Project method and other open architectures for democratic learning: Dewey's pedagogic legacy
Terry Wrigley
Northumbria University, Edinburgh, United Kingdom

For many years the invention of Project Method was ascribed to John Dewey and his colleague William Heard Kilpatrick. The latter’s pamphlet “The project method: the use of the purposeful act in the educative process” was published in 1918, and reprinted ten times in the next decade. It is therefore hardly surprising that people came to believe this was the origin.

In a sense, arguing about its origins misses the point. This thin pamphlet says little about specific methods, but espouses a philosophy of learning which is deeply democratic. It contrasts learning through ‘purposeful activity in a social situation’ with the coercion of ‘our customary set-task sit-alone-at-your-own-desk procedure’. It regards the former not only as ‘the best guarantee of the utilization of the child’s native capacities now too frequently wasted’ but also as a way of building ‘moral character’; whereas the latter is seen as promoting ‘selfish individualism’.

In my own writing, I have described the standard economy of school learning as “alienated labour” in Marx's sense.

"Rather like factory work, the pupil is told what to do, how long to do it for, then hands over the product, not to a real user or audience but to the teacher, eventually getting back, in exchange, a mark from the teacher, as a surrogate wage." (Wrigley 2007: 166)

Project Method, as argued by Kilpatrick in line with Dewey’s thinking on democracy and education, is the opposite of such alienated learning.

Subsequent research (Knoll 1991, 1992) has clarified that project method has much longer roots dating back originally to architecture and design education in 18th Century Italy. Students were challenged with presenting a design and model to fulfil real or realistic requirements (as in the Design and Technology paradigm). Knoll's research does not, however, undermine the alignment with Dewey’s wider writings. Indeed, it is vital to understand that Project Method is not a set of routines but an orientation to curriculum planning and the deep purposes of education for democracy.

Project Method ideally begins and ends in practice, but is not simple activity (another important Deweyan principle, despite simplistic assumptions that experiential learning involves nothing but manual procedures). Germany’s best known expert Karl Frey calls project method “der Weg zum bildenden Tun” (the road to educative / formative action).

In its adoption across northern Europe in the late 20th Century, project method has taken a variety of forms. Some of these are closer to its early origins in design. Others provide a structure whereby conceptual learning is situated in real-life issues and structured so that learners become authentically engaged in collaboratively exploring or solving a problem, developing a range of cross-disciplinary knowledge and skills along the way.

A classic structure can be found in Danish guidance for social studies (Undervisningsministeriet 1995), with its four stages:

  • initial stimulus and engagement (whether initiated by teacher or students)
  • extensive whole-class discussion to elaborate aspects of the issue, and during which the teacher suggests ways of drawing on disciplinary knowledge and skills
  • research of specific aspects of the wider theme chosen by small groups or individuals
  • presentation of findings to the whole class, not simply to share facts but to stimulate further discussion.

Ideally, this can be followed by a fifth stage involving some kind of presentation or action in the wider society.

Since encountering project method in this form, I came across another structure Storyline – a Scottish invention now also widespread across northern Europe. Designed for younger children, but used in parts of Scandinavia with all ages, participants are first engaged in a situation, presented graphically, and engage by inventing characters or roles for themselves. The structure is held together by a skeletal plot (the ‘storyline’), with the teacher triggering various kinds of activity (drama, research, maths, etc.) by announcing or enacting, a key event.

I coined the term ‘open architecture’ (Wrigley 2007:170) to explain the way in which both projects and storyline create a structure which sustains collective engagement and participation in a learning community whilst giving space for student initiative and creativity. It can be used, moreover, to connect a family of methods including forms of place-based learning, Boal’s theatre of the oppressed, collective design and technology challenges, large scale simulations and so on.

Open architectures have in common features such as:

  • engaging learners through a meaningful situation or theme
  • embedding learning in a real or realistic context which students find purposeful
  • integrating broad skills development with a cross-curricular approach to knowledge
  • working towards a fulfilling outcome, such as a performance, presentation or form of civic action.

The purpose of this presentation is both to share various examples of ‘open architecture’, especially modes of project and storyline, and to articulate these in terms of the pedagogies discussed by Dewey in Democracy and Education and other works. It is particularly significant as an alternative to the reductionist forms of teaching and learning privileged by high-stakes accountability.


Frey, K (2007) Die Projektmethode: der Weg zum bildenden Tun. Weinheim: Beltz Verlag

Kilpatrick, W (1918) The project method: the use of the purposeful act in the educative process. New York: Teachers College

Knoll, M (1991) Europa – nicht Amerika. Zum Ursprung der Projektmethode in der Pädagogik, 1702-1875. Pädagogische Rundschau 1991, 45, 41-58

Knoll, M (1992) John Dewey und die Projektmethode. Zur Aufklärung eines Mißverständnisses. Bildung und Erziehung 1992, 45, 89-108.

Undervisningsministeriet: Folkeskoleafdelingen (1995) Samfundsfag. Copenhagen: Undervisningsministeriet.

Wrigley, T (2007) Projects, stories and challenges: more open architectures for school learning. In S Bell, S Harkness and G White (eds) Storyline past, present and future. Glasgow: University of Strathclyde Press

Parallel Session A:7
Terry Wrigley
Presentation type:
Work in progress
MAB 118
Wednesday, 28 September
16:30 - 17:00