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Addressing concerns about project work

Nervous woman biting nailsHaving introduced us to, and examined the benefits of, project work in the classroom, Project author, Tom Hutchinson, now considers the primary concerns held by teachers about its use and offers his suggestions for overcoming such concerns.

In previous blog posts, we looked at the benefits of project work, including motivation, relevance and educational values. You are probably wondering by now: what’s the catch? For every benefit there is a price to be paid, and in this section I’ll take a look at some of the main worries that teachers have about project work.

Noise

Teachers are often afraid that the project classroom will be noisier than the traditional classroom and that this will disturb other classes in the school. But project work does not have to be noisy. Students should be spending a lot of the time working quietly on their projects: reading, drawing, writing, and cutting and pasting. In these tasks, students will be working on their own or in groups, but this is not an excuse to make a lot of noise.

The problem is not really one of noise, it is a concern about control. In project work students are working independently – they must, therefore, take on some of the responsibility for managing their learning environment. Part of this responsibility is learning what kind of, and what level of, noise is acceptable. When you introduce project work you also need to encourage and guide the learners towards working quietly and sensibly. Remember that they will enjoy project work and will not want to stop doing it on the basis of it causing too much noise. So it should not be too difficult to get your students to behave sensibly.

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

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.

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Q: Why do projects? – A: Motivation

Smiling child holding colored pensProject author, Tom Hutchinson, continues a series of posts on the benefits of project work in the classroom, this time examining the motivational benefits to learners.

It is not always easy to introduce a new methodology, so we need to be sure that the effort is worthwhile. What benefits does project work bring to the language class? This teacher from Spain expresses it very well:

[With project work] pupils don’t feel that English is a chore, but it is a means of communication and enjoyment. They can experiment with the language as something real, not as something that only appears in books.
(Marisa Cuesta, Spain)

As this teacher indicates, project work captures better than any other activity the two principal elements of a communicative approach. These are:

a. A concern for motivation, that is, how the learners relate to the task.

b. A concern for relevance, that is, how the learners relate to the language.

We could add to these a third element:

c. A concern for educational values, that is, how the language curriculum relates to the general educational development of the learner.

Over the next month or so, I will examine each of these concerns in turn, starting with motivation:

Motivation

If I could give only one piece of advice to teachers it would be this: Get your learners to enjoy learning English. Positive motivation is the key to successful language learning, and project work is particularly useful as a means of generating this. If you talk to teachers who do project work in their classes, you will find that this is the feature that is always mentioned: the students really enjoy it. But why is project work so motivating?

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Introduction to project work – what is a project?

As part of the celebrations for 25 years of Project, now in it’s third edition, and in preparation for the Project Competition to design the best class poster, Tom Hutchinson explains what a project is and shows us a few examples.

Project work is not a new methodology. Its benefits have been widely recognized for many years in the teaching of subjects like Science, Geography, and History. Some teachers have also been doing project work in their language lessons for a long time, but for others it is a new way of working.

In the first of a series of five blog posts, I aim to provide a simple introduction to project work. In the following posts, I shall then go on to explain what benefits project work brings in relation to motivation, relevance, and educational values. I shall also deal with the main worries that teachers have about using project work in their classrooms. So to get started:

What is a project?

The best way to answer this question is to show some examples of projects (click on the images to see full size versions).

Horse poster
Design by Katorina Pokorná and Klára Kucejová

Projects allow students to use their imagination and the information they contain does not always have to be factual. In the above example of a project which required students to introduce themselves and their favourite things, the students pretend they are a horse.

Dinosaur poster
Design by K Hajnovic

You can do projects on almost any topic. Factual or fantastic, they help to develop the full range of learners’ capabilities.

Lady fashion poster
Designer unknown

Projects are often done in poster format, but students can also experiment with the form, like in the project above. You will probably also note that project work can produce errors! Project work encourages a focus on fluency – some errors of accuracy are bound to occur.

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‘Serious Fun’ in the Classroom

Child's project of a town mapTom Hutchinson, author of Project, considers how using project work in the English language classroom helps to inject some ‘Serious Fun’ into learning.

In 2010 Project celebrated its 25th anniversary. It hardly seems that long since the original Project English first appeared, but I’m certainly reminded of time passing when I visit different countries to talk to teachers. It used to be the case that many of them would tell me how fond they were of Project because they had started teaching English with it. Now they’re more likely to tell me that they started learning English with it!

I’m often asked why the course (now in its third edition) has been so popular for so many years, and the 25th anniversary has given me the opportunity to reflect on that question…

I first got involved in writing textbooks in the early 1980s. It was a time when all sorts of new ideas about language and learning were coming out of universities and other teaching institutes around the world. It was an exciting time. Every year seemed to bring some new insight into how we might make our teaching and our materials more ‘communicative’.

It seemed to me, however, that in all this flood of ideas, one crucial element was missing. That was the simple, old-fashioned concept of ‘fun’. To put it simply: You can be absolutely spot on in terms of your syllabus and your task design; you may try to incorporate all the latest ideas about functional language and classroom methodology; but if the resulting teaching materials don’t engage learners’ interests, then you’re probably wasting your time. This is true for any learners, but it’s particularly important with younger learners.

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