Project Method Essay

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The project method was developed by William Heard Kilpatrick (1871–1965) during the progressive period in American education. Based on the teachings of John Dewey (1859–1952), it incorporated modifications and focused on a curriculum which used the child’s life experiences and interests.

Kilpatrick was Dewey’s student at Teachers College, Columbia University. Kilpatrick’s focus was upon the use of successful living in a democratic society. He emphasized problem-area studies or social living themes which had a moral outcome that was organized around the children’s interests. Subject matter was only used to fulfill the method’s educational purpose.

Kilpatrick taught courses in the history of education at Teachers College and published The Dutch Schools of New Netherland and Colonial New York in 1912, based on his doctoral dissertation. He wrote about and critically examined the Montessori system and Froebel’s kindergarten in 1916.

Kilpatrick believed the best guarantee of sharpened intellectual results and enhanced moral judgment was in a curriculum reorganized around projects. By 1918, he prepared an essay, “The Project Method,” which first appeared in the Teachers College Record. His essay placed the purposeful act at the heart of the educative process. This publication brought Kilpatrick national and international fame. Over 60,000 reprints of the article circulated during the next twenty-five years. His aim was to show how purposeful activity in a social environment was capable of reconciling Edward L. Thorndike’s connectionism with Dewey’s view of experience and education. He believed that by emphasizing purposeful activity, consonant with the child’s own goals, he would take maximum account of Thorndike’s law of effect, thereby enhancing both direct and concomitant learning. And by using a social environment, he believed certain ethical outcomes would also result.

Kilpatrick’s essay “The Project Method” proposed that actual experience offered typical moral life experiences more than the usual school curriculum did, thus ensuring permanent acquisition of intelligent moral character. In l925 he wrote Foundations of Method, which elaborated on the project method. He professed that subject matter could never be set in advance; it would have to result from activities the students pursued and planned. His four steps were: purposing, planning, executing, and judging. According to him, the only way to learn well is to practice living well, thus he favored a child-centered approach over a subject matter one. Kilpatrick used his classes to disseminate these progressive education ideas. Over the years as a professor at Teachers College, he taught approximately 35,000 students from all over the country.

Kilpatrick’s work on the project method appears to be the version of progressive education that remains most used and best known. By 1940 small evidences of the project method were clearly used in American classrooms, though often out of their progressive philosophical context.


  1. Cremin, L. A. (1964). The transformation of the school. New York: Vintage Books.
  2. Kilpatrick, W. H. (1918). The project method: The use of the purposeful act in the educative process. New York: Teachers College Press.
  3. Kilpatrick, W. H. (1925). Foundations of method. New York: Macmillan.

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