Classroom Inquiry: Student-Centered Experiences

Debrah Diffily

Our responsibility as educators is to imagine and create places of learning ... Social studies educators should be leaders in this effort ... This focus on school as a place for the community of learners will in the end be advantageous to individuals as well as to society as a whole.1

The principles of effective social studies teaching and learning can be met by many different approaches. One of the most effective methods is project-based learning. During project work, students select what they will study from within a range of topics defined by the teacher and also choose what they will work on each day. This student choice makes the inquiry more meaningful to students than teacher-assigned work.2 Projects provide many opportunities to integrate curriculum,3 and the very nature of project work is active. Students work together in different parts of the classroom, on different tasks related to the project.4 Because project-based learning is meaningful, integrated, and active, teachers find more opportunities to challenge students at their own levels of ability.5 As students become experienced in doing project work, they challenge themselves and each other to ask more questions, find more resources, and create more informative projects.6


What is Project-Based Learning?

There is no single definition for projects. Educators use the term “project” to describe many different learning experiences.7 Some teachers believe that any activity that continues for more than a day is a project. When students read a book and recreate the book’s setting by constructing a diorama, that is often referred to as a language arts project. Art teachers refer to creating a paper-mache mask or shaping a sculpture as an art project, and science teachers regard an experiment carried out for a schoo#146;s science fair as a science project.

We advocate project-based learning that helps students relate their work in school to work in the “real world.” Students select an area of interest, then work collaboratively to research the topic. Teachers encourage students to locate as many different sources of information as they can: written works, verbal advice from experts, websites, and personal observation during fieldwork. Students also create a “product”, addressed to a specific audience, in order to share what they have learned through their research.

A project-based classroom is more similar to a collaborative workplace than to a typical teacher-directed elementary school classroom. Textbooks are not totally abandoned in project classrooms, but they serve as only one resource among many.

Observation is a key source of information when topics lend themselves to field work. Students learn academic skills not as abstract exercises, but as methods for accomplishing something that is a part of their work. Unlike most traditional learning experiences, projects are conducted over several days or several weeks. Each project ends with students sharing what they learned with an audience, preferrably one that extends beyond their own classroom.

In summary, well-designed projects are student-directed; connected to the real world; informed by multiple resources; research-based; embedded with knowledge and skills; conducted over time; and concluded with an end product fashioned after a similar product in the adult world.


The Teacher’s Roles

In project-based classrooms, teachers act as directors only occasionally. They no longer act as “dispensers of knowledge” and “answerers of all questions.” Instead, they serve as mentors, models, and facilitators. While still “in charge” of the class, they use more teaching strategies than “traditional teachers” might use. Rather than reciting information, teachers who facilitate projects perfect strategies of wondering aloud (pondering) and reflecting questions back to students. For example, rather than directly answering a student’s question, the project teacher might respond, “I wonder how you could find the answer to that question,” or “If you’ve already checked the books in the room, what else could you do to find the answer?” Project teachers find ways to challenge students with various aspects of the activities they have chosen to tackle. Rather than simply observe students working on a business letter or a brochure, the teacher might direct a group of students to examine examples of such work created by adults. They could then be challenged to identify the characteristics of letters or brochures that made them useful publications, and to duplicate those characteristics in writing their own letters, or create their own brochures.

In project work, the teacher meets with students, determines “where they are” in their research and reporting, and challenges them to move forward by outlining (or inquiring about) the next step, and placing it within the context of a timeline for the assignment.


The Students’ Roles

Student roles in project-based classes are also different than those called for in most elementary school classrooms. During projects, students direct their learning instead of following the directives of the teacher. They select the topic of their own project, plan the activities needed to research the topic, and then present what they have learned to others. On any given day, students might collaborate on a list of questions; searching books, magazines, or internet sites for answers to their questions; find people who might be considered experts on the topic, write inquiry letters; draft fact cards, or gather information needed for planning a field trip. Of course, students make these decisions with the guidance and support of a teacher.

It is especially important that students select their daily tasks during project work. This helps empower students to make other important decisions during project work. Teachers expect students to work independently, accept leadership roles, be responsible, and exhibit intellectual curiosity, explaining to students what these behaviors look like, and working with them until they are comfortable and competent in these roles.

Learning Content, Honing Skills

Students can learn important content knowledge and develop academic skills through a project. When students have a need for a particular skill, their motivation to learn is strong. Working on a project, they can immediately apply what they have learned to accomplish something important to them.7 “It’s by using a skill that a student becomes really proficient. Good project work provides a real-life context for students to practice the skills they’re learning”8

Within a given project, learning experiences can be integrated.9 Whatever the topic, reading drives the research, and writing is essential to documentation. Depending on the topic of the project, knowledge and skills about mathematics and science can be embedded into a social studies based project, or the teacher can lead students into certain activities so that these skills are included.

Problem-solving is also a skill that is integral to projects. Problems come up on a daily basis and students must work through them. Working in groups and solving problems leads to learning and refining social skills.


The Story of One Project

One elementary school in Texas produces an Intercultural Festival every spring. Unlike traditional school carnivals, at this one first and second grade students are in charge. Each class chooses a different country or culture, studies that culture, and plans a booth for the Festival.

After several class meetings, one first-grade class decided to study Mexican culture. Seven students in the class had Hispanic ancestry, and they agree to talk with their families about the new project over the weekend. That Saturday, several parents took their children to the public library. On Monday, students brought fifteen books about different aspects of the Mexican culture to school. Shannon, the classroom teacher, began reading aloud from these books. As interest grew over that week, students began to bring Mexican arts and crafts objects into class, items which they had borrowed from family, neighbors, and friends. At the end of two weeks, these “artifacts” filled the classroom. Parents and students contributed in other ways. After a business trip to Mexico, a student’s father returned with newspapers and magazines from there. Shannon contributed a Spanish language tape, several tapes of traditional music, books about the lives of Hispanic students, and two videotapes about contemporary Mexico.

Shannon and other students described some of their experiences of traveling and visiting family relatives in Mexico. Other students were especially curious about Mexican holidays and celebrations. Eventually, students decided that they wanted to interview some adults who would know about this topic. The class developed a list of questions so that they could interview three family members who grew up in Mexico.

The interviews included questions about piñatas. After reviewing notes from the interviews, the students decided that they wanted to make a piñata booth, although some students thought that more could be done. These students advocated making a museum exhibition about Mexico, and the class finally decided to do both.

Students had created other museum exhibits in an out-of-the-way room in the schoo#146;s basement. They were familiar with the process of creating exhibits and with the space that housed their previous exhibits. They brainstormed on what the exhibit should contain and divided into committees based on what part of the exhibit or piñata booth they wanted to work on. The students worked in these committees most of the school day for two weeks.

Finally, the museum was finished and ready for visitors. The student-created exhibit included posted facts about ancient and modern Mexico, travel brochures, and the collection of books that the class had gathered. All the artifacts loaned to the class were displayed, with a student-composed label explaining each item. A few stories (written by the students) were posted, fiction that was based on what the students had learned about young children in Mexico and what their lives are like. Artwork recreated different forms of pre-Columbian and modern art found in Mexico. Students also created museum brochures and posters advertising the exhibit. On the day of the Intercultural Festival, the first graders spent four hours, alternately selling chances to hit the pinata hung in the booth and acting as docents for the exhibit. Observing the students as they interacted with adults and students attending the Intercultural Festival, I concluded that the first-grade students acquired significant knowledge through their project work, developed an assortment of skills, were disposed to use what they had learned, and felt great about their project and themselves.


Assessing What has been Learned

All the students in the class learned important content knowledge and skills during the Mexican Exhibit project. Their research folders contained information from many sources. The students wrote descriptions in their own words. They composed interview questions and recorded the answers during the interviews. The students revised and edited their written work and typed their final drafts for the exhibit. They drew pictures and cut photographs from magazines and travel brochures. They gathered and labeled “artifacts.” They asked their teacher for museum exhibit brochures and used these as models when they designed their own brochure. The first graders researched, planned, and created a museum that helped others understand Mexico and parts of the Hispanic culture.



Projects offer a powerful learning experience for students. Because project-based learning is student directed and connected to the world outside the classroom, these students learn much more than the content of a chapter in a textbook (although that can be part of the lesson). They realize that they can find answers to their questions and that multiple resources are available. Students develop skills that are needed to accomplish their work. When they stay with one topic for an extended period of time, students learn to plan, research, and report their findings. They practice explaining what they have learned to other people. Students involved in projects are empowered to learn and to share their learning with others.10



1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994); NCSS, “A Vision of Powerful Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies: Building Social Understanding and Civic Efficacy,” Social Education 57 (1993): 213-223.

2. Steven Levy, Starting from Scratch: One Classroom Builds its Own Curriculum (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996).

3. Deborah Diffily, “Project Reptile!” Science and Children 38, (2001): 30-35.

4. Lilian Katz and S. Chard, Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach, 2nd ed. (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 2000).

5. Deborah Diffily and C. Sassman, Project-based Learning with Young Children (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002).

6. Steven Wolk, A Democratic Classroom (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998).

7. Jeanette A. Hartman and C. Eckerty, “Projects in the Early Years,” Childhood Education 71 (1995): 141-147.

8. Lillian Katz and S. Chard, p. 20.

9. Deborah Diffily, “The Project Approach: A Museum Exhibit Created by Kindergartners,” Young Children, 51 (1996), 72-75.

10. NCSS, 1994.


Deborah Diffily is an assistant professor of Early Studenthood Education at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas. She formerly taught pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade classes in Fort Worth, Texas.