included aspects of
geography, ecology and geology. Its development took eight weeks (22 class periods of 90
minutes each).
Laura asks the classroom: “Why did we make the decision to study this
project?”.
A pupil, Braulio, answers: “Because we had always done research about
animals. We said something else was necessary, we had to broaden topics”. (LC-
041299:2).
Actually, the statement of Braulio was an exaggeration: it was true that most of their
projects from first to third grades centered around animals, but later they made projects about
topics such as means of transportation, cultures of the world, puberty, and planets, among
others.

Activities
They could be classified in initial, central and final.

4
Initial Activities (3 class periods). Determination of starting point (“What we know
about the topic”) and Planning (done by children: they created a list of issues and another of
possible sources of information). These children have been developing projects since
kindergarten, and know how to make a plan for their work and what kind of sources they can
employ.
The index of the project, as they called it, resulted from collective discussion:
Relief. Different geographical features (mountains, valleys…). / Surface
waters (rivers, lakes…). / An approximation to the Cerdanya region. / Location of
great relief units.
Different landscapes. Elements which determine landscape (flora, fauna).
/ Factors which determine landscape (climate). / Ecosystems of the Iberian
Peninsula. Location. (LC-trab2A1,2,3,4-041999). (The Cerdanya region was
mentioned because it was the destination of the annual class trip).
This final collective index was much better that the first individual answers the
children gave. For example, as answer to the question “What do you think this project
entails?” Alfred M. wrote:
In this theme we can learn different mountains [sic], their height, the
different rivers, their depth, through where they run, how many kilometers of
length they have, what tributaries they have. The different lakes and reservoirs,
etc. (LC-trabA1-041299).
Central Activities (16.5 periods). In this core of the project, the teacher mixed
structured activities with short investigations and visits. She felt the need to provide some
worksheets to ensure that students would stay on track: exercises such as locating toponyms
on maps, using them in crosswords, or completing phrases with definitions of topographical
features (7 periods in total).
The main investigation, based on library research, was about one of the rivers that
cross their city. Each team elaborated a general index of this topic and then chose one aspect
for their investigation: fauna and flora, pollution, human works along the river, among others.
The teams wrote their reports and presented them to the class. In total: 5 class periods, two
weeks and a half. It was not easy for the children to locate the information needed. The school
had plenty of books, and pupils brought more from their homes, but the information they were
looking for could be scattered throughout several books or buried in a big atlas. However,
children overcame these difficulties and were able to write their reports and to add
illustrations to them (mostly reproductions). The length of these group reports ranged from
two to nineteen pages, hand-written (4 cases) or typed at the computer (2 cases). One report
could not be obtained for the study.
A sample of a page of a report (LC-LloE1-052699:sp):
Delta
As most rivers which flow into the sea, the Llobregat has a delta too.
The Llobregat delta is not very big.
Many animals, aquatic and land, live at the delta, but they cannot lead a
peaceful life due to pollution.
The delta has a very closed shape, very similar to a D.
It is one of the biggest deltas in all Catalonia, besides the delta of the Ebro.
After each oral presentation, the teacher asked three questions: “Where did you obtain
your information?”, “How did you organize your work?”, “How did you share
responsibilities?”. To the last two questions, Alba P. answered (LC-052699:3):
Well… it has been a little difficult for us. Each one brought something…
For example, Joel and I, for example, would do one topic and Georgina would
make a fair copy of it. Or else Joel and Georgina would do another topic, they

5
would look it up in the book, would summarize it and afterwards I or Valerio
would make a fair copy of it… and so on…
The other children asked questions to their classmates too, mainly about specific facts:
“What is the length of the river, I couldn’t hear it?” (LC-052699:3); “Can you repeat the
names of some river animals?” (LC-052899:2).
After the presentations, there was a class period of assessment of the work done.
I agree with one girl who said that it would have been better if each team had chosen a
different river instead of the whole class researching the same river. In fact, the teacher herself
had expressed that same idea in her diary of the week.
Another investigation, this time individual and also library based, was about a
National Park: each student chose one park and made a poster presentation about it (the
assignment was discussed during part of one period, the presentation was due a week later).
The information required was: location, some basic features, a food chain, and an image of
the national park. Most posters had good photographs, drawings and maps, a brief description
of the park and data about its animals and plants. Some of the food chains presented were
generic (plants – herbivores – carnivores). Very few posters mentioned decomposers, and
most of these confused them with carrion-eaters like vultures. Some mentioned the idea that
plants “eat soil”. It would have been important to discuss these conceptions. Although in
some cases the poster texts seemed directly copied from books and brochures, in other cases
they revealed students’ efforts of interpretation and personal expression. Other sources used:
magazines, encyclopedias, videos, CD-ROMs, Internet, relatives, personal experiences
visiting the parks.
The class also visited an exhibition about the Pyrenees in a museum.
Final Activities (2.5 periods). An exam, a personal album made with all the work
produced during the project, and the poster presentation about each National Park.

Organization of work
It was democratic: in this school children participate in classroom and school
government. This is important because projects cannot thrive in an authoritarian milieu.
Particularly worthy of mention is children’s assumed responsibility towards their own work
and behavior. For example, classroom work (even an exposition by a child) is not interrupted
if the teacher has to leave the room: a feature rarely seen in “regular” classrooms.

Resources
The school has a good stock of books and encyclopedias. Most children use Internet at
home, and they also have it at school. They also obtained information from CD-Rom
Encyclopedias at home, as well as from institutional publications, and from periodicals and
fascicles available at their own homes. The school supplied varied maps. Surprisingly, given
the topic, no videos were used.

Evaluation
Besides teacher qualitative evaluation, there was self and co-evaluation by children,
sometimes oral and in other occasions in writing. Children were careful and fair evaluators,
probably due to their experience at the school: they usually reasoned their judgments and
mentioned positive features as well as weaknesses of the work evaluated or self-evaluated.
This is how Francesc evaluated a work of his own (his mini-project about planes, see
next section):
I have done quite a good job, but the photographs [sic] are not very good,
they are drawings, and I could not find more.

6
My father helped me do the mini-project. I would give it a 7 or a 7.5. I
hope you like it. (LC-miniprojecteA8: s.p.).
And a classmate wrote about Francesc work:
The presentation is good. There are some mistakes. The texts [of each
section of the report] are very short and sometimes lack information. The index is
O.K. (Op. cit.).
On her turn, the teacher adds:
Congratulations for the external and internal presentation of your report.
I think the content could have been better. Each one of the sections is very
simple and sometimes you disregard important information (for example, at the
beginning, what you explain about Icarus is a legend).
There are a lot of spelling mistakes and some wrong words (for example:
choreography). (Op. cit. The word mentioned should have been “chronology”).

Mini-projects
In parallel with the classroom project, each student chose and developed a topic for an
individual mini-project. These turned out to be better attempts than the main project: personal,
authentic interests could be pursued, and some children made complex reports combining
empirical and library research. For example, Màrius studied geese and ducks, because he goes
frequently to a region of wetlands, and enjoys observing these birds (31 pages). Elisenda
researched her own city, Barcelona: she rode the “tourist bus”, took pictures of different sites,
visited the Museum of City History, asked for information in public offices, collected
handouts, maps, postcards, stamps, subway tickets…, and organized a very good report; as
she acknowledged, her mother, her brother and even her grandfather helped her in her
endeavors (90 pages).

Other activities
In this classroom, projects are surrounded and backed by other fruitful activities: visits
to museums, theatres and natural sites; children conferences to pupils of other grades; an
annual Book Fair (in parallel with the traditional one of the city in Sant Jordi Day);
elaboration of autobiographies by children; commentaries about a book recently read; among
other valuable initiatives. The school justly recognizes that project work is not simply a
focalized activity that can be added to a traditional school routine, but a crucial strategy in the
midst of a different kind of school life.

Conclusions and Implications


From the point of view of the teacher, Ms. Laura Castell, what worked in the
classroom project was timing and organization. She adds that although it was not an easy
topic for project-learning, because the information was mostly “conceptual” (meaning names
and definitions), she achieved an organization that balanced the nature of the information and
the method chosen to study it (LC-entr2:1-2).
From the point of view of the students, this project had a lot of names to be
remembered (mountains, rivers…). Asked about what advice could they give to children who
are starting to do project work, they said: be prepared to work in groups a lot; behave yourself
in your team, do not spend the day doing nothing; choose a big enough topic, not just “a little
thing”; choose a good topic, of interest to you; put the texts in your own words, so they can
be understood “by a child of your level”. Gerard recommended: first of all, do an index and
get organized, because it takes time to look for and to process the information, “it is not to see
and to copy”. Màrius added that you have to learn how to look for the better sources, because
“the important thing is not the presentation, but the stuffing, as I call it” (LC-alum: passim).

7
Mini-projects permit the exploration of personal interests. “It is hard, but it is fun,
more than copying from a book or just reading”, says Gerard (LC-alum: 12).
From the point of view of the researcher, the classroom project would have been more
open and fruitful if the pupils, helped by Ms. Castell, had broken the topic in different sub-
topics, interesting enough for group research and ulterior general discussion. For example:
“People and landscapes of… the Castilian plateau, the Costa Brava, the Granada
meadows…”. In this context the short guided worksheets about general concepts could have
been a useful aid and not a central part of the work.
On the other hand, the teacher thinks projects cannot include empirical research,
because generally the topics are about “far away” issues. In my view, projects could and
should combine library and empirical inquiry. In this case, for example, a field study at a
nearby location could have been a useful activity. Videos could have also contributed to
enrich printed sources and to provide raw data for analysis.
Among the relevant positive features of the project observed, it can be noted that
students made plans, searched for information in different sources, collaborated with peers,
wrote reports, communicated their results to the class, participated in classroom government,
and performed co-evaluation and self-evaluation. Thanks to mini-projects, children could
choose a topic of their particular interest, and develop an inquiry that in some cases reached
quite high marks, in terms of amount of information processed and combination of library and
empirical research. It is interesting to note that many children in this classroom see their
reports as a personal work and not just an assignment to be handed to the teacher. This can be
inferred from their self-evaluations and co-evaluations, and from the way they referred to
their reports in classroom conversation. For example, a pupil, Màrius, heard me after class
asking the teacher for a sample of students’ miniprojects, and told her: “Laura, you can lend
Aurora my report so she may copy it for her investigation”. I was surprised and ashamed: I
had forgotten to ask the children permission for photocopying and using their own work.
Raised in the “old school”, I assumed it was enough to ask for the teacher’s authorization.
Project-work is not easy: it demands study, reflection and innovation on the part of
educators. Besides, it cannot be developed fruitfully as a mere addition to a traditional school
routine: as in this school, it needs a flexible and emergent classroom planning, an organic,
naturalistic, qualitative evaluation, a democratic organization of classroom and school life,
and enough resources, together with a reasonable class size, which probably should not go
beyond 27 or 28 students.
It is not advisable to try to work exclusively through projects, other kinds of classroom
activities may be necessary. Among them, we can think of exploratory experiences (open,
diffuse), short fertile activities (more structured by the teacher, briefer), workshops
(structured, oriented towards the development of useful intellectual or manual skills) and work
with auto-instructional material (compensatory and/or enriching). Some of these activities
may be interrelated with projects, constituting a “thematic immersion” (an expression I take
from Manning, Manning and Long, 1994).
A rich school milieu, the carrying out of exploratory experiences (visits, readings,
conversations with experts, children’s conferences about issues of their knowledge…),
previous projects done, the exchange of experiences in class… all may give ideas for project-
work or, better, for thematic immersions. The children can propose, justify and select the
topics to be developed, in an orderly process oriented by the teacher.
Once the class has a topic, the investigative work has to evolve in an open but
systematic way. A sequence like the following may be a useful orientation:
- What do we know about the topic? (Classroom general discussion).
- What do we want to know about the topic? (Discussion by small teams,
followed by general sharing of questions posed).

8
- The questions generated by the children are organized in groups. Each team
chooses a group of related questions, and enriches it with new inquiries.
- Where can we look for information?
- What research activities can we develop? These two questions guide the
planning done by each team, with the help of the teacher. Both library and empirical
research are in this way combined.
- How can we communicate what we have investigated? A true researcher has to
communicate his or her results: each team has to decide how they are going to share with
others (classroom, other children of the school, parents, community or beyond, according
to the case) the products of their investigation. Communication can take many forms: a
classroom “book”, symposia, posters, comics, debates, dramatizations, itineraries or
“trails”…
The research performed in a project may be of a “scientific” nature: observations,
experiments, field studies… But in other circumstances can be technological: evaluation of
different brands of a certain product (soap, chocolate, computers…), or design and
construction of a product or process (innovative and healthy recipes, “home-made” music
instruments, successful small boats…). And a third and very important alternative is
constituted by “citizen’s action-research” projects, where children tackle social problems
related to scientific or technological topics, debate, clarify values, take decisions, make
proposals and, if possible, even put them into practice (proposals about, for example, plants
and animals in our community, the use of valuable resources like water or fuels, genetic
engineering, violence, and many others, whose range and complexity will depend on students’
age and other factors).
Science education addressed to all students has to open up to the interrelation with
technological and social issues, in an investigative and democratic school that help children
learn to problematize, to reflect, to do research, to propose, and to act with knowledge, clarity
and prudence.

Acknowledgements
Special thanks to the teacher known here as Laura Castell, her students, and the
principal of her school. Also to Rosa Llobera and Francesc Imbernon at Universidad de
Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain.

References
Brown, A. L. (1994). The advancement of learning. Educational Researcher. November: 4-
12.
Eisner, E. W. (1998). The enlightened eye. Qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of
educational practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Giordan, A. and Souchon, Ch. (1995). La educación ambiental: guía práctica. Serie
Fundamentos, No. 5. Col. Investigación y Enseñanza. Sevilla: Díada. (Translated from
original in French).
Lacueva, A. (2000). Ciencia y Tecnología en la Escuela. Caracas / Madrid: Laboratorio
Educativo / Popular.
Lacueva, A. and López, A. (1995). Investigando en la escuela: mezclas "secretas". Educación
Química. 6(2): 125-129.
Lacueva, A. and Viloria, A. (1994). Investigando en la escuela: Un día con un bebé. El
Acontista. II(7): 8-12.
Lacueva, A. and Viloria, A. (1996). Investigando en la escuela: “Venenos cercanos”.
Educación. L(178): 123-128.

9
Manning, M., Manning, G. and Long, R. (1994). Theme Immersion: Inquiry Based
Curriculum in Elementary and Middle Schools. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Marx, R. W., Blumenfeld, P. C., Krajcik, J. S. and Soloway, E. (1997). Enacting Project-
Based Science. The Elementary School Journal. 97(4): 341-358.
Short, K. G., with Schroeder, J., Laird, J., Kauffman, G., Ferguson, M. J., Crawford, K. M.
(1996). Learning Together Through Inquiry. York, Maine: Stenhouse.
Stake, R. E. (1995). The Art of Case-Study Research. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Stenhouse, L. (1991). Métodos de estudio de casos. In Husén, T. and Postlethwaite, T. N.
(eds.). Enciclopedia Internacional de la Educación. Volumen 7, pp. 3911-3916.
Madrid: M.E.C./ Vicens Vives. (Orig.: International Encyclopedia of Education.
Research and Studies. Oxford: Pergamon. 1987).

10