Theoretical Support for Project-based Learning

Over the past year, I have been learning a lot about assigning project work to my students. I’ve been interested in project work ever since the fourth grade, when I worked with my dad on a project for Mrs. Farrell’s science class. I researched the process of drilling for oil in the ocean and my dad helped me build a giant display of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Working with him on that double decker display, with its toothpaste textured ocean, paper mache earth and coral, wooden oil rig, and clay sea creatures and deep sea divers, was one of the most fun and memorable school assignments I’ve ever had.

Today, after having reviews some the theoretical support for project-based learning (PBL), I see the interaction between my dad and I in a new light. To improve as a teacher, I have learned how important it is to deepen my understanding of past experiences by stepping out into the theoretical.

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is a theory of learning that has given me the academic vocabulary to describe what I have known for quite sometime, that children learn through interactions with people who know more than they do. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Vygotsky studied how children learn while interacting with more capable others, like parents and teachers. He introduced ZPD as an approach to intelligence testing, arguing that only looking at what a child can do independently, as in traditional intelligence testing, provides teachers with an incomplete view of a child’s intelligence. He argued that the best way to find out what a child is capable of achieving in the future is by looking at what a child can do independently as well as what they can do with assistance through social interaction.

I don’t think I could have learned as much as I did about building realistically scaled models without my dad’s assistance. For each little detail of the model, he created the first bits, working slowly so I could see each step. Then, he helped me create the pieces, giving me tips and re-expemplifying certain steps, until I was able to finish the bits on my own. Basically, he exhibited his knowledge of craft making to me, and I, thoroughly impressed by his artistic ability, eagerly tried to match his skill, and through the process, learned a bit of what he knew about craft making.

On reflection, Vygotsky’s theory describes the learning process between my dad and I. Today, as I improve as a teacher, I see the connection between learning through project work and ZPD. By design, PBL can promote social interaction, and if scaffolded correctly, project work can be used as a means of determining the distance between a student’s actual developmental level (determined by independent problem solving) and a student’s potential development (determined by collaborative problem solving between the student and more capable others, and possibly, between equally capable others).

Though Vygotsky died young, his theories about learning continued to inspire research on children’s development and learning. Over time, sociocultural theorists took on his theory and applied it to language learning. Today, thousands of English teachers like me have learned how Vygotsky’s learning theories connect to our notions about and preferences for collaborative language learning.

Below is a project I worked on in my Applied Linguistics Research course at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, with Professor Katherine Bailey. The project consisted of going through the process of writing our own, original research on an issue related to language learning and teaching. Though not an exhaustive review, the literature review in my research report shows my current understanding of the theoretical support for PBL. As you may know already, PBL is supported by a wide range of educational theories, from John Dewey’s constructivist and experiential theories, to Fredricka Stoller’s and  Gulbahar Beckett’s project frameworks. Though the literature review provide readers with plenty of references concerning PBL, it’s just the tip of the ol’ proverbial iceberg. Enjoy!

For your reading pleasure, here is a list of selected references on project-based learning and teaching in language classrooms. If you are interested in finding selected references about other important topics in language education (e.g., action research, autonomy and agency, etc.), you can find them on The International Research Foundation’s (TIRF) website.


Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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