Project-based Learning discussion 1

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The discussion below, on project-based learning and constructivism (see constructivist theory), was held on the NIFL-4 EFF discussion list [ ] in January and February, 2001.

Date: Tue, 2 Jan 2001 09:36:19 -0500 (EST)
From: "Ronna G. Spacone" <>
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1316] Resources for Project Learning

Happy New Year...

In her Dec 19 posting [4EFF:1311]* Bonnie Odiorne wrote:
I feel that project learning would definitely be the direction to take to most effectively implement the 'spirit' of Equipped For the Future (EFF) as well as the ultimate assessment value...[But] I am far from coming up with specific projects, let alone the necessary matrices for assessment, and would be grateful for suggestions about web sites or personal experiences such as those described in the Standards book.

NIFL-4EFF Colleagues, what's your view of project learning, as the "direction to take" to implement EFF? What experiences can you share? Any specific projects?

If project learning is happening where you work, how do you incorporate student goals into the project? What mechanisms have you built in so that students relate what they're doing to the various elements of the EFF Framework and to their lives? How do incorporate the components of performance of the EFF standards into the activities?

What other resources - relevant to project learning - can you recommend?

Here's one I like: The "Civic Participation and Community Action Sourcebook: A Resource for Adult Educators". It's online at: . This 1999 book published by the New England Literacy Resource Center and edited by Andy Nash tells 20 stories about civic participation. These include a wide range of issues from finding a class project and goal-setting to meeting with legislators and advocating for adult education funding. Preparation activities accompany each article. The source-book also contains an extensive webliography and an appendix of human rights and civics documents. While many of the articles deal with ABE/GED learners and teachers, the themes and activities can be adapted for ESL classes. A number of EFF field development partners contributed to this resource. In the text (which pre-dates the publication of the EFF Content Standards) each section opens with a list of the EFF skills and activities that are addressed in that chapter.



Ronna G. Spacone
NIFL-4EFF List Moderator

  • The 4EFF book group's discussion of chapter 3 from the Standards book did not happen as planned and the group has dispersed.

Visit the Equipped for the Future web site at:

Date: Wed, 3 Jan 2001 11:36:33 -0500 (EST)
From: Jane Meyer <> (by way of "Ronna G. Spacone" <>)
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1319] Re: Resources for Project Learning

Ronna G. Spacone wrote:

NIFL-4EFF Colleagues, what's your view of project learning, as the "direction to take" to implement EFF? What experiences can you share? Any specific projects? If project learning is happening where you work, how do you incorporate student goals into the project? What mechanisms have you built in so that students relate what they're doing to the various elements of the EFF Framework and to their lives? How do incorporate the components of performance of the EFF standards into the activities?

Ronna, we use project learning in our Even Start project all the time and love it! Our classes are multilevel so we usually choose projects that can be done at a variety of levels. Our students just finished a unit on cultural heritage where their project was to write a book for their children with a message about their family heritage. Some students wrote only 1 or 2 sentences per page and others wrote paragraphs, but all followed the components of performance for the standard Convey Ideas in Writing. First students read other children's books about the author's heritage and discussing what message the author was trying to convey and how he/she organized the book to convey the information for the intended audience. This helped them focus on the first 2 components of performance:
1) determine the purpose for communicating and
2) organize and present the information to serve the purpose, content, and audience.

Then, before and as they wrote, lessons were given individually or in small groups as needed about conventions in the English language which is the third component of performance for the standard convey ideas in writing. Finally they sought feedback (the last component of performance) from classmates using a proofreading sheet they had created and talked with each other about how well they delivered their messages and what revisions would make the book more effective before the final feedback from their own children.

Sometimes we choose large projects that incorporate several different activities so that students can work on the part of the project that fits their goals. A project to make first aid kits for each of our adult ed. classrooms began with everyone working on the standard plan to organize the project and then progressed to some students who had math goals working on the budget and comparison pricing (using the standard use math to solve problems and communicate) while other students who had reading goals worked on the standard research to determine what to put into the kits. Later some students with writing goals wrote up instructions and a student interested in becoming more proficient on the computer did the layout and typing of the document. We could have carried it farther by giving oral presentations when we delivered the kits if we had had students interested in improving their speaking skills. Students chose which parts of the project they wanted to work on based on what would help them meet the goals they had set for themselves.

We find students are more motivated when we do project-based learning. Because in real life skills are layered students have a chance to focus on one skill, but also practice other skills at the same time. The trick is to find projects that are meaningful for the students. The best way is for the students to suggest the projects which sometimes they do, but more often they need encouragement. Sometimes if you can get students talking or reading about an issue or an idea they get fired up and want to do something. If all else fails we give them choices of projects so at least they have some say in the project.

My suggestions for those starting with project-based learning are:
1) Start with smaller, shorter, more controlled projects until staff and students feel comfortable.
2) Work toward student ownership/control of the project.
3) Consider (with the students) whether you are looking for process or product or some combination of both.
4) Look at the EFF framework and see how the project connects (which will help connect the project to student goals) and then plan the project focusing on one or more of the EFF standards making sure to include all of the components of performance for the standard in the project.
5) As students become more self directed help staff to understand their new role to be one of observing and identifying learning opportunities, then facilitating that learning.

Jane Meyer, coordinator
Canton, Ohio ABLE

Date: Wed, 3 Jan 2001 12:48:11 -0500 (EST)
From: "Ronna G. Spacone" <>
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1320] Definition of Project Learning

Hi Everyone:

I've received a question from a subscriber about how I'm using the term "project learning" as it relates to yesterday's message, Resources for Project Learning [NIFL-4EFF:1316]. Good question and thanks for asking...

I use "project" as it's defined in the EFF Assessment Report: How Instructors can Support Adult Learners Through Performance- Based Assessment by Sri Ananda: "A project is an in-depth, hands-on exploration of a topic, theme, idea, or activity, resulting in a product, performance, or event for assessment" (page 11).

And here's a definition for "project-based learning" that I found in the ERIC Digest, Project-Based Learning for Adult English Language Learners by Donna Moss and Carol Van Duzer: "Project-based learning is an instructional approach that contextualizes learning by presenting learners with problems to solve or products to develop."

Hope this helps. If anyone has other questions or something to add, please holler back.


Ronna G. Spacone
NIFL-4EFF List Moderator

Date: Wed, 3 Jan 2001 20:21:26 -0500 (EST)
From: Susan Finn <> (by way of "Ronna G. Spacone" <>)
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1322] Re: Resources for Project Learning

Hello, friends,

"Ronna G. Spacone" <> wrote:

If anyone has other questions or something to add, please holler back.

In addition to the great resources Ronna already mentioned about Project Based Learning, the December, 1998, issue of Focus on Basics is devoted to this topic. This FOB issue includes an article by Andrea Nash on the Voter Education, Registration, and Action (VERA) project, an article by Susan Gaer, "Less Teaching and More Learning," and one by Heide Spruck Wrigley, "Knowledge in Action: The Promise of Project-Based Learning," among others. You can check out this and all the issues of Focus on Basics at

Susan Finn Miller
Southeast Professional Development Center
Lancaster, PA

Date: Thu, 4 Jan 2001 21:31:02 -0500 (EST)
From: "Meta W Potts" <> (by way of "Ronna G. Spacone" <>)
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1325] Re: Benefits of Project-based learning

May I add something more about the benefits of project-based learning?

Jane Meyer mentioned that the students in the Akron program enjoy the projects; therefore, they have better attendance and stay in the programs longer. I hear this from every teacher with whom I discuss the benefits of project-based learning. Jane also said that the teachers have found that the most successful projects are student initiated. In my opinion, that's the only way to go. When I was observing classrooms, I heard many times about projects that had fallen flat; students refused to become or remain involved. These were always the projects that teachers thought the students should do.

Well designed and well executed projects begin with students' goals and expect that learners will take responsibility for their own learning, share the planning, the decision making, and the control of the activities, as well as the assessment. These projects keep learners engaged longer, sustaining their performance over time, extending their learning from input to output. The projects generally include two critical attributes of quality education: to acquire a sense of mastery and a sense of service.

We collected many examples of outstanding projects during the early phases of EFF development. One of the most unusual took place on an Indian Reservation in Northern Arizona, where gardens are hard to plant and even harder to maintain. The students in a family literacy program voiced their desire to raise their own vegetables, and the end result was a green house, full of delicious and beautiful home-grown and healthy plants. In the spring, during a bad wind and hail storm, the green house was destroyed. But not to be defeated, the project-minded class made plans, raised money, bought more materials and built another greenhouse--bigger, stronger and open to the community. They began with the Parent/Family Member Role Map as their guiding principle: Meet Family Needs and Responsibilities, focusing on the Key Activity--Manage Family Resources, which led them to the Common Activity of Manage Resources. By the time the project was completed, they had worked within the entire EFF Framework in a culturally relevant experience.

Meta Potts
Glendale, Arizona

Date: Fri, 5 Jan 2001 11:11:58 -0500 (EST)
From: (Patte Bowman) (by way of "Ronna G. Spacone" <>)
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1328] project-based learning

I agree with Meta about the importance of project ideas to come from the learners. I think this is one of the ways that adult education is different from childhood education. Adults do not like to be told what they should do or should know. The trick is for teachers to know how to facilitate the planning of a project with students. This would include giving up some control about what happens in the classroom and letting students make decisions about what they will accomplish, what resources they will need, how they will carry out their plan, and how they will reflect and evaluate as they proceed and upon completion of the project. This also gets around the issue many teachers have about not having enough time to plan so many different projects. When the planning process is part of instruction, it does not require a lot of extra time outside the classroom.

Patte Bowman
Staff Development Specialist
Center for Adult Learning & Literacy
5766 Shibles Hall
University of Maine
Orono, ME 04469-5766
207-581-2498 ext. 15
207-487-4769 home

Date: Fri, 5 Jan 2001 15:28:52 -0500 (EST)
From: "Carolyn Talarr" <> (by way of "Ronna G. Spacone" <>)
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1330] Re: Benefits of Project-based learning

Re participatory, project-based learning:

I'd just like to add that this methodology is close to what's called unschooling, as formulated by John Holt (and developed by many others). While the ethics and benefits of helping *adults* learn what they want to learn are more easily discernible, many unschooling parents believe that it's the most respectful, empowering, (and productive) approach to facilitating *childrens'* learning as well.

Carolyn Talarr
'unschooling parent' on hiatus from the field

Date: Sun, 7 Jan 2001 23:49:56 -0500 (EST)
From: (by way of "Ronna G. Spacone" <>)
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1338] project-based resources

Here are some resources related to projects my class has produced over the years.

A project-based description: (at the bottom of this list are some other links)

An article on projects I wrote for NCSALL:

A student generated project website from my class.


Anson Green

Date: Tue, 23 Jan 2001 15:37:57 -0500 (EST)
From: "Ronna G. Spacone" <>
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1353] Resources for Constructivism

NIFL-4EFF Colleagues:

Constructivist learning is one characteristic to look for in a program that effectively implements Equipped for the Future. What is constructivist learning? Well, here's a bit about it I found in the constructivism pages of the University of Colorado at Denver School of Education's web site:

"Constructivist learning is based on students' active participation in problem-solving and critical thinking regarding a learning activity, which they find relevant and engaging. They are 'constructing' their own knowledge by testing ideas and approaches based on their prior knowledge and experience, applying these to a new situation, and integrating the knowledge gained with preexisting intellectual constructs.

The student is pursuing a problem or activity by applying approaches her or she already knows and integrating those approaches with alternatives presented by other team members, research sources, or current experience. Through trial and error, the student then balances pre-existing views and approaches with new experiences to construct a new level of understanding.

The teacher is a facilitator or coach in the constructivist learning approach. The teacher guides the student, stimulating and provoking the student's critical thinking, analysis and synthesis throughout the learning process. The teacher is also a co-learner."

This web site is located at:

I wondered...does anyone have other resources on constructivism to share here? Also, I'm looking for some real life examples illustrating constructivism in practice. Does anyone have an anecdote or any insights to share about implementing constructivist instruction?

Finally, are there any questions among us about constructivist instruction happening in a program that also implements EFF? If yes, I propose we share and discuss them here.


Ronna G. Spacone
NIFL-4EFF List Moderator
Phone: 202.338.2703

Visit the EFF Special Collection at:

Date: Thu, 25 Jan 2001 18:28:59 -0500 (EST)
From: (Evelyn Beaulieu) (by way of "Ronna G. Spacone" <>)
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1354] Re: Resources for Constructivism


Thank you for your information on the web site for information on constructivist learning. The Maine EFF team has as a common goal to learn more about constructivist theory and to develop a common definition among us. We have chosen the book, The Case for Constructivist Classrooms by Brooks and Brooks, to read as a team. I found a review of their book on the web site and will use it for our kickoff of our online discussion. I have volunteered to facilitate our online discussion and you may be hearing from some of your Maine colleagues on constructivist learning in future dates.

After we have a common definition of constructivist theory we may be able to answer your request for real life examples of constructivism in practice.

Thank you again for the resource,

Evelyn Beaulieu

Evelyn Beaulieu, Director
Center for Adult Learning and Literacy
5766 Shibles Hall, UM
Orono, ME 04460
(207) 581-2498

Date: Tue, 6 Feb 2001 07:58:38 -0500 (EST)
From: Jenny Ransone <> (by way of "Ronna G. Spacone" <>)
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1365] Project based learning

I've been looking at examples of project based units and it seems to me that a lot of what I've looked at are projects that could be picked up and placed in a high school or even middle school curriculum. It made me wonder.....

What is the difference between project based activities appropriate for traditional classrooms, for example secondary education, and adult classrooms? Is there a difference, and, if so, what makes them different?

In addition, what elements make the project Equipped for the Future (EFF)?


Jenny Ransone
Adult Learning Center
Franklin, IN

Date: Mon, 12 Feb 2001 22:00:45 -0500 (EST)
From: Jane Meyer <> (by way of "Ronna G. Spacone" <>)
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1370] re: Project based learning

On 2/6, Jenny Ransone wrote: What is the difference between project based activities appropriate for traditional classrooms, for example secondary education, and adult classrooms? Is there a difference, and, if so, what makes them different? In addition, what elements make the project EFF?


I think many projects suitable for high school classrooms would also be good for adult classrooms as long as they are purposeful for the adult students. That is do they pertain to real life interests/needs that the adults in the classroom have in their roles as family members, citizens, and workers. Why reinvent when you don't need to.

As far as what makes the project EFF:

In addition to being purposeful and framed in the context of the roles EFF projects are built around an EFF standard.

Our program used project based learning long before we ever heard of EFF. The difference I see now is structure. This is very comforting to students and teachers (and administrators). Before we always wondered were our projects "covering" the right things. Now we use an EFF standard to plan and organize the project. For example we have always taught teamwork by having the students work as a group to do a service project at their children's school (the projects varied from year to year depending on the needs and interests of the group). Before EFF we would just discuss the project and who would do what and give a pep talk on working together as a team and then we would do the project and debrief on how well we worked together. (I see now that we weren't very clear with the students about exactly what it meant to cooperate) Now we show the students the standard "cooperate with others" first and talk about what it means to cooperate

The components of performance for the standard tell us that cooperating means: 1. Interact in ways that are friendly, courteous and tactful and that demonstrate respect for others' ideas, opinions and contributions. 2. Seek input from others in order to understand their actions and reactions. 3. Offer clear input on own input and attitudes so that others can understand one's actions and reactions. 4. Try to adjust ones actions to take into account the needs of others and/or the task to be accomplished.

As they discuss the standard we have the class develop a checklist to evaluate how well they cooperate. They list ideas from the components of performance of the standard, sometimes rephrasing them in words they understand better. Then we might talk about times in our lives when teamwork has broken down. Why? Which ideas from our list were missing in these circumstances and how did it affect the outcome? We might ask the students to do a little self assessing at this point. Which of these ideas do they do regularly? sometimes? rarely? During conversation usually students will realize something about the way they cooperate.

One student once said she thought she cooperated well because she never argued or disagreed. Now she realized that she never gave any input which actually weakened the team process she thought she was strengthening by keeping quiet. We might do some learning activities in the classroom depending on the students needs. Perhaps something on strategies for seeking input such as brainstorming, debate, or voting. Then we would organize and do the project. The debriefing afterwards would focus on the student created list based on the components of performance for the standard for cooperate with others.

Now that the students know specifically what they are supposed to do you can imagine the project. You hear students asking a quiet student "what do you think" and you hear students laughing as they practice offering comments that are obviously courteous and tactful. The end result for getting the project done was the same before and after we began using EFF, but how much the students learned about teamwork (which was the whole reason we did the project) was much greater when we framed the project around the EFF standard.

So, try looking at one of those projects someone else created through the lens of an EFF standard!

Jane Meyer
Canton City Schools ABLE

Date: Tue, 13 Feb 2001 10:00:38 -0500 (EST)
From: Ann Marie Barter <> (by way of "Ronna G. Spacone" <>)
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1371] Re: Project based learning

I'd like to respond to Jenny Ransone's recent posting where she asks "What is the difference between project based activities appropriate for traditional classrooms, for example secondary education, and adult classrooms? Is there a difference, and if so, what makes them different? In addition, what elements make the project Equipped For the Future (EFF)?"

I have been incorporating project based learning in our ABE and High School Diploma curriculum for the past five years. I cannot speak directly to the difference between secondary ed projects vs. adult classrooms, but I am assuming when you use the term "traditional classroom" you imply teacher-centered where the teacher decides the project, the time frame, and ultimately the criteria for assessment.

As part of EFF implementation in our program, I experimented with project-based learning for the first time by having the adult learners brainstorm an activity that would result in something meaningful and valuable to them. They were enrolled in a family literacy program where they were working towards a HSD or GED and also taking a parenting class. They decided that whatever they did should link their skill building in reading/writing with parenting. They went home and each brainstormed ideas and brought them in the next day. They shared ideas, combined a couple, and decided to make a book of activities they could do with their children over the summer. They proceeded to talk about what it would include, divide up work assignments, and make phone calls to get information about area museums, parks, etc. One student brought in a book she had and we gathered other such books to use as a model for organization, design, etc. (this phase of course meant a trip to the library!) I also asked them to create a plan for completing the project which included the steps to complete it and various deadlines along the way. We looked at everyone's individual plan and made a class plan that we hung on the wall and checked off steps as we completed them.

Fairly early in the process, Donna Curry (now the Publications Coordinator at the EFF National Center) came to the class and guided us through an activity to help students develop criteria by which they would later assess the final product. We used that guide throughout the project and learners repeatedly referred to it, especially if there was confusion about the direction of the project, or someone trying to move in a different direction from the plan. At this stage of EFF development, we had standards, but the components of performance weren't completed yet, so I was mindful of the skills being targeted and used within the design of the project.

Near the end of the project one of the students asked what if the activities really weren't interesting to kids of certain ages? One of the parents had a child at Headstart and we got permission to have an activity day at the Headstart center so the learners in my class could test out some of the games and crafts they had included in the book. They also developed a survey to attach to the back of the book to get feedback from readers. Upon completion, the learners assessed their book using their criteria and they also assessed their individual and group performance using the EFF framework to identify new skills they gained and others they improved. I asked them to write about using those skills outside of the Learning Center and more than one student had included skills they gained in this process on a resume they later wrote with our career counselor.

I have since facilitated many other projects with students over the years and these are the elements that I see make them EFF-friendly:

1) The students decide on the project and the plan. I see it as my role to facilitate the process and create opportunities for learners to gain or improve skills throughout the project. They are using thinking, decision-making, math, technology and communication skills as well as the intended outcome of improving reading and writing.

2) The project is relevant and meaningful to the learners' lives. An arbitrary assignment from me would not have resulted in the level of investment, effort, persistence and pride that learners dedicated to this project because they had ownership of it.

3) The target is clear and the steps to get there are obvious and intentional. The EFF framework takes away the need for learners to be telepathic in order to achieve some nebulous goal or figure out "what the teacher wants" in terms of assessment.

4) The activities in the project mirror skills learners require outside of the learning environment. It is easy for learners to see where and how to transfer this skill because the skill is linked to a purposeful task.

And finally, Anne Davies says that "the person working the hardest is learning the most". An EFF-friendly project offers the learners the rich opportunity to build all these skills and for the teacher to guide, facilitate, and monitor the process, but not "do" the project. It is a different kind of work for me and it is still work. However, by sharing the work and assuming that the learners are capable of doing it, which they most definitely are, it means I do less.

Ann Marie Barter
ABE Coordinator
Windham, ME

Date: Tue, 13 Feb 2001 17:02:10 -0500 (EST)
From: donna curry <> (by way of "Ronna G. Spacone" <>)
Subject: [NIFL-4EFF:1376] Re: Project based learning

Hi Jenny and others,

Off the top of my head, I can think of several things that differentiate the project-based units you find in high school and middle school curriculum from projects developed for our adult learners:

1 - Projects for junior and high school kids are just that - for kids; often curriculum materials are designed to help kids develop skills and knowledge that they may need for the future, not for their present situation;

2 - Already designed projects do not take the needs and goals of learners into consideration;

3 - Ready-made projects usually don't offer clear assessment strategies - which should be based on learner needs;

4 - A ready-made project chosen by the teacher may be exciting for him or her, but without the learners' input, it's hard to say whether they'd be interested in it or not. The learners need to see the value of the project; they need to understand how the project connects to their goals.

Having said all that, I do believe that ready-made projects can serve a useful purpose in adult education classes. If a teacher has relied on text- or workbooks as the driver of the curriculum, a ready-made project may be a starting point. Before choosing an activity or project, however, I think it's important to discuss with learners the purpose of the activity. Have them help design criteria for what the final product will look like. What skills will they be working on and how will those skills be assessed? Have the learners develop a plan with clear expectations. Have them think about how the activity will help to develop skills and knowledge that are transferable to their adult roles. Adapting an existing project is a positive way to move from dependence on workbooks.


Donna Curry
Publications Coordinator
EFF National Center

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