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Dangers and Difficulties of the Project Method and How to Overcome Them: I. Introductory Statement: Definition of Terms

by William Heard Kilpatrick - 1921

The particular word, project, is of small consequence; the idea or point of view back of the word is the important element.1 We understand the term project to refer to any unit of purposeful experience, any instance of purposeful activity where the dominating purpose, as an inner urge, (1) fixes the aim of the action, (2) guides its process, and (3) furnishes its drive, its inner motivation.

The particular word, project, is of small consequence; the idea or point of view back of the word is the important element.1 We understand the term project to refer to any unit of purposeful experience, any instance of purposeful activity where the dominating purpose, as an inner urge, (1) fixes the aim of the action, (2) guides its process, and (3) furnishes its drive, its inner motivation.

The project thus may refer to any kind or variety of life experience which is in fact actuated by a dominating purpose. I myself distinguish four types which in their border cases merge, to be sure, into each other. Moreover an example of any type might conceivably appear as a subordinate purpose under any other of the four types or under another instance of its own type. Let us consider the four types in turn.

The first type represents those experiences in which the dominating purpose is to do, to make, or to effect; to embody an idea or aspiration in material form. The material of which the thing is made, in which the idea is to be embodied, may vary from clay, wood, cloth, and the like, through marble or pigment, to the words and thoughts and aspirations of a letter, a speech, a poem, a symphony, or a prayer. The finished production may be as insignificant as a child's sand pile on the seashore or as great as Alexander's empire. It may be built in a moment and perish in the building, or it may take as long in the making and remain as enduring as Newton's Principia. The criterion for judging is the character of the purpose. Is there an idea to be embodied? Is there an animating purpose to realize the idea? Is there consequent effortful action dominated by this purpose? If 'yes' is the answer to all these questions, then the project is of the first type.

The second type of project may be defined as one which involves purposeful enjoying or appropriation of an experience. A boy will see and enjoy fireworks, or a circus, or a parade of soldiers. He will watch and enjoy watching a bee-martin drive off a hawk, or a spider spin a web and catch a fly in it. His mother will with a similar true purpose see and enjoy a sunset, or the beauties of the Mona Lisa. At succeeding periods in her life a girl will hear and enjoy a story, read and enjoy a novel, hear and see and enjoy a play of Shakespeare. Experiences of this type are, in comparison with those of the first type, relatively passive. For this reason, I suppose, some have been troubled that this type of experience should be included in the discussion and be called a project. The criterion again is the presence of a purpose. If the experience were in fact an entirely passive one, then purpose would have no place. But in all such experiences there is much activity. So again we ask: Is there a purpose for engaging in, and appropriating, and enjoying the experience? Does the purpose guide the action of seeing or hearing, as the case may be? If there is this purpose, then the experience described is a project of the second type. We may digress to ask whether the presence or absence in the child of the attitude of purpose in such experiences makes any difference to the teacher who would use them educatively? The inevitable affirmative answer is sufficient reason for including this type of purposeful experience in an educational treatment of the subject. Perhaps the school of the future will know better how to exploit the educational possibilities of this second type of project.

The third kind of a project is one in which the dominating purpose is to solve a problem, to unravel and so compose some intellectual entanglement or difficulty. The problem has its natural setting and origin, at least in the race history, in the pursuit of some end. Thus it begins, both for the individual and for the race, as a subordinate part of a project of the first type. Probably for most people thinking is limited largely to such practical situations as arise in ordinary life: a difficulty arises; thinking is necessary to surmount it. If this were all, it would probably have been wise not to set off this purposive problem-solving as a separate type. But with intellectual growth there comes the possibility of relatively separated problems. To the intellectually-minded a problem has a grip of its own. The solution of problems has a technique of its own, varying, to be sure, with the field of enquiry. The essential part which ideas play in effective intelligence affords sufficient justification for encouraging our pupils to work much with problems. In no other way can ideas be better clarified or better organized. So far all are agreed. There are some, however, who profess difficulty in distinguishing a problem from a project. The criterion is as elsewhere, the presence or absence of a dominating purpose. I may be confronted now with an ax, now with a problem. I may recognize both, the one as an ax, the other as a problem; but so far there is no project. If further I decline to wield the one or solve the other, there is still no project. A project for me begins exactly when my purpose arises. You ask me: "What is one-third of the number whose third is three?" I may say, and many will say, "I could work it if I tried, but I don't like mathematics." If I do answer in this way, I recognize it as a problem, but I decline to purpose its solution. There exists then no project for me. A project of the third type implies first a felt difficulty, a problem; and second, a purpose to solve the problem. The use of problems being granted, the part that purpose plays in solving them, especially the more complex ones, is so clear and definite that none will question the proper inclusion of this as a third type of project.

The fourth type includes experiences in which the purpose is to acquire some item or degree of knowledge or skill, or more generally, experiences in which a person purposes his own education at a specific point. The difference between this and other kinds of drill is again exactly one of attitude. Here the child purposes to learn the thing at hand, an attitude which makes a great difference in the efficiency of learning. A particularly valuable purpose in the realm of school work is one in which the person purposes to organize a point of view already more or less in hand, and to fix it in his memory for effective use later. Whether the making of the organization puts this under Type I, or whether the effort to fix it in memory keeps it here under Type IV is a matter of no moment. It is very important, however, that the teacher who would use the project method shall see the utility of the procedure and seek its use by his pupils. The dominating purpose to learn is the essence of projects of Type IV.

We may further distinguish group projects from individual projects. In the latter one person alone is considered as feeling the dominating purpose. In the former several unite in a common purpose and pursue cooperatively, by a more or less clearly marked division of labor, the end held jointly in view. The social value of such cooperative pursuit of joint purposes needs no discussion here.

Another point for consideration is the origin of purposes. Some have feared that we call upon the teacher to wait for a move from the child. This is wrong; The point of view here presented does not demand any particular origin of the suggested purpose; either the child or the teacher may originate the suggestion. The essential point is that while the activity is in process the child or children so feel the purpose that it operates as an inner urge to define the end, guide the pursuit, and supply the drive. Whether the teacher shall or shall not suggest the purpose is a practical matter to be decided in the light of all the consequences, including among others the degree to which the suggestion may actually enlist the purpose of the child or children.

It may not be out of place by way of negative definition to say emphatically that a project is not a topic—large or small. What gave rise to the idea that a large topic constitutes a project is beyond my power to explain. We hold no copyright for the term; but what sense or purpose there can be in introducing this kind of confusion is more than I can see. Projects may arise in connection with topics; but most emphatically a topic as such is not a project.

In concluding this introductory statement, I may say that by the project method we understand teaching based upon the use of projects. In actual practice the degree to which teaching proceeds, or can be made to proceed on a project basis differs greatly with individual teachers, varying on the one hand with their purpose, knowledge, insight, and skill, and on the other, with the previous training of the children. The difficulties and dangers attending the use of the project method are undoubtedly great. Some of us hope that in time a technique of project teaching will be devised. Perhaps a start has already been made. But no such technique and no curriculum based on it will ever permit cut and dried projects. Project teaching is necessarily more or less of an adventure. The child as a "free moral agent," to use the old theological term, is an original and necessary factor in the project method. The utilization of child purposes is after all the essence of the point of view. Not that any or all of the child's purposes will be accepted by the teacher— far from it. Not all purposes are equally educative or otherwise equally valuable. The teacher must set the stage and control the situation so that valuable purposes are likely to be proffered. Then the teacher must decide which of the offerings is best, and, indeed, if any should be utilized. But education must go on.

We thus face the crux of the problem immediately at hand: on the one hand the project method is committed to wholehearted child purposing as fully as it may be got; on the other, society and ethics unite in demanding that the child increasingly incarnate the assured values of race experience. Is there any contradiction between these two demands? What difficulties and dangers does the teacher face in the practical effort to meet both? We do grant, and we must grant the demands of society and ethics. In view of this, what dangers and difficulties arise and how shall we overcome them, if we are to conduct our schools on the project basis? In endeavoring to solve this problem we must bear in mind the fundamental fact, that a project is any unit of experience dominated by such a purpose as sets an aim for the experience, guides its process, and furnishes the drive for its vigorous prosecution.

1The symposium was conducted by the Elementary Section of the Annual Alumni Conferences held at Teachers College March 18 and 19, 1921.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 22 Number 4, 1921, p. 283-287
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3982, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 5:43:06 AM

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About the Author
  • William Kilpatrick
    Professor of Education, Teachers College

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