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Q: Why do projects? – A: Relevance & educational values

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Group of children gathered around a globeProject author, Tom Hutchinson, continues a series of posts on the benefits of project work in the classroom, this time exploring how projects can help bring relevance to students’ learning and promote cross-curricular learning.

In looking at the question of motivation in my last post, I have been most concerned with how students feel about the process of learning, that is, the kinds of activities they do in the language classroom. An equally important and related question is how the learners feel about what they are learning.

A foreign language can often seem a remote and unreal thing. This inevitably has a negative effect on motivation, because the students don’t see the language as relevant to their own lives. If learners are going to become real language users, they must learn that English is not only used for talking about things British or American, but can be used to talk about their own world. Project work helps to bridge this relevance gap.

Real needs of language learners

Firstly, project work helps to make the language more relevant to learners’ actual needs. When students from Athens or Barcelona or Milan use English to communicate with other English speakers, what will they want to talk about? Will it be London, New York, Janet and John’s family, Mr Smith’s house? Surely not! They will want, and be expected, to talk about aspects of their own lives – their house, their family, their town, and so on. Project work thus enables students to rehearse the language and factual knowledge that will be of most value to them as language users.

Language and culture

It is widely recognized that one of the most important benefits of learning a foreign language is the opportunity to learn about other cultures. However, it is important, particularly with an international language such as English, that this is not a one-way flow.

The purpose of learning a foreign language is to make communication between two cultures possible. English, as an international language, should not be just for talking about the ways of the English-speaking world. It should also be a means of telling the world about your own culture. Project work helps to create this approach – with project work the language acts as a bridge enabling two cultures to communicate with each other.

There is a growing awareness among language teachers that the process and content of the language class should contribute towards the general educational development of the learner. Project work is very much in tune with modern views about the purpose and nature of education.

Independent investigation

Firstly, there is the question of educational values. Most modern school curricula require all subjects to encourage initiative, independence, imagination, self-discipline, co-operation, and the development of useful research skills. Project work is a way of turning such general aims into practical classroom activity.

Cross-curricular studies

Secondly, cross-curricular approaches are encouraged. For language teaching this means that students should have the opportunity to use the knowledge they gain in other subjects in the English class. Project work clearly encourages this. Here, for example, is a project which required knowledge of the history and geography of Slovakia (click for full view).

Poster of the Seven Wonders of Slovakia

In the last three blog posts, I have considered the merits of project work in terms of the process of learning, language content, and educational values. From all three points of view, project work emerges as a practical methodology that puts into practice the fundamental principles of a communicative approach to language teaching. It can thus bring considerable benefits to your language classroom.

Look out for my next post, in which I will address some concerns about project work.

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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