Principles, Characteristics and Objectives of Project Education

Based on texts that have been published by the ‘Development of Project Education Foundation’ (Stichting Ontwikkeling Projektonderwijs), see also

 In April 2007 the text was updated by: Anne-Ruth Wertheim, Theo Jansen and Johan Marteijn  (translation from Dutch into English by Nicola Chadwick)


Between 1973 and 1989, a special form of project education was developed, at first at the VWO/HAVO (pre university education/upper general secondary education) school ‘Het Wagenings Lyceum’ in the city of Wageningen and then at a variety of other secondary schools, ranging from MAVO (lower general education) to LBO (lower secondary vocational education). This form of education was named ‘open project education’ due to the lack of subject-related objectives and the open character of the learning processes.
The principles, characteristics and objectives of this project education are described below in brief points. This list is not meant as a checklist of goals to be ticked off, which have to be strived towards in every project, not to mention realized. It is much more a ‘philosophy’; actual principles, characteristics and objectives of education forms which take the personal and social development of pupils seriously, without leaving them at the mercy of a vague assignment to ‘learn independently’. The list is meant to give direction and grip to a form of education that combines the social significance of learning with the pleasure and curiosity, inventiveness, commitment and solidarity which pupils have in them.
In short, the following discusses project education and projects.

Principles and characteristics of project education

  • The basis of the learning processes in project education is a combination of research activities by groups of pupils and the way in which they work together.
  • Teachers support these processes intensively in which learning to research and learning to work together are closely interwoven.
  • In a process for which plenty of time is set aside, pupils choose the themes which they are to research themselves.
  • The process of choosing a theme goes from individual choices per pupil to the formation of a group around a common theme.
  • The area in which themes can be sought is limited by the following conditions:
  1.  Pupils have to be personally involved: “it has to be something to do with you.”
  2. The theme has to be able to be researched using multiple sorts of sources, both inside and outside the school: books, internet, audio-visual material, visits to institutes and companies, face-to-face meetings.
  3. The theme should not be too extensive and nor too limited: researchable in the available time.
  4. The theme has to have personal and social significance.
  5. The research has to set a problem as well as solve a problem if possible.

The teachers can draw up a ‘Basic List of Notions’ before the research begins, to explain a number of terms and to get the pupils emotionally involved in the research. For this, the teacher chooses notions which are relevant to the theme once an umbrella theme or a central question has been chosen. In the other cases, they choose notions which they think are important for the research. Notions can be added during the research, for instance as preparation for a visit or interview.

  • Experiences outside school is invaluable, just as processing within school is.
  • In addition to the group research, activities take place within a project which are aimed at joint self-management: class meetings with democratic opinion-making and decision
  • making about the general running of matters, the organisation of parents’ evenings and working weeks outside school.
  • In as far as possible, projects cover long periods of time (preferably a number of months) and a number of lessons are dedicated to the projects every week.
  • Support is given by a few teachers who are present at the same time and systematically share the responsibility for running affairs with the pupils.
  • The pupils’ personal interests and experiences form the guiding principles for the learning processes. But that does not mean that the direction in which the learning processes are supported is arbitrary. The objectives of project education describe what kind insights, attitudes and skills are sought after.
  • Support ‘by project’ means that teachers themselves develop attitudes, insights and skills when they support the pupils, which turns a project into a mutual learning process. Project education learning takes place on the basis of equality. Everyone involved learns from each other and teachers avoid using their powers over pupils.
  • During support of the project, teachers use structured methods to learn both how to research and how to work together.
  • The evaluation in project education is meant to improve the individual and group learning processes and not to select pupils. Nevertheless, it is desirable to formulate minimum requirements per objective at the beginning of a project, in consultation with the pupil, taking their individual capacities into consideration.
  • Evaluation takes place during and at the end of a project in processes which involve the pupil.  A word report can be part of the progress report which is personal and non-comparative. Progress can be measured against the pupil’s own starting position, capacities, needs and efforts and not compared to those of others. Teachers report in terms of progress, and if it stagnates, they indicate how to change this and which support teachers and fellow pupils can give.

Objectives of project education

To give some grip on the preparation, support and evaluation of a project; the described principles and characteristics are translated into concrete objectives.
Firstly, here are the two main objectives of (open) project education:

1.   Learning to research the reality of society

Pupils learn how to develop their own research manner with regard to information and its interpretation and with regard to notions, feelings and behaviour they encounter in society, in others and in themselves. They learn to ask questions and to question answers about situations and relationships they encounter and about their own reactions and those of others to this. And they learn to think about possible solutions to what they experience as right or wrong, just or unjust or problematic.

2.   Learning to work together and show solidarity

Pupils learn to work together as equals. They learn to recognize each other’s needs and interests so that they can make choices to take joint decisions and to undertake useful activities, in which everyone has an equal say in as far as possible.
Within these two objectives, a range of sub-objectives can be formulated, which are shown below in a long list. On one hand, this list is not exhaustive, on the other the list is not supposed to be used as a checklist. The circumstances of a project determine which choices should be made, by teachers and by pupils. The list is a kind of library.

Possibilities for 1.        Leaning to research social reality

1.1. Learning to research social reality


  •  to differentiate between views and facts
  • to formulate and delineate useful questions
  • to choose and apply suitable research methods
  • to look critically at acquired information
  • to doubt information that has been offered
  • to be alert to incompleteness of information that has been offered or acquired.
  • to link (concealed) information to (social) interests and contradictions in society
  • to refuse to accept simplistic divisions into good and bad
  • to recognise prejudices
  • to link prejudices to interests and contradictions in society
  • to recognise (concealed) injustices and unequal positions of power
  • to discover social coherence
  • to order data into conclusions
  • to make useful reports
  • to present data/information in an attractive way
  • to base your own views on your own research as much as possible
  • not to form/judge an opinion too quickly
  • to have doubts
  • that the results of the research may consist of better defined questions or new ones
  • to turn vagueness or doubts into new questions
  • to change their own opinions on the basis of new information
  • to question phenomena of society that appear to be matter of facts
  • to question their own notions, feelings and behaviour
  • to see connections between structures that have developed historically and notions, feelings and behaviour of people or groups of people
  • to see connections between structures that have developed historically and contemporary events and developments.

1.2. Learning to design


  • to give shape to their own learning situations: research activities, processing, presentations, action taken
  • to plan
  • to design presentations to share knowledge
  • to design alternatives for unjust/ineffective and frustrating situations
  • to design various solutions to problems
  • to design images of the future
  • to publically present designs (in words/pictures/theatre/music).

Possibilities for 2. Leaning to work together and show solidarity

 2.1. Learning to work together


  • to define responsibilities
  • to connect responsibilities to a democratic division and acceptance of tasks
  • to call each other to account
  • to confront each other without humiliating each other
  • to combine criticism to finding solutions
  • to express and accept criticism and appreciation
  • to learn from each other’s skills and expertise
  • to take initiative
  • to appreciate initiative from others
  • to listen to each other
  • to think less in terms of blaming a certain person and more in terms of interaction and roles
  • to express their own feelings promptly and in ways that others understand them
  • to help others to express their own feelings promptly and in ways that others understand them
  • to combat prejudices and gossip
  • to see through what the cause and effect can be of ranking and labelling in groups (for instance the mechanism of making someone scapegoat)
  • to place the existence of ranking in a social context
  • to form their own opinion
  • to stand up for your own opinion, even if it deviates from the majority
  • to interpret what is personal in social terms and vice versa
  • to persevere in combatting injustice
  • to recognise small steps of progress when combatting injustice
  • to choose who to show solidarity to
  • that working together and showing solidarity can be learnt.

2.2.    Learning to organise and manage


  • to hold meetings (as chairperson, as minutes secretary and as participant)
  • to manage finances
  • to plan and draw up and execute work timetables
  • to differentiate between opinion-making and decision-making
  • to formulate proposals and to explain them
  • to summarize
  • to organise communal activities
  • to delegate
  • to give and accept a mandate
  • to manage material
  • to use communication tools effectively
  • to organise joint working periods and breaks
  • to give shape to alternatives for unjust, ineffective and frustrating situations.