In: Progressive Education Across the Continents. A Handbook, ed.
Hermann Röhrs and Volker Lenhart. New York: Lang 1995. Pp. 307-318, revised version.
Reviewd in Educational Studies 27 (Spring 1996): 40-44 (John A. Beineke); History of Education Quarterly 37 (Spring 1997): 58-59 (Jurgen Herbst); Oxford Review of Education 22 (September 1996): 349-55 (Keith Sullivan).
The project is one of the standard teaching methods. It is generally considered a means by which students can (a) develop
independence and responsibility, and (b) practice social and democratic
modes of behavior. The project method is a genuine product of the
American progressive education movement. It was described in detail and
definitively delimited for the first time by William Heard Kilpatrick in
his essay, "The Project Method," which became known worldwide.
In the 1970s, it experienced a remarkable renaissance, especially in
Northern and Central Europe. Many current movements of educational
reform-the comprehensive school movement, the movement for community
education, open curriculum, and practical learning-make reference to the
project method as far as implementation of their programs is concerned.
The same is true in the U.S. with numerous approaches to revamping
education. Whenever constructivist concepts, inquiry-based learning,
problem-solving, and design are discussed in vocational and industrial
education as well as in other fields of American education, the
"project" is considered to be one of the best and most appropriate
methods of teaching. Despite a plethora of books and articles on the
topic, some important points of concern exist. In particular, the
conceptual distinction between the project and other teaching methods
remains unclear. The situation in Germany is particularly confusing. For
example, Pütt defines the project as a "methodical device," Stubenrauch as a "didactic conception," and Suin de Boutemard
as a "contrafactic idea" with which the existing capitalist system can
be overcome. Much of this confusion is attributed to the fact that the
history of the project method has, to date, been covered superficially
and contradictorily. Thus, for example, American historians regard the
agricultural expert Rufus W. Stimson with his "home project plan" of
1908 as the first project pedagogue and precursor of Kilpatrick while German historians trace the origin of the project back to the
university professors Charles R. Richards and John Dewey with their
manual and industrial arts programs of 1900.
Recently, however, historical research has made great progress in
answering the question of when and where the term "project"-"progetto"
in Italian, "projet" in French, "projekt" in German, and "proekt" in
Russian-was used in the past to denote an educational and learning
device. According to recent studies, the "project" as a method of
institutionalized instruction is not a child of the industrial and
progressive education movement that arose in the United States at the
end of the 19th century. Rather it grew out of the architectural and
engineering education movement that began in Italy during the late 16th
century. The long and distinguished history of the project method can be divided into five phases:
1590-1765: The beginnings of project work at architectural schools in Europe.
1765-1880: The project as a regular teaching method and its transplantation to America.
1880-1915: Work on projects in manual training and in general public schools.
1915-1965: Redefinition of the project method and its transplantation from America back to Europe.
1965-today: Rediscovery of the project idea and the third wave of its international dissemination.
The insight that learning through projects began three hundred years
earlier than is typically assumed opens up new perspectives for its
interpretation. Projects offer the ideal opportunity for pursuing
questions of continuity and the spread of educational innovations. These
questions are central to contemporary education reform as illustrated
in the work of Cuban, Oelkers and others.
Project Work at the Academies of Art in Rome and Paris
In the 16th century, Italian architects sought to make their
vocation "professional," no longer wishing to belong to the class of
artisans, but to be elevated to the level of artist.
The training that they traditionally received as builders or
stonemasons was not, in their view, adequate to meet the demands of art
and science as well as to enable them to design buildings that were
true, beautiful, and useful. In order to be prepared to fulfill their
professional and social ambitions, they had to establish an important
precondition. To be elevated to a profession, architecture had to
develop a theoretical foundation in order to establish the art of building
as a scholastic subject. Since this need was shared by painters and
sculptors alike, architects forged an alliance with them and founded an
art academy-the Accademia di San Luca-in Rome under the patronage of
Pope Gregory XIII in 1577. The early years, however, were quite difficult. When the academy was
first opened in 1593, a lack of rooms, curricula, and funds restricted
teaching to Sundays and public holidays.
From the outset, it was clear that training at the Academy would
necessarily remain unsatisfactory until lectures were accompanied by a
second element, namely competitions. Since the Renaissance, competition had played an important part in
building. It contributed to the establishment of architecture as an
independent profession which challenged architects to become creative
artists. The development of artistic creativity was, of course, also the
goal of academic training. Teachers gave the advanced students
challenging assignments, such as designing churches, monuments, or
palaces. These assignments introduced students to the demands of their
profession and, at the same time, enabled them to apply, independently
and creatively, the rules and principles of composition and construction
that had been acquired in lectures and workshops. The Academy's initial
competition took place in 1596, but it was not until 1702 that it was
permanently incorporated into the schoolyear calendar.
The structure of the academic competitions corresponded directly to
architectural competitions; in both cases there were assignments to be
carried out, deadlines to be kept, and juries to convince. However, in
contrast to real competitions for architectural commissions, the designs
in academic competitions were purely hypothetical tasks. For this
reason, they were called "progetti." "The projects were intended to be
exercises in imagination, since they were not intended to be built,"
observed Egbert (1980, p. 11). It was at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome that the term "project" first appeared in an educational context. However, this does not imply that the project method had emerged as a
central teaching device, since the competitions organized by Accademia
di San Luca were not viewed as an integral part of training.
Participation was open to every young architect, regardless of whether
he was a student at the Academy or not.
Patterned after the Italian model, the Académie Royale d'Architecture was founded in Paris in 1671 but the French architects did not simply replicate the Italian model.
For instance, they altered the conditions of competition, limiting
participation to registered students. The competitions also became more
frequent. In addition to the annual "Prix de Rome" competition, a
monthly "Prix d'Emulation" was also established. With the introduction
of the Prix d'Emulation, training focused on learning by projects.
Students had to complete several monthly "projets" to be awarded medals
or gain recognition. These awards were necessary in order to progress to
the master class and acquire the title of academic architect. With the Prix d'Emulation of 1763, the evolution of the project idea
into an acknowledged scholastic and teaching method was completed.
The Project at European and American Technical Universities
Learning by projects did not for long remain unique to architecture. By the end of the 18th century, the engineering profession (closely
related to architecture) had been established and was being incorporated
into the new technical and industrial colleges and universities.
Important examples include (in order of their establishment): (a) the
Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris (1829), (b) the Ducal
Polytechnic School in Karlsruhe (1833) and the Swiss Federal Institute
of Technology in Zurich (1854), and (c) the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology in Boston (1864). This transplantation of the project method
from Europe to America and from architecture to engineering had an
important influence on how the project method was used and supported
Stillman H. Robinson, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the
Illinois Industrial University at Urbana, thought (around 1870) that
theory and practice belonged together-the student must be a craftsman in
order to become an engineer. This view isolated Robinson from his colleagues in Paris,
Karlsruhe, and Boston, where the "scientific" engineer was seen as the
ideal. Students were required to learn how to apply the laws of science
and technology, and be able to develop machines, apparatuses, and
turbines. To Robinson, this was insufficient; he required his students
to carry out the "complete act of creation." This involved not only
drafting their "projects" on the drawing board, but extended to actually
constructing them in the workshop. In his report to the Board of
Trustees, Robinson observed, "In practice instruction consists mainly in
the execution of projects, in which the student is required to
construct machines, or parts thereof, of his own design and from his own
working drawings" (Illinois Industrial University,
1872-73, p. 29). Through this "construction" requirement, Robinson
wanted to achieve two purposes: enable students to become "practical"
engineers and "democratic" citizens (i.e., citizens who believed in the
equality of men and the dignity of labor).
Learning by Projects in Manual Training and the Industrial Arts
Robinson's conception, however, had one clear disadvantage. It
restricted the amount of time that remained for the students to study
and conduct research. Therefore, the engineers sought an alternative
approach. In 1876, this alternative came via the Russian display at the
Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The display also had a powerful
influence on John D. Runkle, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Calvin M. Woodward, Dean of the O'Fallon Polytechnic Institute at Washington University. Runkle and Woodward
proposed moving training in the handicrafts down from college to the
secondary school level and using the so-called "Russian system" as the
medium of instruction. Woodward, in 1879, put this proposal into practice by founding the first Manual Training School in St. Louis.
At the Manual Training School, pupils worked successively in the
carpentry shop, on the lathe, in the smithy, foundry, and machine shop.
There, in accordance with the Russian system, students became acquainted
with the art of handicrafts in two phases. First, by passing through a
series of basic exercises, they learned the "alphabet" of tools and
techniques. For example, in the machine shop they filed cubes, turned
screws, and drilled cylinders. Second, at the end of each teaching unit
and school year, they were given time to develop and carry out
"projects" independently regarded the projects as "synthetic exercises." The techniques earlier
learned in isolation (i.e., in the construction of lathes, steam
engines, or electrical apparatus), were then applied in context. Thus,
instruction was designed to progress systematically from elementary
principles to practical applications, or, in Woodward's
terms, from "instruction" to "construction." At the end of the third
year, the manual training course culminated in what was called, the
"project for graduation." As was stated in the "Ordinance establishing
the Manual Training School" of June 1879.
"Before receiving a diploma of the school, each student must execute
a project satisfactory to the faculty of the Polytechnic School. The
project consists of the actual construction of a machine. The finished
machine must be accompanied by a full set of working drawings according
to which the machine is made, and the mold used for the castings. Both
the drawings and molds had to be the work of the student. All projects
remain the property of the school." (Washington University, 1880-81, p. 50) (cf. Ham 1886, pp.100ff)
Thanks to Woodward's indefatigable efforts, the handiwork approach rapidly gained credibility and support nationwide. A decade after the foundation of the Manual Training School,
thousands of males and (since 1897) females at American high schools
participated in instruction in carpentry and ironwork, cooking, and
sewing. Manual training became so popular that, through the influence of
kindergarten educators, it was also introduced into elementary schools
in the 1890s. It was at this point that Woodward's conception was heavily criticized. A reform movement arose that was critical of using the
requirements of work and study as the primary impetus for manual
training. Rather, the view was that manual training should be based on
the interests and experience of the child. Creativity, it was stated,
was just as important as technical skills. Teaching should not only be
arranged systematically, but organized so that it proceeded from the
"psychology of the child" to the "logic of the subject." The chief
exponent of this reform movement was John Dewey, philosopher and leading
representative of pragmatism in American education. His idea of
"constructive occupations" was adopted quickly by Charles R. Richards, Professor of Manual
Training at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York.
Like Dewey, Richards thought that "construction" and, consequently,
project work should not be the final goal of the educational process.
Rather, construction should be the starting point of manual training or,
as he called the new subject, industrial arts. Children should work with "natural wholes" before dealing with
artificial parts. As they developed an understanding of tasks as a
whole, they would then be equipped to identify with their work, and
recognize and solve the identified problems. In a gentle critique of Woodward,
Richards (1901) observed that "When we take up the problem of handiwork
in this spirit, we are going to recognize that a nice sequence of
difficulties in the work may be of less importance than the question of
motive or the significance of a project to the real interest of the
particular moment" (p. 102). Children were not expected to develop the
entire plan and design for each thing done, since this would result only
in "crude projects" and "unsatisfactory work." Commenting on Dewey's
now famous sentence that "The only way to prepare for social life is to
engage in social life," Richards added (1900) "Where the project is a
common end that inspires all with a unity of thought and effort, such
work is perhaps the most natural and effective means of bringing the
community spirit and conditions into the school" (p. 256). Richards'
concept of natural and social learning was put into practice at the
Horace Mann School of the Teachers' College. On the teacher's
initiative, for instance, second grade pupils decided to carry out an
Indian project (cf. Richards 1900). They read Longfellow's poem
"Hiawatha," discussed the customs and rituals of the Indians, and
visited the Museum of Natural History. Then they constructed tents, made
costumes, and carved bows and arrows in order to live as Indians for a
day. The pupils acquired the knowledge and skills they needed to execute
the project. Thus, the "instruction" did not (as with Woodward) precede the project, but was integrated into the "constructive" project work(pp. 267ff.).
Psychologizing the Project Method by Kilpatrick
The project method attracted more adherents as the years passed, but
it triggered little attention beyond manual training and industrial
arts until Rufus W. Stimson of the Massachusetts Board of Education
began his campaign for the popularization of the "home project plan" in
agriculture around 1910. According to this plan, pupils were first presented with
theoretical knowledge (about vegetables, for instance) independently at
school, before subsequently applying it by cultivating beans, peas, or
carrots on their parents' farms. Thousands of copies of Stimson's
pamphlets were distributed by the U.S. Bureau of Education. Through
these efforts, teachers of academic subjects became familiar with the
project idea for the first time. Suddenly, the project method was
perceived to be the procedure of progressive education. It was highly
regarded as an exemplary mechanism of realizing the demands of a new
educational psychology according where children were not to be passively
stuffed full of knowledge but rather engaged in applied learning
designed to develop initiative, creativity, and judgment. To be applied more generally, however, the term "project" first
had to be redefined. This task was taken on, in particular, by William
H. Kilpatrick, philosopher of education and colleague of Richards and Dewey at Teachers College of Columbia University, through his essay, "The Project Method," in the fall of 1918.
Kilpatrick based his project concept on Dewey's theory of experience. Children were to acquire experience and knowledge by solving
practical problems in social situations. It should be noted that
Kilpatrick was heavily influenced by Edward L. Thorndike's psychology of
learning, even more than by Dewey's theory of experience.
According to Thorndike's "laws of learning," an action for which there
existed an "inclination" procured "satisfaction" and was more likely to
be repeated than an action that "annoyed" and took place under
"compulsion." From this, Kilpatrick concluded that the "psychology of
the child" was the crucial element in the learning process. Children had
to be able to decide freely what they wanted to do; the belief was that
their motivation and learning success would increase to the extent to
which they pursued their own "purposes."
Using these insights, Kilpatrick (1925) defined the project as a "hearty purposeful act" (not as a "hearty planned
act" as the German translation has it; Kilpatrick 1918, p. 320,
Kilpatrick 1935, p. 162). "Purpose" presupposed freedom of action and
could not be dictated. If, however, "the purpose dies and the teacher
still requires the completion of what was begun, then it [the project]
becomes a task"-mere work and drudgery (Kilpatrick, 1925, p. 348). Thus,
Kilpatrick established student motivation as the crucial feature of the
project method. Whatever the child undertook, as long as it was done
"purposefully," was a project. No aspect of valuable life was excluded.
Kilpatrick (1918) drew up a typology of projects ranging from
constructing a machine via solving a mathematical problem and learning
French vocabulary, to watching a sunset and listening to a sonata of
Beethoven. In contrast to his predecessors, Kilpatrick did not link the
project to specific subjects and areas of learning such as manual
training or constructive occupations; the project did not even require
active doing and participating. Children who presented a play executed a
project, as did those children sitting in the audience, heartily
enjoying it. In Kilpatrick's view, projects had four phases: purposing,
planning, executing, and judging. The ideal progression was when all
four phases were initiated and completed by the pupils and not by the
teacher (1925). Only when the pupils exercised "freedom of action" were
they able to acquire independence, power of judgment, and the ability to
act-the virtues that Kilpatrick believed were indispensable for the
maintenance and further development of democracy.
Kilpatrick's concept is usually illustrated through the "typhoid
project," a world-renowned undertaking reported by Ellsworth Collings,
(a doctoral student of Kilpatrick) in 1923. When 11 pupils from the
third and fourth grades discovered that two of their classmates had
fallen ill with typhoid, they decided to explore how the infectious
disease was caused, spread, and combated (1923). The children worked on
their own, without help and interference from their teacher or direction
from a formal lesson plan. Thanks to their research and activities, the
sick classmates recovered quickly and the community was never again
plagued by typhoid fever. While Collings' account is engaging, it is not borne out by the facts. According to reconstructions from the newspaper articles and essays Collings
published at the time, the work never took place as described (i.e.,
the sick children did not exist and the students determined neither the
project's content nor its direction). The teacher prepared the lessons
by selecting the subject matter and material and giving thought to what
questions were to be asked, what discussions would be pursued, and what
activities would be proposed. There was little of the free and
spontaneous learning that educators have admired and tried to duplicate
in their own schools for more than half a century.
Dewey's Criticism and the Return to the Traditional Concept
In the early 1920s, Kilpatrick's conception of the project attracted
attention. A growing number of teachers began to define the project
more broadly and considered it to be a viable "general" method of
teaching. However, this broad definition also faced strong resistance on
several fronts-from "conservative" as well as "progressive" educators.
It is noteworthy that John Dewey, Kilpatrick's teacher and friend,
also intervened in the discussion, criticizing his disciple's conception.
Dewey's primary objection was the one-sided orientation on the
child. In his view, pupils by themselves were incapable of planning
projects and activities-they needed the aid of a teacher who would
ensure the continuous process of learning and growth. To Dewey, the
"project" was not (as it was to Kilpatrick) to be an "enterprise of the
child," but rather a "common enterprise" of teacher and pupils. Dewey was also critical of Kilpatrick's
definition of the project as a "purposeful" activity, observing that "A
genuine purpose starts with an impulse but differs from an original
impulse and desire through its transformation into a plan and method of
action" (Dewey 1938, p. 43). It is only as the teacher convinced pupils to
abandon spontaneous behavior and go through the "complete act of
thinking"-from encountering a difficulty, via drafting a plan, to
solving the problem-could they expand their experience and broaden their
education. According to Dewey, all teaching methods were
based on scientific thought and the method of educative experience. The
project method, however, differed from the other procedures by requiring
a kind of problem-solving which-like building a boat or making a
kite-was designed to challenge and develop the constructive skills of
the pupils. Contrary to Kilpatrick, Dewey
emphasized the role of the teacher in providing guidance and direction
"It is quite true that children tend to exaggerate their powers of
execution and to select projects that are beyond them. But limitation of
capacity is one of the things which has to be learned; like other
things, it is learned through the experience of consequences. The danger
that children undertaking too complex projects will simply muddle and
mess, and produce not mere crude results (which is a minor matter) but
acquire crude standards (which is an important matter) is great. But it
is the fault of the teacher if the pupil does not perceive in due season
the inadequacy of his performances, and thereby receive a stimulus to
attempt exercises which will perfect his powers." (Dewey, 1916, p. 205)
It should be apparent that Dewey's idea of the project was
not identical to Kilpatrick's. In fact, whenever Dewey discussed the
project approach, he reverted (as did all leading American educators of
the time) to the traditional concept and sharply rejected the definition
that Kilpatrick propagated in his name. Unlike Kilpatrick, Dewey did
not regard project work as the "only way out of educational confusion"
(Dewey, 1931, p. 87). Rather, it was viewed as only one of many methods
The criticism of Dewey and other educators had a dampening effect on
the popularity of the project method. In the early 1930s, the term
"project" was used less and less in its broad sense. Even Kilpatrick
distanced himself from his own definition. In a letter to Abraham
Flexner (dated January 25, 1950 and today housed in Special Collections
at Mercer University), he admitted that he should not have connected his
notion of the "hearty purposeful act" with the traditional project
approach in 1918. "In the end [i.e., after 1927]," Kilpatrick wrote, "I
decided I had made a mistake to marry my program to the term, and I
stopped using the term as being provocative and ambiguous" (1950, p. 3).
Indeed, Kilpatrick's self-critique makes the point and is
self-explanatory. His project conception was ambiguous, since it
disregarded the conventions of language and designated the subjective
attitude of the student as an objective method of teaching. The project
conception was provocative, since it neglected the traditions of the
field and changed the project definition arbitrarily from responsible,
constructive work to hearty, purposeful activity. In its original,
narrow sense, the project has survived the years undamaged, and still
exists today. Especially in science, agriculture, and technology
education/industrial arts, American high school students have regularly
completed projects that are judged by a jury and awarded prizes and
certificates in a manner similar to the architectural competitions of
the 17th and 18th centuries.
Transplantation of the Project Idea Back to Europe
By the dawn of the 20th century, the United States had been firmly
established as a world power. Her influence was noticeable not only in
politics and trade, but also in education. Like Europe, America had
become an important exporter of innovative and progressive educational
ideas. The project method, principally in the broad version of Dewey and
Kilpatrick, as it was repeatedly and wrongly said, was discussed in
Canada, Argentina, Britain, Germany, India, and Australia. The center
of the discussion, however, was in Russia where, since the revolution of
1917, substantial effort had been invested in developing progressive
alternatives to the bourgeois and capitalist methods of teaching through
lectures and books. In the early 1920s, project work was introduced and promoted to
Russian educators, primarily by Lenin's wife and colleague Nadezhda K.
Krupskaya. Somewhat later (around 1930), it acquired eminent importance
when Victor N. Sulgin, head of the Institute of Educational Research in
Moscow, proclaimed his concept "withering away of the school" and
declared the "metod proektov" to be the one and only truly "Marxist" and
"democratic" method of teaching (Holmes,
1991, p. 123). According to Sulgin, the project was the ideal approach
to combining theoretical insights with revolutionary practice, and to
accelerating the transition from capitalism to communism. In contrast to
bourgeois schooling, teaching in the proletarian state extended beyond
stringing together abstract subject matter. Rather, it consisted of an
unbroken sequence of projects where the pupils would acquire, by
productive work, the knowledge with which they could spur on the
political and economic development of the Soviet Union. Thus, fifth
grade students were encouraged to go to factories and support workers in
their fight to fulfill production and financing plans. This was
accomplished by writing reports on the heroes of labor, demonstrating
against idlers, and exhibiting workpieces and products of their own.
Sulgin's proposals were initially discussed at specially-convened
pan-Russian "project conferences" and then were formalized into a
comprehensive national "project curricula".
However, the new curricula had just been passed when the Central
Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union intervened. In a
resolution dated September 5, 1931, the highest decision-making body in
the country condemned the "ill-considered craze for the project method" (Anweiler,
1978, p. 431), declaring that the project was not suited for teaching
the knowledge and skills necessary to increase industrial production and
strengthen communist consciousness. Indeed, there was considerable risk
that, through the fusion of instruction and work, progress achieved in
the field of general and scientific education in recent years would be
jeopardized. This governmental resolution brought the discussion of the
project method to an abrupt halt. Like progressive education as a whole,
the project method was no longer on the agenda of the educational
theory debate, either in the Soviet Union or in the countries that were
to come under Soviet domination in Eastern Europe after World War II.
Renaissance of the Project Method in the 1960s
In contrast to its Eastern European neighbors and after the end of
the Hitler dictatorship, Western Europe went through a phase of
restoration. The ideas that had flourished during the period between the
wars emerged once again. Progressive methods of teaching became viable
options in discussions of school reform, on both historical and
conceptual grounds. In the late 1960s, the situation once again changed radically.
Students not only protested against imperialism, capitalism, and
authoritarianism, but also rebelled against structures of repression and
domination which were perceived to be at the heart of academic
institutions (personified in college and university administrators).
Projects emerged as an alternative to traditional lecture and seminar
formats. They were viewed as a form of learning through inquiry and were
promoted for their practical relevance, interdisciplinarity, and social
bearing. The project idea spread quickly from the universities to the
schools, and from Western Europe throughout the world; but the center
and focus of this third great wave of project discussion was and
remained in Germany.
The uniqueness of the German situation during the period between the
wars was that her educational reformers were suspected of having paved
the way for Fascism and National Socialism. Their proposals for educational innovations were
largely rejected in the 1960s and 1970s in favor of American progressive
education movement concepts. With Dewey and Kilpatrick's project
method, many of the new reformers believed that they had found the
mechanism for the democratic and libertarian transformation of school
and society. However, their appropriation of American models was only
fragmentary. From Dewey's formula of "education for democracy" and
Kilpatrick's slogan of "hearty purposeful activity," they concluded that
all actions could be classified as projects as long as they satisfied
the criteria of self-determination and self-satisfying needs. When the
realities associated with imparting systematic knowledge and skills
through independent project work emerged, the new reformers developed a
more differentiated approach. On typical, routine school days, a reduced
form of project-oriented teaching was used; but on special occasions
(e.g., before public holidays and vacations), an ideal form of project
teaching was employed. Implementing this ideal form consisted of special
project days and project weeks during which the normal curriculum and
the teacher's "planning monopoly" were suspended. During project weeks, the process was sometimes so open that
virtually anything the pupils fancied, from making cider to staging
peace demonstrations, qualified as a project. This project euphoria soon
evaporated. Since the 1980s, much of the sharp disparity between the
standard course of instruction and the project method has been resolved.
Currently, substantial effort is being directed toward harmonizing
project work with more conventional methods of teaching.
The development of the term "project," within its broader conceptual
and historical contexts, extends its customary interpretation. As a
result, traditional historiography should be modified in the following
1. The "project" is a concept dating from the 17th and 18th
centuries, belonging in the same category as the "experiment" of the
natural scientist, the "case study" of the jurist, and the "sand-table
exercise" of the staff officer. Like the experiment, the case study, and
the sand-table exercise, the project method has its origin in the
professionalization of an occupation. It was introduced in the
curriculum so that students could learn at school to work independently
and combine theory with practice. In contrast to experiment, case study,
and sand-table exercises, the project method is not a matter of
empirical, hermeneutical, or strategic studies, but of "construction"
(i.e., designing a house, building a playground, or producing a
2. The two basic models of the project method still used today were
already developed in the 19th century. According to the older model
(e.g., Woodward) students first learn, in a course of instruction, the skills and
knowledge that they then apply independently and creatively in the
practical project. According to the more recent model (e.g., Richards),
the project is moved from the end of the unit to the center of teaching,
in accordance with the fundamental idea of the new psychology that
"natural wholes" must be the subject of learning if valuable interests
and insights are to be developed. Here, the course of instruction does
not precede the project, but is integrated into it.
3. At the beginning of the 20th century, a movement arose among
American progressive educators (e.g., Kilpatrick) that attempted to
replace (a) the traditional narrow definition of the project with a new,
broad one, and (b) "constructive" activity with "purposeful" action as
the crucial feature of the project method. This new definition was
unable to gain ascendancy in the United States, but in other countries
it was accepted as an innovation and a truly democratic achievement,
with the paradoxical result that in Europe today the broad "American"
concept predominates, while in America the narrow "European" approach
plays the leading role.
The history of the project method makes it clear that the
progressive education movement at the turn of the century represented
only one, and not even the most important, international reform movement
in modern times. Unlike Cremin (1961) and Röhrs
(1977), for example, we cannot simply regard the 19th century as
"prehistory" and the 20th century simply as "post history." We must,
with Jurgen Oelkers
(1996), see progressive education as part of a continuous, albeit
differentiated, development springing from definite social and
educational needs and reaching from the 17th century up to the present.
Only from this broad perspective can industrial education-like
professional and vocational education as a whole-be properly perceived
as a fecund source of modern progressive educational practices. However, the history of the project method also illustrates how
necessary it is to embed current thinking about educational reform
within a historical context. Otherwise, as Cuban (1990) and Tyack and Cuban
(1995) have correctly observed, reform moves from initiative to
initiative without a clear understanding of why they dissipate and
vanish. The results are frequently disappointing and meaningless. In the
case of the project approach, a specific and indispensable method of
teaching is turned by Kilpatrick and his followers into a general and
blurred philosophy of education (Katz & Chard 1989).
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