PRIME Project-Based Learning
Project-based learning is an instructional approach that contextualizes learning by presenting learners with problems to solve or products (completed activities, summaries, reports, etc.) to develop. For example, learners may research an aspect of one of their subjects and create a report or handbook to share with other language learners in their program, or they might interview local employers and create a bar graph mapping the employers' responses to questions about qualities they look for in employees.
This overview provides a rationale for using project-based learning with young adult English language learners, describes the process, and gives examples of how the facilitators of one particular English as a Second Language (ESL) program has used project-based learning with their adult learners at varying levels of English proficiency.
The following principles characterize Project-based learning:
v Builds on previous work
v Integrates observing, speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills
v Incorporates collaborative team work, problem solving, negotiating and other interpersonal skills
v Requires learners to engage in independent work
v Challenges learners to use English in new and different contexts outside the class
v Involves learners in choosing the focus of the project and in the planning process
v Engages learners in acquiring new information that is important to them
v Leads to clear outcomes
v Incorporates self-evaluation, peer evaluation, and facilitator evaluation
Rationale for Project-Based Learning
Project-based learning functions as a bridge between using English in class and using English in real life situations outside of class (Fried-Booth, 1997). It does this by placing learners in situations that require authentic use of language in order to communicate (being part of a team or interviewing others, etc.). When learners work in pairs or in teams, they find they need skills to plan, organize, negotiate, make their points, and arrive at a consensus about issues such as what tasks to perform, who will be responsible for each task, and how information will be researched and presented. Learners have identified these skills as important for living successful lives (Stein, 1995) and by employers as necessary in a high-performance workplace (U.S. Department of Labour, 1991). Because of the collaborative nature of project work, development of these skills occurs even among learners at low levels of language proficiency. Within the group work integral to projects, individuals' strengths and preferred ways of learning (e.g., by observing, reading, writing, listening, or speaking) strengthen the work of the team as a whole (Lawrence, 1997). Project-based learning is particularly applicable in the context of Technological Universities where practice and the practical application of knowledge acquired has significant weight (70% of class time) in the curriculum of all career departments. The inclusion of project work in the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) curriculum developed for the Technological Universities of Mexico (partially in the Real Talk course and as the focus of a separate course, PRIME Projects, is therefore particularly justified and appropriate.
The Process of Project-Based Work
The basic phases found in most projects include:
v selecting a topic
v making plans
v developing products, and
v sharing results with others (reporting) (Wrigley, 1998)
However, because project-based learning often hinges on group effort, establishing a trusting, cooperative relationship before embarking on a full-fledged project is also necessary. Activities that engage learners in communication tasks and in peer- and self-evaluation help create the proper classroom environment. Information gap activities (where the assignment can only be completed through sharing of the different information each learner contributes), learner-to-learner interviews, role plays, simulations, field trips, contact assignments outside of class, and process writing with peers, prepare learners for project work.
A project should reflect the interests and concerns of the learners. Facilitators can begin determining project topics at the start of an instructional cycle by conducting a class needs assessment to identify topic areas and skills to be developed. As the facilitator and learners talk about projects and get to know each other, new topics and issues may come to light that are appropriate for project learning. Theme Webbing is a particularly effective tool for developing and flushing out different aspects of topics and their related topics. (Tweedie, J.W.M. 1998) Projects will focus on the objectives spanning several units. They may be limited to one or two classes and/or culminate in a final event (presentation or report). Whatever the project, learners need to be in on the decision making from the beginning (Moss, 1998).
Making Plans and Doing Research
Once a topic is selected, learners work on their own or together (depending on learning style and the nature of the project selected) to plan the project, conduct research, and develop their reports, presentations, or products. Learners with low language proficiency or little experience working as part of a team may require structure and support throughout the project. Pre-project activities that introduce problem-solving strategies, appropriate gambits, e.g., language for negotiation, and methods for developing plans are useful. Learners may also need practice in specific language skills to complete project tasks. For example, learners using interviews as an information gathering technique may need instruction and practice in constructing and asking questions as well as in taking notes.
Sharing Results with Others
Students share project results in a number of ways. Oral presentations can accompany written reports or products developed within the classroom or in other classes within the program. Project products can also be disseminated in the larger community, as in the case of English language learners from an adult program in New York City, whose project culminated in the creation and management of a cafe and catering business (Lawrence, 1997; Wrigley, 1998).
Assessing Project-Based Work
Project-based work lends itself well to evaluation of both employability skills and language skills. Introducing learners to self-evaluation and peer evaluation prior to embarking on a large project is advisable. Learners can evaluate themselves and each other through role-plays, learner-to-learner interviews, and writing activities. They can become familiar with completing evaluation forms related to general class activities, and they can write about their learning in weekly journals where they reflect on what they learned, how they felt about their learning, and what they need to continue to work on in the future. They can even identify what should be evaluated and suggest how to do it.
Assessment can be done by facilitators, peers, or the student himself. Facilitators can observe the skills and knowledge that learners use and the ways they use language during the project. Learners can reflect on their own work and that of their peers, how well the team works, how they feel about their work and progress, and what skills and knowledge they are gaining. Reflecting on work, checking progress, and identifying areas of strength and weakness are part of the learning process. (See Iverson - The Five Dimensions of Learning) Assessment can also be done through small-group discussion with guided questions. What did your classmates do very well in the project? Was there anything that needed improvement? What? Why? The ability to identify or label the learning that is taking place builds life-long learning skills. Questionnaires, checklists, or essays can help learners do this by inviting them to reflect critically on the skills and knowledge they are gaining. In a New York City initiative using project-based learning with adult English language learners called Expanding Capacity in ESOL programs (EXCAP), assessment occurred daily in dialogue journals, checklists, and portfolios (Lawrence, 1997).
Examples from the Field
At the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP) in Virginia, a team of facilitators designed and implemented several projects for their students, ranging from literacy level to advanced pre-TOEFL. They developed a framework for projects including learning strategies and affective behaviors that have a positive effect on progress and language learning. These behaviors include risk taking; using technological, human, and material resources; and organizing materials (Van Duzer, 1994). The project followed the four purposes for literacy identified by the Equipped for the Future initiative of the National Institute for Literacy--to access information, voice ideas and opinions, act independently, and continue learning throughout life (Stein, 1995). The two projects described below, developed by REEP staff, illustrate the potential range and complexity of project work.
In one group project, parents in a family literacy program and their elementary school children created a coloring and activity book of community information for families living in their neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia. All of the parents and children took part in brainstorming sessions. They selected information, text, and graphics topics for each page of the book and contributed to the creation of the pages. Parents in the intermediate level class managed the production of the book and researched the topics selected (e.g., immunization, school). The adult literacy class located addresses and phone numbers of local agencies that provide needed services. Then they illustrated a shopping guide of local stores they liked. They also designed a page of emergency telephone numbers. The children worked on drawings and activity pages for children. When the book was completed, the families presented it to the principal of the local elementary school. Some of the families participated in a "Meet the Authors" day at the local library.
Parents and children alike kept their work in portfolios and completed assessment questionnaires. They shared their evaluations with each other and explained why they evaluated themselves the way they did. The facilitators evaluated the parents on language skills, team participation, and successful completion of tasks.
In another project, learners in an advanced intensive ESL class worked in pairs to present a thirty-minute lesson to other classes in the program. They worked collaboratively to determine the needs of their audience, interview facilitators, choose topics, conduct research, prepare lessons, practice, offer evaluations to other teams during the rehearsal phase, present their lessons, and evaluate the effort. Topics ranged from ways to get rid of cockroaches to how the local government works.
Before the lesson planning began, learners identified lesson objectives and evaluation criteria. They shared ideas on what makes a presentation successful, considering both language and presentation skills. The evaluation criteria used for feedback on rehearsals as well as for final evaluations include the following:
v Introduces self and the topic clearly, respectfully, and completely
v Includes interactive activities in the lesson
v Speaks in a way that is easy to understand
v Is responsive to the audience
v Shows evidence of preparation and practice
v Shows knowledge of the topic
In addition, the facilitators and learners in the classes receiving the presentations wrote evaluations of the lessons. The presenters also wrote an evaluation essay reflecting on their own work and the value of the project itself.
While these ESL examples are far removed from many EFL contexts, they non the less illustrate the point that project work can be an extremely enriching experience for the student, the school and the community at large. I hope that we will have our own examples to cite in the future.
Project-based work involves careful planning and flexibility on the part of the facilitator and support of the Institutions because of the dynamic nature of this type of learning. Moreover, sometimes a project will move forward in a different direction than originally planned. Project work is organic and unique to each individual, group, or class. This makes it exciting, challenging, and meaningful to young adult and adult learners.
Summary and Conclusion
The latest advances in the study of Language Acquisition clearly conclude that an approach to English language teaching in an EFL context based upon the sequential instruction of form and structure of language (a functional-notional method), and that views language as lexicalized grammar (Lewis, M 1994), does not lead to the ability to use the language for its intended purposes. It is also clear that a notional/functional curriculum such as the one used at many schools throughout the world fails in its lack of relevance to the students’ needs and wants. That is not to say that facilitators should not be ready to teach grammar and the language of notions and functions. They should facilitate its learning and acquisition when the student is ready to learn this information and asks for it because it will help to accomplish relevant communication in a practical and meaning-centred way to communicate in English more effectively.
For students to acquire the ability to effectively use English as a means of communication, they must, Initiate, Control, Direct, Monitor, and Evaluate, their learning for Practical, Relevant, purposes through Integrated, Meaning-centred, and Enriching (PRIME) activities. Facilitators must be Flexible, Resourceful, Engaging (motivating), and Eager to enrich the lives of their students in the process of satisfying their needs and wants (FREE).