The Negotiated Project Approach: Project-Based Learning without Leaving the Standards Behind

  • Sascha Mitchell
  • Teresa S. Foulger
  • Keith Wetzel
  • Chris Rathkey

DOI: 10.1007/s10643-008-0295-7

Cite this article as:
Mitchell, S., Foulger, T.S., Wetzel, K. et al. Early Childhood Educ J (2009) 36: 339. doi:10.1007/s10643-008-0295-7


The purpose this study was to explore how a veteran first-grade teacher collaboratively negotiated the implementation of a project with her students while, at the same time, addressed grade-level standards. Researchers investigated the teacher’s strategies for integrating the district’s standards into project topics, investigative activities, and final presentations. They also examined the teacher’s strategies for promoting students’ participation in project planning and independent problem-solving. Data sources included field notes, teacher interviews, videotaped observations, and transcribed teacher, and student interviews. As an extension to teacher-directed approaches to implementing the project approach, the results of this study revealed a collaborative approach to implementing projects that allowed the teacher and the students to work together for project planning and learning. The teacher felt successful with meeting grade level learning needs, and the students were given the opportunity to fuel their learning by expressing their natural interests and curiosities, and become problem solvers.


Early childhood Project approach Standards 

The Project Approach has emerged as one promising practice for meeting the varying needs and interests of today’s young students (Katz and Chard 2000). Although there are multiple definitions of projects in the field of education, projects are defined in this study as in-depth investigations that involve students in design and investigative activities and that culminate in a final product or debriefing event (Clark 2006). These investigations are “structured around complex, authentic questions” (Buck Institute of Education 2007, Defining Standards-Focused PBL section, para. 1) within important topics or issues for students. Project work is generally divided into three distinct phases. During the first phase, the teacher selects a topic based on desired learning outcomes (e.g., standards) and helps the children articulate specific questions that will guide their investigation. During the second phase, the children work in small groups to investigate subtopics that are connected to the larger topic. The final phase of project work is characterized by a culminating event or activities (e.g., art display) that summarize the findings of the investigation (Helm and Beneke 2003).

Research in the past decade has pointed to a number of benefits for using the project approach. Some suggest that the project approach develops children’s higher-level thinking skills such as problem solving, planning, and self-monitoring (Brown and Campione 1996). Additionally, students who engage in project work are adept at transferring conceptual ideas across a variety of learning situations (Brown and Campione 1996; Scardamalia and Bereiter 1991). Students’ dispositions and self-esteem can also be positively effected. Katz (1994) found that students in project-based Reggio Emilia preschools in Italy demonstrated habits of mind such as curiosity, reflection, and concern for others’ perspectives. The way children feel about themselves, has also been found to improve through project work. According to Chard (2001, Feelings section, para. 1):

As students take more ownership of their work they also have to learn to appropriate emotional responses to success and failure in themselves and others. Evaluation involves recognizing personal strengths and limitations, and working on these with courage and determination. As children feel increasingly competent and sense their own potential for learning so they develop feelings of confidence and self-esteem.

Despite the benefits of using the project approach, early childhood educators report a number of challenges. For example, a study by Borko and Putnam (1996) revealed many teachers were resistant to adopting project-based teaching methods in exchange for more traditional approaches to teaching. Even those teachers who had expressed an interest in adopting the project approach had reported concerns regarding the lack of specific guidelines such as a teacher’s manual or an objectives-driven lesson plan (Katz and Chard 2000; Clark 2006). The lack of clarity regarding how to plan for projects, to guide children’s inquiries and investigations, and to assess learning has proven to be a major obstacle in adopting the project-based learning, particularly for novice teachers (Clark 2006). Additionally, increased political pressure on teachers to incorporate standards-driven instruction and assessment into their curriculum (Dresden and Lee 2007; Helm and Beneke 2003) cause challenges for teachers who seek to understand the teaching processes that support their adoption of project-based learning. Unfortunately, there is limited research demonstrating the dynamic, underlying processes of project work in the early childhood classroom (Clark 2006). A recent book, The Power of Projects (Helm and Beneke 2003) provides one notable exception to this trend. The book contains five case studies of project-based learning in early childhood classrooms, each addressing a different challenge and a practical solution. Each case study is supplemented by practical strategies that explain how each phase of the project was conducted. For example, in the chapter “Meeting Standards Effectively,” Worsley (2003) provides a ten-step process for incorporating the standards into project work. The authors in this book have shown how project work can promote students’ development and application of new skills, standards, and knowledge in a variety of contexts as they work on projects. However, they have not explicitly attended to the progressive methods teachers use to negotiate ideas with young children during project work. Rather, it is the teacher who designs activities, in advance, with the intention of creating a student-driven experience.

By selecting topics themselves, teachers ensure children are meeting necessary benchmarks; but they also risk disengagement from students who feel a lack of ownership in the project (Dev 1997; Lumsden 1994). A theoretical paper by Clark (2006) describes a more collaborative and dynamic process to the project approach that directly involves children in: (1) developing their own questions about the topic, (2) making predictions about possible answers, (3) thinking of ways to test their hypotheses, (4) negotiating with the teacher various ways they might represent their findings, and (5) taking time to solve their own problems through trial and error. Clark argues that many teachers implementing the project approach make changes to their curricular content and products, but not to the underlying processes involved in doing projects. As a result, children tend to produce prescribed results. This “hybrid approach” to project work is often driven by teachers’ long-held beliefs about the traditional nature of teaching (transmission model). To truly implement project work, Clark suggests that teachers develop dispositions that enable the processes underlying the project approach to occur (e.g., rewarding effort and thinking processes over products).

To extend the literature on project-based teaching, the authors of this study explored how a veteran first-grade teacher collaboratively negotiated the implementation of a project with her students while, at the same time, addressing grade-level standards. In using a case-study approach, we hoped to reveal the processes underlying authentic project work in an early childhood setting. The following questions guided the study: (1) How does the teacher negotiate topics, investigative activities, and final presentations with the children? (2) How does the teacher encourage the children to solve their own problems during project work?


Research Design

The researchers designed the study as a single-case study. A case-study approach was selected because the teacher practices observed had not, to the best of the researchers’ knowledge, been studied in the past. As such, this study represented an opportunity to conduct a “revelatory case study”—this is, a case study in which a real-life situation can be examined for the purposes of discovery and theory development (Yin 2003). In this case, we were particularly interested in observing “how” the teacher involved students in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of their own learning. Understanding the processes that underlie authentic project-based learning seems particularly significant during a time when standards are being created and implemented in early childhood education.

A systematic process was used to develop the case study that included the following steps: (1) selection of case-study participants; (2) plan and conduct interviews and observations; (3) analyze the data; (4) conduct member checks; and (5) write-up.


When selecting a case for this study, we used a procedure known as “information-oriented sampling.” In contrast to random-sampling, information-oriented sampling is one in which an extreme or atypical case is selected because it is a richer source of data for the phenomenon being studied. Ms. Rathkey was selected as the focus participant of the case study because she is regarded within her school and community as an “exemplar” teacher, particularly with respect to her use of project-based teaching methods. She is a 36 year veteran first grade teacher. She is National Board Certified and has received district and state awards for exemplary teaching. Ms. Rathkey has experience teaching in a variety of settings including urban, low socioeconomic, and moderately high socioeconomic areas.

The first grade students in Ms. Rathkey’s class lived in a suburban, middle-class area and attended a PreK-6 elementary school with 988 students. The school’s student body consisted of 86% Caucasian, 6% Hispanic, 5% Asian, and 3% black; 16% of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch. The research took place during a six-week study of biomes the second semester of the school year. Per teacher preference, all students were fully integrated into all classroom activities, no matter what their learning abilities. This particular year there were 22 students, 12 girls and 10 boys. One of the students spoke Spanish as his first language, four were identified as gifted, one was identified as autistic, and one student was an early-entry student due to relocating from another state.

Classroom Organization

Ms. Rathkey established a collaborative classroom environment from the start of the school year. She directed the children to seek out peers for assistance, and frequently clustered the students in groups of 4–5 to facilitate this. Students worked on lapboards and did not have assigned seating; it was acceptable for then to access the materials and resources, including consultations with one another, when needed. In addition, Ms. Rathkey used collaborative learning groups as a mechanism for allowing individual success, group success, and accommodations (e.g., autism). Social interactions while learning were a part of everyday routines.

Data Collection

An initial meeting was held between the three researchers and the classroom teacher in which conversations were focused on the broad topic of Ms. Rathkey’s teaching philosophy and practices. At this meeting Ms. Rathkey helped the researchers identify specific teacher practices (honesty, individualization, and vision) and student behaviors (independence, responsibility, and ownership) she felt were related to her successes with project work in her classroom. These practices and behaviors were drafted into an observation instrument that was used to focus the researchers’ classroom observations on student and teacher behaviors.

During this initial planning meeting, Ms. Rathkey also identified an upcoming four-week project and six class sessions that represented all stages of the project. Project stages included unit overview and student planning, in-class research, computer lab research, creation and illustration of student products, computer lab time, and research sharing. Each of the three researchers was assigned to conduct two, two-three hour observations. During each observation the assigned researcher took copious notes on teacher practices and student behaviors and also video taped the session for further use by all researchers. To increase the credibility of the data, Ms. Rathkey was asked to meet with the researcher following each observation. The purpose of these “member check” meetings was to ensure researcher subjectivity and trustworthiness of the results (Lincoln and Guba 1985a, b). The conversations with Ms. Rathkey would “infuse researchers’ interpretations in a way that the boundaries between the two become at once distinct and blurred” (Jones 2002, p. 466).

Data Analysis

In the first phase of coding, all six of the observations were coded according to the predesigned observation categories. All of the original notes from the observations were reviewed by the three researchers independently and checked for minimum inter-rater reliability >0.80. The researchers then compared and discussed their findings to gain an overview of teacher practices and students behaviors, guiding the emergent themes analysis. The researchers then engaged in a collaborative process of comparing and collapsing emergent themes. Eight themes (see Table 1) were ultimately agreed upon within which observations could be categorized.
Table 1

Codes and Definitions



Standard fluency

Teacher learned the district standards prior to planning the project

Student interests come first

Teacher encouraged the children to articulate their learning interests and goals as a starting point for planning project work

Manipulating the standards, not the children

Teacher integrated the standards into the child/teacher chosen topic

Scaffolding children’s questions and investigative ideas

Teacher invited the children to generate a list of potential activities and projects to document their learning

Distributing responsibility

Teacher distributed the responsibility for teaching the content between her and between different groups of students. She encouraged the children to visually represent their responsibilities

Refraining to promote independence

Teacher refrained from intervening when students were working through a problem

Providing honest feedback

Teacher provided students with honest feedback about their performance

Encouraging mistakes

Teacher encouraged children to view mistakes as a valuable part of learning


How does the Teacher Negotiate Topics, Investigative Activities, and Final Presentations with the Children?

The district where Ms. Rathkey works provides teachers with grade level curriculum guides for all content areas. These district standards are fully aligned to the state’s Academic Standards for K-12 and play a central role for the planning of curriculum, the assessment of student learning, and the consequential evaluation of teaching, while still allowing for flexibility and individualization.

Prior to beginning the project-planning phase with the children, Ms. Rathkey reviewed the district benchmarks for the core content areas to determine the knowledge and skills the children still needed to learn before the end of first grade. Although she realized that the project would need to fit in a complementary way with other upcoming experiences (not necessarily project-based ones), she knew many of her students’ needs and interests could be strategically woven into this project. Thus, having fluency with the district standards prior to discussing ideas for the upcoming project with the children prepared her to make conscious connections between the standards and the students’ interests in the midst of a planning conversation with the students:

It is important to have a vision, not a plan. You need to know where you are headed. You know the kinds of things that they are interested in but you don’t know how they are going to flow. If you know the standards, then you can see connections. You look at things they are interested in, and you look at the standards. This way you are planning topics based on their interests, not on the standards. You manipulate the standards, not the children. If you find ways to include the standards in the topics that they are interested in, then you will be teaching them how to use the skills instead of teaching them the skills.

As the children expressed an interest in studying animals early in the year, animals had been an ongoing entry point for studying various themes including the human body (e.g., students compared the human skeleton to animal skeletons), nutrition (e.g., students studied what animals eat), and weather (e.g., students studied how animals survived various weather conditions), and would again become a focus for this project. In addition, the children had expressed an ongoing interest in studying continents. Ms. Rathkey determined that an important characteristic of an animal organism is where they live, and so animal biomes emerged as the general unit of study for the project work. She would allow the children to decide which of the continents they would study to learn about animal biomes. In summary, knowing the requisite district standards and knowing students’ interests enabled Ms. Rathkey to “manipulate the standards to fit the children’s interests rather than manipulate the children to fit the standards.”

To encourage the children to generate specific project topics and questions, Ms. Rathkey organized a “grand conversation,” a phrase she borrowed from literature studies that refers to student-directed class discussions in which children have the opportunity to critique, debate, and extend upon one another’s ideas (Peterson and Eeds 1990). The following observation between Ms. Rathkey and her students illustrates the grand conversation process for planning a project on biomes:

We need to start planning. I’ve brought some books on continents today—Africa, Australia, and South America. One of the things that we need to do in first grade is to understand the kinds of places animals live. For example, we need to understand places that give them food, water, and shelter. That place is called a biome. There are different biomes like deserts, rainforests, and grasslands [Ms. Rathkey writes these on the whiteboard]. I need to know if you want to focus on one, or if you want to look at all of them. Look at the continents to see what you notice about the animals and their environment. [Ms. Rathkey hands out books about one of the three continents—Africa, Australia, and South America—to the student pairs and asks them to learn all they can in the next ten minutes. Students read to one another and discuss their findings with partners.]

As the children were meeting in partners to take notes about their continent, Ms. Rathkey worked with each group to ascertain their interests, knowledge, and questions. Although most of these discussions began with the topic of animals, they often extended into other content matter that sparked the children’s interests (e.g., the amount of rain, the types of housing). Ms. Rathkey encouraged the children to take notes on everything that they learned from reading the books to help them prepare for the grand planning conversation. After the whole group reconvened, Ms. Rathkey asked the students to use their notes to discuss what they knew about their chosen continents while she documented their findings on the whiteboard as stated, without evaluation or discussion. The students’ reported a list of facts from their books, grouped by continent, including information about climate, weather, human influences and cultural information, and facts about some resident animals. Most items students contributed were simple facts such as “it is hot in Africa” while a few demonstrated a combination of animal and biome factors such as “llamas live near the mountains” and “gorillas are about to disappear”. These initial ideas served as a springboard for students’ to consider which of the continents they wanted to study to learn about the animal biomes.

Through her participatory style, Ms. Rathkey helped the children make a decision:

Now we’ve got three biomes that we need to study. Each continent has all three. Now what we need to decide is do we want to study all of the continents? We can, we do have enough time to do that. But, if we do that, we can’t study each one really hard. We’d have to study each one just a little bit. Or, do we want to focus on just one of these? What do you think? [Loud student talking. Students say they want to study the continents that they studied in class that day.] We’re not voting for the one that you studied, we are deciding on where we want to focus our study. [One student says, “Can we do groups of students studying each one?”] Okay, I have an idea then. What if we study biomes in class like we did today, and then you can work in small groups to study the biomes in the continent that you want to study? [Students, “Yeah!”] But you would have to teach us about where your biome is in your continent. Can you do that? [Students, “Yeah!”]. …Okay, so you are going to teach us about these, right? [Ms. Rathkey points to the continents. Students say, “Yeah.”] and I am going to teach us about these [Ms. Rathkey points to deserts, rainforests, and grasslands].

By this point, the children were showing a lot of interest in the topic, as demonstrated by their collective enthusiasm. While not all of the students contributed individual responses, all of the students were encouraged to agree, disagree, or expand upon one another’s ideas. One student described the teacher’s role in planning as she explained, “We tell her (the teacher) what we want to do and she understands us and she helps us.” Another student noted this too when she explained, “She lets us plan mostly and shows us what we could do for the projects. She explains what we could do.”

Once the continents for studying animal biomes were selected, Ms. Rathkey invited the children to generate a list of potential activities and projects to document their learning. As they envisioned potential activities and projects, Ms. Rathkey created a web on the whiteboard depicting how responsibilities for teaching one another about animal biomes would be divided between individual children, small “continent” groups, and the teacher (herself). This visualization was captured in the following observation:

Okay, I need to know what I need to do [Ms. Rathkey begins to write on chart paper. She writes “self” and puts deserts, grasslands, and rainforests in this column]. So I will teach these and then you will report them. And the groups [Ms. Rathkey writes “groups” on the chart paper]—what will the groups do?

Ms. Rathkey offered several ideas of her own and consistently reminded the children that the purpose of their final presentation(s) was to teach the others (including her) about their animal biome. The remainder of the grand planning conversation was dedicated to determining the media and content for communicating their research. One student recommended that everyone (including Ms. Rathkey) create a pop-up book. All agreed, and negotiations proceeded to address the content of the books.

The next negotiation centered around Ms. Rathkey’s need to integrate a writing component into the presentation, since learning to write is an essential first-grade requirement. Thus, she continued the dialogue with the children:

So, your pop-up books will show what you know about your biomes, right? But we need to tell, too. We need to use writing. Otherwise we won’t become better writers. We need to use writing to help us learn. So, how do you want to include writing? [Two students say they can write on the other pages of the pop-up books. Ms. Rathkey takes paper and folds it to clarify and model this idea.] So you mean we could write here?

Thus, the project focus, project presentation, and the integration of writing were negotiated decisions between the children and Ms. Rathkey. The children and the teacher appeared satisfied that the project incorporated individual needs and interests. The students learned in an integrated way, rather than through segmented subject area studies. In addition, Ms. Rathkey’s students addressed the following district science standards: understand that basic structures in plants and animals serve a function, understand the life cycles of plants and animals, understand the relationships among various organisms and their environment, identify plant, and animal adaptations.

How does the Teacher Encourage the Children to Solve their Own Problems during Project Work?

Children’s problem-solving was observed most often during the investigative phase of the project. The first observed instance occurred while the children were assigning roles and responsibilities within their small “continent” groups. Rather than telling the children how they should determine roles, Ms. Rathkey gave them the needed support to problem-solve within their groups:

I will give you a big piece of paper, and your group will decide what you want to do. You can come up with your ideas for what you want to study, and you can work it out with each other.

Each small group devised their own system for allocating individual work responsibilities. Similarly, when the students were planning their project presentations, Ms. Rathkey gave the children the task of allocating individual reporting responsibilities. One group, for example, devised a color-coding strategy in which each segment of information was colored with a different color. Each color corresponded to one of the children in the group (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Students use color-coding system

According to Ms. Rathkey, refraining from intervening in children’s problem-solving was essential to their development as independent learners. For example, while students documented their investigative findings on the computer, Ms. Rathkey explained that she was careful to not overtake their work if students have struggles while working on a computer:

Everybody grabs the mouse. And I tell my aide and myself—because its the first thing I want to do, too—to fold your hands, put your hands behind your back, or something, and verbally tell them what to do. Or, if you want to show them then just model it and put it back the way it was and just have them do it. Because otherwise they don’t learn a thing. You solve their problem and they don’t learn.

Ms. Rathkey also encouraged the children to give one another honest feedback and to use the feedback to improve their work. She, too, gave the children honest feedback and did so in a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental way. As a result of the non-evaluative atmosphere, children appeared comfortable with asking for help, even from their peers. During the process of making the final pop-up books, for example, one of the researchers observed a student who could not figure out how to make her tree “pop-out.” Rather than going to the teacher, the student asked another student at her table and, using her instructions, they re-constructed her pop-up book until it worked properly. Ms. Rathkey commented on this observation in a post-class interview:

You have to think about that as a teachable moment, because other kids can learn from other kids’ mistakes and that is also something I have noticed. Okay, if she is having trouble getting her tree to stand up, then look around you and find out some possible solutions to try. It was not a source of embarrassment for the child, it was more like, “I am working through a problem and you could learn from what I am doing as well.”

According to Ms. Rathkey, mistakes are a natural consequence of independent problem solving. They can serve as teachable moments for all of the children, not just the one making the mistake. Thus, one of the primary reasons mistakes are made explicit in Ms. Rathkey’s classroom is to help children focus their attention on learning rather than on performance. As an example, during the first group’s final presentation to the class, Ms. Rathkey commented, “You’ve used words from the book in your presentation. You need to review your words and redo them. I want you to learn what is in the book, not copy it.” One of the presenters stated, “But we are almost done (with our presentation).” Ms. Rathkey asked them to take their posters to the back of the room and work at a small table. Occasionally, Ms. Rathkey assisted them. At the end of all of the presentations, the group presented again. Ms. Rathkey pointed out the difference. She asked the group members, “How did you feel about that report?” They stated that they felt “good about it because we did it in our own words.” Another presenting student said, “When you copy out of the book you don’t really learn.”

As the children developed the responsibility charts and presentation materials, and worked together to communicate the results of their investigation, they applied several district science and reading standards associated with the inquiry process, including: investigate and model scientific testing; organize and analyze data; communicate results of investigations; demonstrate understanding of print concepts; acquire and use new vocabulary in relevant contexts; identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of the purpose, structures, and elements of expository text.


As Ms. Rathkey’s students participated in the Biome unit they were offered the opportunity to add another layer of expertise to their animal studies, and to work at higher levels of thinking as they planned, self-monitored, and celebrated their learning—much like the literature on project-based learning describes (Brown and Campione 1996). But what differentiates a typical project from what researchers observed in Ms. Rathkey’s classroom was the existence of negotiated planning between and among the students and the teacher, described in this study as the “Negotiated Project Approach.” A unique feature of the Negotiated Project Approach is that the teacher integrates the standards into the children’s interests, rather than vice versa. This unexpected finding is unique to project-based research, given that previous studies have tended to find that teachers plan projects that will meet the standards (Helm and Beneke 2003; Katz and Chard 2000). This finding takes the characteristic of “authenticity” of projects to a much higher plane because students’ interests and learning styles are more thoroughly and intentionally accounted for through the in-class planning process.

Another distinctive quality was how the teacher encouraged the children to work together to solve their own problems. This promoted independence and a resulting value placed on the role of mistakes in the classroom—for their ability to benefit all students, not just the one making the mistake. Although not explored in this paper, one might also assume that an environment such as this would also encourage students to engage in more intellectual risk-taking.

This analysis supports those who believe that teachers can negotiate plans for project work that integrate grade-level standards. As previously mentioned, Clark (2006) has proposed a theoretical model for how to involve students in the project planning process whereby students are encouraged to: (1) develop their own questions about the topic, (2) make predictions about possible answers, (3) think of ways to test their hypotheses, (4) negotiate with the teacher various ways they might represent their findings, and (5) take time to solve their own problems through trial and error (p. 5). The results of our study support this model, but in addition illustrate the complex teacher strategies that underlie the success of such a model.

Because this article was based on data collected from one classroom environment, the generalization of the findings to other classrooms may be somewhat limited. In addition, because the observation instrument was specific to content covered in the project, we were not able to establish its concurrent or predictive validity with other measures, thus limiting broader use of the instrument until its technical accuracy is confirmed. Generalizability can be strengthened, however, if individuals in other educational settings can identify with elements of this study’s particular setting that are similar to their own, or interpret this study in terms of the theoretical framework.

Although project-based instruction can provide “more enriched learning opportunities than the traditional teacher-directed unit” (Dresden and Lee 2007, p. 1), long-held pedagogical beliefs may contribute to resistance to the project approach (Clark 2006). Even the best-intentioned teachers need systematic support to successfully implement a novel teaching technique whereby, in Ms. Rathkey’s words, teachers “manipulate the standards, not the children.” To do this teachers must shift their ideas about planning to embrace co-creating and participating in the learning context with children. As this study demonstrates, the negotiated project approach can help children meet their learning goals, form good self-concepts about themselves, and motivate them to investigate authentic problems. These findings lead us to conclude that providing teachers with such systematic support would be well worth the investment.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sascha Mitchell
    • 1
  • Teresa S. Foulger
    • 2
  • Keith Wetzel
    • 2
  • Chris Rathkey
    • 3
  1. 1.San Diego State UniversitySan DiegoUSA
  2. 2.Arizona State UniversityGlendaleUSA
  3. 3.Vision Learning, LLCGlendaleUSA

Personalised recommendations