History project work and projects in the subject of history

Michael Sauer has been a professor of history education at the Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen since 2004. In addition, he is the co-editor of the journals "Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht" and "Geschichte lernen". His main areas of focus are media and methodology issues, empirical research on learning and teaching, and the culture of history. He edited the book "Spurensucher. Ein Praxisbuch für historische Projektarbeit," published in 2014.

By Michael Sauer

Translated by Leslie Kuo

Characteristics of project work 

A project is a working method in which the participants explore a topic as independently as possible — from formulating a research question to presenting the results. The idea of the project corresponds with the constructivist philosophy that predominates education and educational psychology today. In this philosophy, learning is seen not as a simple (passive) absorption of knowledge, but as an active, creative process, in which the learners individually "construct" what they learn based on previous knowledge and experiences.

While the exact details vary, there is essential agreement in the literature that the characteristics of project work can be described as follows:

  • Projects respond to tasks and problems relevant to real life and the situation at hand. 

  • They are also oriented towards the interests and experiences of the participants.

  • Project assignments should be socially relevant whenever possible. The goal is taking action and being effective in a real-life situation.

  • Participants plan, organize, and take responsibility for their project work, independently and cooperatively. The project facilitator provides support as necessary.

  • There is no externally defined timeframe; the timeline is created based on what is necessary for the project. 

  • The methodology depends on the nature of the assignment. As necessary, approaches from different fields or related disciplines can be used. However, the research question and methods can also come from a single field or related discipline.

  • Project work should be action-based and involve as many of the senses as possible.

  • The aim of project work is to yield a useful product that makes sense and is also presented externally.

  • One part of project work is project participants’ reflection on the work and communications processes.

  • The value of project work lies not only in the result, but in the entire work process and the reflection on that process.

Work phases/steps

The following steps constitute, more or less, a simple project plan:

  • Getting started: identify a topic, formulate a research question 

  • Planning: organize into groups, distribute assignments, and decide on sites, materials, methods, timeline, product/presentation, and audience

  • Execution: research and obtain materials, investigate in a method-oriented manner, record and compile findings, summarize results within the group, document the working process (project journals, logs, reports).

  • Preparing a product and presenting results: different product and presentation formats with varying reach and audiences, e.g. portfolio, brochure, bulletin board display, poster, exhibition, article for the school website, other web publication, stage performance, film, letter to the editor, newspaper article, initiative for a new street name or monument, panel discussion. 

  • Reflection: reflect on and conclude the project at the end; during the project, share information with each other, discuss and resolve organizational questions together, and clarify how group processes will work. 

Schools and projects

Projects with children and young people can be carried out in schools, in association with schools, or in youth work outside of schools. The most widely known and well-established example in Germany is the President’s History Competition, organized every two years by the Körber Foundation. It may seem at first glance that the goals, conditions, and requirements of project work are at cross purposes with those of the typical academic, course-based lesson. A lesson arises from an academic subject, its content, and its methods; it serves to teach knowledge that is considered socially relevant, and does so systematically, using a controlled methodology. A project is defined based on a problem; any methods that happen to be appropriate and helpful can be used to solve the problem — regardless of field; that is the idea of a project. Also, a project requires a longer-term and continual engagement with a problem, which the typical organizational structure of a school does not actually permit. 

However, the history project and the modern history lesson also have a central aspect in common. Both are based on the outline of a historical investigation. The starting point is a historical question; it is investigated using appropriate material with methods specific to the field; at the end, there is an answer or an explanation. Peter Adamski rightly states, "Project work […] is, for the subject of history, not an artificial, modernistic concept, but rather, it has a particular affinity with the goals and methods of the field." (p. 2) Therefore, history projects should not be seen as a fundamentally different alternative to institutional, course-based learning, but as supplementary and suitable for implementing within the institution of the school.

The potential of history projects

Projects require a considerable investment of time and work from all participants. This investment must pay off. The goal is not only the acquisition of historical knowledge, but also gaining skills in the subject and beyond it. There is also the motivation that such an endeavor can elicit from all the participants; however, it must be intense enough and lasting enough to help them overcome the many obstacles they may encounter. 

Usually, people primarily focus on how project work builds general skills: independent planning, decision making, organizing, and problem solving. In fact, skills specific to history are just as important. These include formulating questions and hypotheses, researching sources (How do I work in an archive?), working with different types of sources, interviewing with witnesses and critically evaluating these interviews. All of this should lead to an account, and an interpretation, of history that has plausible argumentation and sufficient evidence, and is presented appropriately. Thus, in a successful project, research-based historical learning can indeed take place. Of course, the participants cannot acquire all the necessary skills within the project itself. A foundation must already be in place, or the necessary skills must be practiced in preparation. 

For history projects, topics in local and regional history are particularly suitable. They offer the most direct connection to real life and the participants’ areas of experience. Often, the prominent issues are also timely and relevant in terms of the culture of history and in the culture of remembrance. Practical research problems are less of an issue than with other topics: it's easier to access objects (places, buildings, memorials), people (witnesses or experts), and institutions (libraries, archives, public authorities, companies). And finally, there is a better chance of capturing attention locally with the results of the project.

Suitable and manageable topics of this kind could include the history of a memorial, building, street, school, church or synagogue, club, or business. The project could then lead to a newspaper article which makes the results accessible for a wider audience; to a documentation that helps the institution investigated understand itself better; or to an initiative to add an information placard to the street or memorial, for which a proposed text was prepared as part of the project.

Project facilitation and support

The role of the project facilitators is to support and advise the participants. To do this, they must time their offers of help wisely: sometimes, when problems arise, it’s best to stand back and let the participants find their own solution; at other times a nudge or a word of advice is appropriate. 

Ideally, those carrying out the project should start by identifying their own topic. In reality, this surely is the exception, not the rule. In choosing a topic, one must also consider the possibilities for implementing it. Therefore, it requires discussion between the facilitator and the participants. And facilitators should have some suggestions of their own up their sleeves, which they can offer as options and which they can get the participants excited about. 

An important point for facilitators to advise on and help clarify beforehand is whether the envisioned project can actually be carried out. Will it be possible to gather and process enough material, with a justifiable amount of work? Or is there, to the contrary, far more material than can be dealt with? What contacts and visits to institutions, experts, or witnesses will be necessary? Can these actually be carried out? Even though it is actually part of a project to accept that there will be wrong turns and mistakes, and to learn from these, a risk of total failure should be avoided. It can also make sense for facilitators to make manageable materials available, which the participants can use to at least get started with the project.

As far as possible, the work process should be monitored as it progresses. Support can become necessary with problems involving the content and research methods, but also with communication problems. Self-reflection and internal evaluation of the project should be largely self-directed by the participants, but in this area, too, it may become necessary to offer help or suggestions. 

To summarize it pragmatically: history projects offer many opportunities for learning and gaining experience, the effects of which can continue beyond the actual timeframe of the project. However, the complete independence on which the idea of project work, in principle, is based, can only be realized in the rarest of cases. Thus, the maxim should be: as much independence as possible, as much support as necessary. 


Further literature:

Adamski, Peter: "Historisches Lernen in Projekten" (Basisartikel), in Geschichte lernen H. 110 (2006), 2–9. 

This article is a short version of the following essay: 

Sauer, Michael, "Projekte und Projektarbeit in Geschichte," in Sauer, Michael (Ed.), Spurensucher. Ein Praxisbuch für historische Projektarbeit, Hamburg 2014, S. 9–30.


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