The Importance of the Project Method In Technology Education
Robert T. Howell
Fort Hays State University
Utilizing the project method of teaching in technology education (TE) is not a new development. TE teachers have been using projects as a means of teaching technical skills, tool usage, and problem solving since the very beginning of the profession. The project method also provides an excellent means for increasing student learning (Howell & Mordini, 2003). Over the past decade, there has been a paradigm shift in TE, leading the profession away from its roots, the project method of teaching. With the infusion of new technology and computer modules, some TE programs have been moving away from what worked for the profession in the past. This paradigm change has caused a debate and a split in the profession related to the methods used to teach TE. An overriding question the profession must ask is, "Has this been paradigm shift been beneficial for TE students?"
The project method is a teacher-facilitated collaborative approach in which students acquire and apply knowledge and skills to define and solve realistic problems using a process of extended inquiry. Projects are student-centered, following standards, parameters, and milestones clearly identified by the instructor. Students have control over the planning, refining, presenting, and reflecting of the project. Through projects, students are engaged in innovation and creativity (Project Lead the Way, 2003). In order to better understand the importance of the project method and what can be learned from this teaching methodology, we must look at its historical development. Where did the project method develop? How was it utilized in the past? What is the future of the project method in TE?
Documented history dates the project method of teaching back to the 1830s. In Moscow, Russia, a school for trades and industries was established to train engineers and craftsmen. A system that used students as workers was established in an effort to (a) finance schools, (b) have the most effective practical instruction, and (c) provide extensive and efficient workshops. In these construction shops, students worked with private contractors and were employed by the school to construct equipment such as steam engines, pumps, and agricultural machinery (Bennett, 1937).
This system of teaching was considered vague and not in- depth enough for educational purposes, so a second system of teaching was developed. Instruction shops were established to fill smaller private orders for goods. Students were not permitted to work in construction shops until completing the requirements of the instruction shops.
Victor Della Vos, founder of manual training in Russia, provided the reasoning for the two systems used by the trade and industry schools in Russia during this time period. Della Vos noted:
There is not the slightest doubt as to the importance of working out a logical method of teaching these mechanical arts, not only for the benefit of the student of engineering, but for use in giving practical instruction to the working people as well. Such a method would also do much to perfect hand labor, which because of the use of specialized machines is deteriorating year to year (Bennett, 1937, p. 16).
The Sloyd Method of teaching was developed in Scandinavia. Known as Home Sloyd in the early days, this method of teaching manual arts had its origin in German pedagogy. These pedagogical ideas were used extensively in countries such as Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Early Home Sloyd was not much more than producing products at home for the public to buy. Home schooling and building of products were encouraged by government leaders in an effort to keep people at home and out of drinking establishments. As time progressed, Sloyd schools were established to provide more instruction. Pupils made what the public would purchase without much reference to its educational value (Bennett, 1937).
One of Finland's early supporters of the Sloyd method, Uno Cygneaus, wrote of the importance of handwork being developed:
The instruction shall aim at providing the pupil with the general handiness that is of great importance to every man, especially to the manual laborer, and also with skill in some home industry (Sloyd) most suitable to the general public of our land (Bennett, 1937, p. 59).
In France, after the French Revolution, there was a move to do away with the trade apprenticeship that was established by the ruling aristocracies and to provide all of the people (not just those selected by the aristocracies) training in manual work. It was this philosophy that led to the foundation of an educational system to teach manual arts:
The introduction of manual work into an educational establishment may have two end results, to prepare the pupils for a special calling, or to put into play their physical faculties, the prevision of the eye, the dexterity and suppleness of the hand, and to oblige the pupils to reason and reflect, while at the same time enabling the application of theory to practice, and the realization of the advantages of both (Bennett, 1937, p. 109).
It was with this attitude that schools were established in France that would provide students with a small number of tools and the knowledge of their use in working with wood and iron. Not only were students given instruction in use of tools and making products; they were expected to receive instruction in modeling, drawing, and technology in addition to their regular school work (Bennett, 1937).
As Bennett (1937) concluded, most people associate manual training with Germany. While this is mostly true concerning pedagogy, much of the training and project methods used in Germany were adapted from programs in Denmark and Sweden where the Sloyd method was developed. It was the belief of German educators that students should build projects, but it mattered little what the object was as long as it captured the student's interest. Along with constructing a project, an appropriate methodological sequence was developed based on the cognitive ability of the student. It was their belief that if all conditions were fulfilled, objects for home use or children's games were just as important to the student's interest and education as were instruction in physics, geography, or mathematics (Bennett, 1937).
The project method of teaching had its beginning in the United States in the 1920s, and it changed the way industrial arts was taught. There was somewhat of a revolt, led by John Dewey, resulting in many changes. These changes brought on by Dewey represented a release from the formal and highly structured nature of academic learning in the United States at the time (Barlow, 1967). Barlow also stated that the project developed as a natural evolution from both practical and theoretical considerations. The project method would provide students with social goals and allow them to engage in activities that would require them to think and solve problems. He stated that the project would need to meet the tests of social significance, intellectual activity, and a variety of other values.
It has been said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This has, over time, proven true with manual training. In the United States, TE has changed its name many times over the years. These name changes have gone from manual arts, to industrial arts, to industrial education, to industrial technology education, and to TE. The one constant has been the project. The project method of teaching has always been important in Russia, Sweden, France, and the United States in the past; and it should be just as important today. With all of the new computer-aided technology methods available today, the profession has tended to lose its way, forgetting that the project method has proven to be successful.
How do today's projects differ from those of the past; or do they? Schultz (1999) noted that the project method of teaching increases students' thinking and problem-solving abilities. Students working on projects also develop reflective thought processes and a sequence of order while working on a project. This reflective thought process requires students to determine the appropriate outcome. Each outcome, in turn, refers to its predecessors (Farra, 1998).
John Dewey studied the reflective thought process and how it ties in with the project. He indicated that reflective thought helps students perceive the problem and its resolution. Dewey suggested that reflective thought provides students with a method to pattern an ability to improve their skill in thoughtful decision-making, and encourages others to sharpen the quality of their decisions and skills (Farra, 1998).
As Farra (1998) wrote in his review of Dewey's work, there is a progression of learning in the reflective thought process. With the guidelines developed by Dewey students learn what reflective thinking entails and at the same time learn to problem solve when working within the project method. Howell and Mordini (2003) also noted that students' best interests are served by utilizing problem solving to encourage critical thinking, plus progressing through the steps of investigating, planning, testing, evaluating, and improving during their project fabrication.
The requirements of a good project have changed since the early days of manual training. As Klein (2002) reported, "It is important to combine technology with real problems and a twist of imagination" (p. 20). Today, as in the past, projects should be designed to be relevant to industry and technology. The skills that society requires today may have changed, but teaching students the ways of today's world still depends largely upon the project method.
When planning a project for current technology-related classes, the teacher must understand what is required of today's industry and technology. Howell (2001) wrote that students would be better served by building programs around project design. The project method of teaching should promote critical thinking; encourage divergent thinking and multiple solutions; engage students in real-world challenges; encourage student ownership, direction, and management of resources; and provide opportunities for teamwork and encourage collaboration (Project Lead the Way, 2003). Many Fortune 500 companies have adopted team concepts that require the skills listed for today's team members. Howell went on to say that the best way to teach team skills is through the project method. Working on a project is an excellent way for the students to learn what it takes to an effective member of a team.
We must take a long look at what got us here in the first place. What was it we were doing that worked so well? If the project method was working so well, then maybe we should go back to it and see if we can improve upon it to meet the changing times and future needs of today's industry. Vannoy (1994) referred to this way of thinking as being forward focused. He said that we should examine what worked in the past, and build upon it.
Projects encourage creativity and give the student a sense of accomplishment, pride, and self worth. Above all, an interested student is a motivated student; and a motivated student strives to do the best possible job. Projects do not promote a single answer, limit student participation, suppress collaboration, or discourage application of new contexts (Project Lead the Way, 2003).
We cannot forget that teaching students is our foremost responsibility; and, as teachers, we must provide the best possible method by which students can learn. Today as in the past, projects provide students with a product to take home, something to show for their hard work, something that means more than a letter grade on a piece of paper.
Barlow, M. L. (1967). History of industrial education in the United States. Peoria, IL: Bennett.
Bennett, C. A. (1937). History of manual and industrial rducation 1870 to 1917. Peoria, IL: Bennett.
Farra, H. (1998). The reflective thought process: John Dewey revisited. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 22(1), 1-8.
Howell, R. T. (2001). Fostering self-directed team members. Journal of Technology Studies, 27(1), 51-53.
Howell, R.T., & Mordini, R. (2003). The project method increases student learning and interest. Tech Directions, 62(8), 31-34.
Klein, D. (2002). Design projects for the classroom. The Technology Teacher, 61(4), 20-22.
Project Lead The Way. (2003). Curriculum development guide. Clifton Park, NY: Author.
Vannoy, S. W. (1994). The 10 greatest gifts I give my children. New York: Fireside.
Howell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Technology Studies at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. Howell can be reached at email@example.com.