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Dangers and Difficulties of the Project Method and How to Overcome Them: VI. A Review and Summary

by William Heard Kilpatrick - 1921

We are fortunate in the constructive tone and temper of today's discussion. Our meeting turns out to be not a debate on acceptance or rejection, but a conference to examine a point of view, its possible dangers and its actual difficulties. And this is as it should be. The ultimate aims of the speakers are one, and our personal points of view are remarkably close. It is well, however, for those whose actual approach has been by different lines to look at the problem from their respective angles. No one person left alone would see all. We tend, perhaps of psychological necessity, certainly by natural inclination, to see most clearly those things that are congruent with what we have already accepted, and to let fade from memory and attention what remains opposed. It is a tendency which we should deplore and which we must fight; and the effort we make is greatly enhanced by the stimulation of those who approach the matter from other points of view.

We are fortunate in the constructive tone and temper of today's discussion. Our meeting turns out to be not a debate on acceptance or rejection, but a conference to examine a point of view, its possible dangers and its actual difficulties. And this is as it should be. The ultimate aims of the speakers are one, and our personal points of view are remarkably close. It is well, however, for those whose actual approach has been by different lines to look at the problem from their respective angles. No one person left alone would see all. We tend, perhaps of psychological necessity, certainly by natural inclination, to see most clearly those things that are congruent with what we have already accepted, and to let fade from memory and attention what remains opposed. It is a tendency which we should deplore and which we must fight; and the effort we make is greatly enhanced by the stimulation of those who approach the matter from other points of view.

And now to the matter at hand. How shall we sum up the discussion? A preliminary survey, partly over well-trod fields, may prepare ideas for later use by showing what is held in common by those who support and those who question the project method. The fundamental factors in the educative process, as Professor Dewey has pointed out, are the child and the race experience: the child, a bundle of impulses and potentialities; the race experience, the best that has come to us from the past incarnate in the child's elders, incarnate in the totality of the child's elders but not all of it in any one. The relative stress upon these two factors, as far as initiating the educative process is concerned, is undergoing change. In the older point of view, still found in many conventional schools, the starting point in procedure has been first to fix the race experience in systematic subject-matter. The difficulty of this older way has been to reach the child; and its danger, accordingly, that of losing both child and subject-matter. For the race experience is preserved only as we succeed with the child. The other way, the way of purposeful activity, is to begin with the child. Its task and difficulty, then, is to include the race experience; and its danger, that of failing to secure the best selection of the race experience.

The antithesis here suggested must not be pressed too far. The implied opposition between child and race experience is not warranted. The race experience is entirely human in origin and intent. It survives as the fittest means for developing and expressing our complex human nature and aspirations. The school exists to further such expression. The subject-matter of the school is merely selected race experience. If we define behavior broadly enough, subject-matter should consist precisely of the best ways of behavior yet devised. Behavior so defined is as broad as life itself, and refers especially to our ways of reacting, internally as well as externally, to the various aspects and situations of life. The school as an institution is the intermediary between the child as he is with his present ways of behaving and the child as he should grow, becoming more and more fully possessed of those more adequate ways of behavior. Since there is no acquisition without exercise, the school must make possible the needed exercise in the desired ways of reacting. This means life, a rich life, selected and directed; life for its own sake and to supply adequate exercise; a selected life to exclude the wrong and include the right opportunities for exercise; a directed life that exercise and acquisition may lie along right lines.

Thus a school means children living and learning, with older people who embody the race experience, present to transmit and guide—the best transmission, perhaps the only transmission, being through the stimulation and guidance of child activity. The outcome should be older children ever growing in character and wisdom, increasingly able to direct themselves in harmony with the ever-widening and ever-deepening social life about them. There is thus no need to think of a conflict between child nature and subject-matter. They represent, as it were, but different stages of the same line of development. The difficulty then of education is not theoretical but practical: How shall these children so live as continually to grow most?

If the foregoing paragraphs show wherein the thoughtful proponents of purposeful activity agree with others, we may ask next wherein lies the difference between them and others? An analysis of purposeful activity may help to locate more precisely the point of divergence. Three aspects can be distinguished: (1) the presence of a purpose, (2) the procedure of its manifestation, the activity itself; and (3) the outcome or outcomes of the activity. If there happens to be agreement, as there might be for example in purposeful drill, on the second and third points, there need be no appreciable difference in valuing the first, the presence of a purpose. The clearer the purpose the greater the probability of acquiring the skill or knowledge as the case may be. So far there is agreement. Indeed the more conventionally minded not only value this purpose, but have often directly sought it, even artificially stimulating it by rewards or prizes.

Although there Is strong opinion to the contrary, the crux of the difference is probably to be found under the third item, the natural outcomes of the activity. The usual view has been to fix almost exclusive attention upon one primary outcome, the knowledge or skill immediately sought, for instance, a given list of spelling words, a given lesson in grammar, or a given event described in history. It has been assumed that one thing and one only could be learned at a time; that the proper business of the school was to fix such a list of things in a desirable order and to see that they were learned. Children have usually been promoted or not according as they have or have not learned the quota prescribed for the term or year; and teachers are often judged upon the success of their classes in this respect. The advocates of the point of view here under consideration challenge the assumption that one thing and only one can be learned at a time. They believe contrariwise that no child can learn just one thing at once. Whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, a child learning the multiplication combinations is also at the same time learning something about dawdling or not dawdling. The way he studies his multiplication fixes or tends to fix him somewhere on the dawdling-alert-manner-of-learning scale; and his position on this scale is sometimes just as important as the thing which he and the teacher, both with a curious narrowness of vision, thought he was learning singly and alone. There are, moreover, many other scales on which he is simultaneously registering himself: the scale of liking or disliking arithmetic; the scale of liking or disliking school and teacher (how many of our children leave school as soon as the law allows?); the scale of self-respect; the scale of a just or unjust estimate of one's powers; the scale of believing that it does or does not pay to try; the scale of believing that books and schools have nothing or something to do with life as I and my family know it and believe in it; the scale of believing that I have succeeded in the degree that I have "put it over" the teacher; the scale of believing that teachers, principals and the whole tribe of law-givers and law-enforcers wherever found do or do not represent a tyrannical effort to suppress real living. There are, to be sure, many questions regarding these various scales and the transfer of the attitudes so built to other situations. But who can question that there are many such learnings going on in each child all the time, and that the sum of the concomitant, incidental, or by-product learnings may and often does vastly overshadow the specific school learnings, and may in the end determine whether the child shall continue his school learning or even value and use what he has been taught.

It is exactly on the question of these inextricably bound together learnings that the two points of view diverge. The older way in effect denies or ignores this fact or at any rate its importance. The advocates of purposeful activity emphasize this fact as of capital importance. For them the issues of life are in a peculiar sense and degree bound up with these accompanying learnings. It follows at once that school-room activities cannot be evaluated on a basis that ignores such significant allied outcomes; or, more positively, that we in the school must seek such activities as will give proper exercise to these most important constituents of character. The final step among the fundamentals of this position is to accept the belief, apparently substantiated alike by science and commonsense, that the presence of a strong purpose on the part of the learner on the one hand promises the exercise of the best kind of activity and, on the other, furnishes the surest guarantee that the proper exercise will eventuate in sound learning. Putting together the positions here taken with the need for guidance, discussed above and granted by all, we have the general statement of our position, that wholehearted purposeful activity proceeding under wise guidance in a social situation promises best both for education and for life, because it best identifies education with life.

It is, I suppose, not to be wondered at that certain misconceptions have arisen as to what this project method means and how it intends to proceed. Perhaps the most hurtful of all the misconceptions is the idea that we propose to turn children loose to make their own decisions, to decide their own course. Far from it. Our need of teachers is just as definite as is that of the ordinary school. Child activity we wish, as full as we can get, but not just any activity. The conception of the school developed earlier explains our position here: children living and learning; older people present to stimulate and guide; the race experience to furnish the basis of guidance; the resulting growth in the children implying the increasing appropriation of the race experience. In my own opinion this means a teacher in complete charge, who will, on proper occasion, demand and receive obedience instant and willing. No, we don't mean to turn children loose. But there is a more refined statement of this misconception of which the foregoing is a gross form. Our insistence upon child purposes has been taken to mean that the choice by the child himself of his activity is essential in our point of view. And if so, has not then the teacher abdicated? And is not the child accordingly essentially in charge of his own education? This conception so stated and so urged demands nice consideration. If child-purposing means ultimate child-choosing, then the conclusion seems clear,—the child seems to be in ultimate control. But does the purposing we have wished mean the same thing as child-initiating, child-choosing, child-deciding? The answer is to be found in the reasons urged for desiring child-purposing. They center about the conception of a mind-set-to-an-end, and the effect of this mind-set (1) in securing an inner, as opposed to an outer urge in the effort to reach the end, (2) in directing the steps in the activity consistently toward the end, and (3) in bringing such readiness and satisfaction as utilize the laws of learning for fixing in the child the steps so organized and taken in the pursuit of the end. None of these considerations, it will be seen, depends upon the original initiation of the purpose, but only upon its effective functioning after it has been set up. It is then purpose as mind-set, and not purpose as the act of original choosing which we have had in mind in demanding purposeful activity. It is upon the deeply felt inner urge toward an end that we are basing our hopes and plans.

But, it may properly be asked, does not the one aspect of purposing imply the other? How can we secure the deep-felt inner urge toward the end if the child does not himself choose the end? Do not the two things mean the same thing? Are we not then reduced to admitting that on this theory the child is after all the arbiter and judge of what he shall undertake? To which I should answer "No." I, at any rate, have no intention of giving up adult control. In my school the teacher shall remain, under the proper authorities, the final arbiter of what shall be done in the school room. Nor do I admit that the choice of an end in the sense of accepting it and thus making it one's own, is the same thing as the choice of an end in the sense either of suggesting it, or of having the right to decide finally about it. The right to decide is the teacher's. The teacher for educative purposes will wish the children to be engaged as far as may be possible in purposeful activities. This on the side of method and good learning conditions. But the teacher will also wish and demand, and so far as I can effect it, successfully demand, that the activities be not only purposeful, that is, heartily accepted as one's own, but also fruitful, worthy, desirable. This from the point of view of subject-matter and race experience, the direction of growing. The teacher will hope for and seek both purpose, or acceptance, and worthiness in one and the same activity. In this world we seldom get all we seek. Whether the proposed activity lacks in worthiness, the teacher must decide. If it is positively bad, the teacher must prevent it; if need be, must forbid it. That ends it—and we hope to have built up such willing obedience that this decision of the teacher, if it is made, will be at once accepted without further ado. If the proposed activity is not bad, again the teacher must decide, weighing the factors involved. If the proposed activity is good, the teacher still again decides and approves. From first to last the decision is ultimately in the teacher's hands unless he, on account of known conditions, chooses to leave the matter tentatively and within limits in the child's hands.

I have thus far spoken as though the normal process is for the child to suggest and for the teacher to decide. There are two remarks to be made about this. First, it is not necessary that this be so. On the contrary, the teacher must be free to suggest or, if necessary, to command. And the children must early learn to distinguish the teacher's suggestions given as mere suggestions (i. e., to be accepted or not by the children) from the suggestions given to be observed. Just when the teacher shall command, when suggest, and when hear suggestions, are matters relating to the practical working of our conception. It suffices to add here that the positive direction of affairs, by way of preparation long in advance of any specific decision, is a most important correlative aspect of the teacher's work.

The second remark about child initiative has to do with what is probably the source of the widespread misconception under consideration, especially on the part of some of the teachers themselves. Two practical reasons in themselves call for child initiative in purposing: on the one hand, the desired inner urge is, other things being equal, more likely to be strong if the child feels that the purpose is his own from start to finish; on the other hand, for the sake of child development we wish him to have increasing practice in the supervised conceiving and selecting of worthy purposes. That there are practical dangers attending both is frankly admitted; but the considerations hold nevertheless. The factor of practice in guided choosing seems to me very important. If the guidance is wise, the child should increasingly come to weigh the consequence of his contemplated acts and to choose in the light of proper considerations, moral or prudential, as the case may be. In this way freedom is to be a gradual achievement, free choice and responsibility being more frequently accorded as increasing age and growth show their proper exercise to be feasible. If all teachers understood better the principles here involved, our cause would be spared much adverse criticism.

This closes the long and, I fear, tedious discussion of the first and major misconception. I feel sure that Professor Bagley's position is not far removed from that here presented. He is quite right in insisting on the necessary function of adult guidance and control. It is indeed an essential agency in the development of every individual. The guiding effect of the race experience mediated through our elders is precisely the reason why each succeeding generation is civilized and not savage. Without it no cumulative progress would ever have been possible; and we would now be only where biological evolution has brought us.

A second misconception perhaps as widespread as the preceding is that the point of view under consideration of itself shuts its adherents off from using certain valuable educative experiences and procedures that are open to others. Professor Bagley has very pertinently directed attention to a frequent emphasis upon exclusively instrumental values. The matter has at times been discussed with such an emphasis as to make his warning timely. But I think he will agree that the definition given at the outset of the symposium forbids any such exclusive emphasis upon instrumental values. In particular our second type of purpose includes the instance he gives of reading Wells's history. I should myself wish to insist upon a large variety of such non-instrumental experiences. They do and should fill an important place in life. The pupil's attitude toward them is, however, a factor to be taken into account. I should wish the boy to read Ivanhoe, but I should not be satisfied if he read it under compulsion. I should wish him to put heart and soul into his reading.

Another valuable line of school procedure, supposed by some to lie outside the realm of project teaching, includes such common school practices as drill, review, and systematic organization. For such as take this critical stand, it seems a matter merely of definition. If the application of the term project be restricted to the first type distinguished at the outset, then something could undoubtedly be said for such a contention. But if the element of purpose be made fundamental, then the only question is whether one might with purpose drill himself; and the answer is clearly, yes. In quite the same way each one of us knows that at least some sort of purpose to review is very essential to any successful reviewing, and so also with organization. In practice it may be a very difficult matter to enlist a sufficiently strong purpose for adequate drill, or review, or organization; but theoretically there is little room for disagreement. No educative activity is theoretically ruled out of the project method unless it be one in which child-purpose can find no place, or finding such a place cannot help. So far I for one have learned of no such activity.

If my remarks appear long or general, I beg your indulgence. Charged as I am with the duty of keeping clear before you the matter as a whole, I must define, I must differentiate and relate. I must if possible prevent misconceptions. There remains now little for me to do. The specific dangers and difficulties presented, if they do not form a complete list, are certainly typical. No one, I think, can say that weak points have been kept in the background. I should like, before concluding, to look at certain dangers and difficulties from a slightly different point of view, and then to sum up the discussion.

The greatest difficulty seems to me to center about our main task, namely, the task of devising a technique appropriate to our point of view. Thoroughgoing differences in outlook demand corresponding differences of procedure. Our different belief as to the varied outcomes inherent in any pupil activity, as to the rich significance for life of these attendant outcomes, the acceptance by the school of at least equal responsibility for these as for the customary objectives, our belief that a guided purposeful activity promises best for attaining the totality of desired outcomes—these taken together constitute a fairly thoroughgoing departure from the customary outlook. If so, we should expect an appropriately different procedure, based upon the assumptions and aims of the new point of view. Such a procedure appropriately wrought, adequately organized, constitutes what I have called the appropriate technique. Let no one think that I contemplate a mechanically perfect formula. The aim, the value, and the difficulty of our technique are one and the same, that it must contemplate the most unpredictable element known to man, the human will—some would add, in its most unpredictable state, youth. Moreover, if our point of view is ever to be widely adopted, the resulting technique must be so wrought as to be communicable.

The task of working out such a technique might well discourage the faint hearted. Possibly some would say that it should discourage the prudent. For myself I have, I think, no illusions. Our customary technique of learning from books began practically as soon as Aristotle had reduced extant knowledge to system. Progress in that technique from that day to this has been, it would seem, but moderate. Most people whom I know are critical of it in one or more respects. I hope our success will not be so long delayed, but we must expect an appreciable time and a great deal of experimentation before we succeed. Perhaps our great danger can be located right here: that many will expect an enthusiastic acceptance of the theory to serve as the needed technique. It will not. The efficient and fruitful purposeful activity we seek will not arise at our mere bidding—still less at our bare permission. Many disappointments await any who are so unwisely optimistic. And faith without works will die. Lest this prove unduly discouraging to some, it may be said that we always have the older way to fall back upon. If at any time we cannot secure the kind of purpose we wish, we shall merely find ourselves where our rejecting brothers and sisters have chosen to live. But to the wise and prudent there is much ground for hope. Beginning with what technique we can readapt, already the result of a generation of movement in this direction, we can gradually build up in ourselves the ability to cope reasonably with our respective situations. Comparing and criticising, combining our successes, we may hope to see gradually emerging an increasingly successful and communicable technique.

Such a technique must cope with the various aspects of our procedure. We must learn how, within reason, to secure from or in our pupils purposes so varied in outlook and of such strength that ample educational activities will be set up. This is one of our clearest difficulties. The purpose once secured, however, the teacher must next know how to guide the process, when to step in and when to keep out, when to caution and when to encourage. This, I judge, is easier than the preceding, but there are many attendant dangers. Again our technique must secure progress within the various fields of study and action. In matters of skill and taste our pupils must grow in achievement and standards of judging. In more intellectual matters they must more and more organize each field into a focusing and working whole. Since the attitude of the learner is so potent along both lines our point of view promises well and, for my part, I hope for early success here, although thus far we seem not to have realized our possibilities. But proper effort must gradually give us the needed technique.

There are yet other specific difficulties, but our time and your patience will not permit us to notice them, important though they be. Such matters as time tables, printed courses of study, text-books, promotions, articulation of school with school, equipment, school architecture, we have to leave; also the questions as to whether we can get sufficiently capable teachers or enough money. There are dangers, too, which under other conditions might well have been discussed: dangers of faddism, of attempting too much, of attempting too little, of undervaluing the curriculum, of failing to keep check on ourselves, of disregarding parents; dangers that administrators will rush in before they are ready, that they will think it a get-along-quick-scheme and give it up in disgust when they find it otherwise; dangers that children will learn fooling or become spoiled. For these and all such dangers we can only say: Feel your way gradually, don't think this a patent process or a trick device. In reality it is an ideal difficult of attainment. Common sense must be our reliance. It is a worthy cause and we must treat it worthily.

The closing word must now be spoken. For myself, the outlook is more favorable than three years ago I had believed possible in so short a time. We who have been working at this idea are, I believe, more sober and more sure; soberer, because not till we got well into the adventure did we realize so fully the magnitude and complexity of our undertaking; surer, because on all sides corroborations of our faith appear. We have not realized what we wish, perhaps not all that we had hoped; our real task in fact lies ahead, but an ever-widening circle of workers who have tasted the experience of real life in the school room are saying today that nothing can make them renounce the vision.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 22 Number 4, 1921, p. 310-321
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3987, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 6:41:49 PM

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  • William Kilpatrick
    Professor of Education, Teachers College

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