Working with children on a project has been a most rewarding experience. It may start off with a stray incident that someone quotes, or some striking observation someone has made or, very simply, with the desire of the group to work on a partiqllar topic. But the intrinsic quality of working on projects is the beauty with which it unfolds! Over the years, I have made a few discoveries that I would like to share. To begin with, it is important to have a broad based curriculum. If one is interacting with the group of students for the first time, it is a good idea to keep project work for the later part of the term. The first term with a new group is a time for us to get to know each other. Familiarity with the group, their interests and passions, their likes and dislikes, their strengths and areas of difficulty go a long way in moulding the direction of project work.
Along with broad based objectives, a well planned time schedule helps in enhancing the quality of work. Sharing ideas and working out the plan with the students improves participation and gives them a sense of responsibility. While allowing freedom for expression of ideas, it is crucial that the adult holds the 'thread' very firmly.
In general, project work serves several aims and purposes. Some of these are outlined and discussed below, with relevantexamples.
§ Projects create a broad base for learning. This may call for integration of subjects, e.g., Mathematics and History, Geometry and Geography. In the thematic approach teachers handling various subjects choose one area of study that is closely associated with a theme. Thus, learningbecomes more holistic and integrated.
§ Projects allow the child to explore his area ofinterest and study it with greater intensity. Once the basic concepts necessary for the understanding of a given topic have been introduced, children should feel free to choose an area of interest they would like to work on. Since each child is unique, the project approach allows the child to exercise his imagination and contribute his ideas. A class has its unique blend of persons - the reporter, the poetess, the musician, the artist, the craftsperson, the academician, the manager, the observer and the actor! The project can accommodate the unique contribution of each child.
§ Projects involve creating space and organizing time for exploration, investigation and inquiry. Project work needs to be spread at least over 2-3 months, and sometimes, even through the term. This allows each child to work at his own pace without feeling left behind. The ones who are capable can be further challenged, and stretched to put in their best. The children may thus work without comparison.
§ Projects foster team work, involvement and a sense of responsibility. Some children find it convenient to work individually, especially the ones who are academically comfortable. But helping children understand the importance of allocating work promotes cooperation amongst them. Children can be encouraged to be sensitive to the needs of others. Often one sees the entire group working together. Sharing work is as important as fulfilling a responsibility. The child needs to see the importance of both while working together.
§ Projects enable the teacher to discover with the child newer and fresher approaches to learning. Children are very imaginative and spontaneous. When given the freedom to explore and investigate, analyse and interpret data, we find children use different ways of doing this - ranging from the very simple logical style to a very refreshing and original way of looking at things.
§ Projects can establish a foundation for later abstract learning. The project approach equips children with all the basic skills and a clear understanding of concepts for learning at higher levels. One example is the use of 'time charts' to lay the foundation for later learning of history. One could compare the child's own 'time chart', beginning with the year of her birth, to that of world events. Then important events are marked on both and relevant questions raised. An interview conducted with parents, grand-parents and other adults would provide significant data. An extension of this iqea which children have immensely enjoyed is to write a letter to a person of the 'future'. Some children invented scripts (e.g., pictograms) to be protected against the ravages of time by burying them in non-biodegradable containers!
§ Projects can encourage diverse styles of presentation. Gathering data and information is important. But the emphasis needs to be focussed on how the child is able to apply what he has learnt. It helps to start off by suggesting a few ideas that are unique. Then the class is abuzz. Each one tries to come up with something new. Some of the modes of presentation have included writing poetry, dramatization, art work, pottery, role-play, singing, mapdrawing, creative writing, and reading reports. When the approach is multisensory, children absorb concepts in a medium that is comfortable for them - especially valuable when dealing with children who have difficulties in learning through just the printed format. It also serves as an objective review for the teacher on the individual child's level of understanding.
§ Projects can be shared with the whole school. Children always look forward to sharing their learning with the others in school whether it is a simple presentation or an item for the cultural evening. Over the years, they have come up with fantastic ideas. Here are some examples:
- What began as a story session in Greek mythology in a history class led to the writing of an original script, choreography and the presentation of a 30-minute musical play. It included a torch dance.
- One group of students had great difficulty in creative writing. They wouldn't go beyond 10 lines at the Class 6 level. We began with a game on exploring words. Someone started with the word 'air'. What we had at the end of six weeks were excellent pieces of poetry on the five elements and a dance/poetry presentation.
- Preparing and using Braille maps have sensitized children to the difficulties of the visually-impaired. This became an absorbing activity for understanding 'location' through simple blind-folding. It was followed by collage work in mapping.
Over the years, I have discovered some simple ways of how to go about the project approach to learning in the middle school. Here are some specific suggestions.
- Initiate the idea with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is contagious. Whenever I have begun with vigour and rigour, children have accompanied me all the way.
- Discuss the theme with the class, and get them to commit themselves totally.
- Render help with reference work. Coordinating with the librarian is an absolute must. When personnel in the library are involved, children receive support and guidance from more than one adult.
- Suggest various techniques and, methods of presentation; discuss various types of charts - the overlay chart (especially interesting for geography and biology projects), flashcards, flannelograph, roller-boards all of which make excellent visual aids.
- Allow the child to present in a style with which he is comfortable. Some prefer report-writing, some believe in drawing and sketching. The more imaginative ones may present a cartoon strip, others preferring poetry and lyrics.
- Supervise and guide the child throughout. Project work can become an intense activity or can be treated extremely lightly. One has to ensure that all are at work. It requires a lot of hard work and effort on the part of the teacher. To this, there is no alternative.
- Take each day as it comes. Though it is extremely important to set targets, one needs to be flexible about day to day achievements. Project work can be mind-boggling and confusing. At the beginning, when all the children demand my attention at the same time, I feel completely lost and helpless. Invariably the noise level is also very high, since the atmosphere is charged . with enthusiasm and excitement. It has helped me to share my 'helplessness' with children. They do become more sensitive and understanding. As things fall in place, children can work for hours on their own. One also needs to be watchful about sustaining the child's interest throughout the project.
- Share ideas with colleagues. Working together follows naturally and is a source of great strength.