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‘Words are bandied about but what do they mean?’: An exploration of the meaning of the pedagogical term “project” in historical and contemporary contexts

Chicken, Sarah

‘Words are bandied about but what do they mean?’: An exploration of the meaning of the pedagogical term “project” in historical and contemporary contexts Thumbnail


Sarah Chicken
Associate Professor in Childhood and Education


This thesis explores the pedagogical practices signified by the pedagogical term ‘project;’ which have traditionally been associated with enquiry based progressive ways of working with young children aimed at facilitating levels of both child and teacher autonomy (Hadow, 1931, Plowden 1967, Rinaldi, 2006).
There is an early focus upon historical project constructions bounded by the Hadow reports starting in 1921 to a key Estyn document of 1999, the year of Welsh devolution. This diachronic lens tracks the trajectory of understanding associated with ‘projects’ through an analysis of documentary evidence and is later drawn upon in the empirical study. A central aim is to make visible the perceived role of the practitioner and associated pedagogical practices utilised within ‘projects’ at different points in history; in so doing it also aims to illuminate the unstable and context laden nature of pedagogical terminology in circulation.
The core of the study is the empirical focus – an embedded case study (Yin, 2009) which explored contemporary project interpretations within one Welsh local authority, as a ‘new’ (DCELLS, 2008a) and ‘radical’ (Maynard et al., 2012) early years curriculum, the Foundation Phase was introduced. Participants were located within the same ecological frame, sharing minimal dissimilarity: bounded within a specific geographical location (a five mile radius); a particular curriculum (the Foundation Phase) and at an explicit point in history. A central aim was to consider understandings of the role of the adult and associated pedagogical practices within contemporary project constructions and in so doing to further consider interpretations of the new Foundation Phase Curriculum, in which particular constructions were situated.
The study was underpinned by a constructionist position with the research process viewed as dialogic and subjective in nature (Steer, 1991). Teachers were observed; exemplar documentary evidence collected and follow-up interviews used in a collaborative cycle of ‘meaning making.’ Bernsteinian notions of pedagogy and framing were utilised as analytical tools aimed at exploring how projects were interpreted, whilst Foucauldian notions of discourses were utilised to explain why projects may have been viewed in particular ways. Pedagogical practices associated with three broad project categories were made visible through analysis.
Findings indicate that there were noteworthy differences particularly in relation to the varying levels of autonomy offered to the child and the associated positions adopted by the teacher. Whilst teachers used a range of progressive language such as ‘child initiated, ’ the practices noted were often constraining and resonated with a discourse of regulatory modernity (Moss, 2007) as participants succumbed to the ‘regulatory gaze’ (Osbourne, 2006). Since participants were identified because of their contextual similarities, differences in ‘project’ interpretations were deemed to be illustrative of the complex nature of the meaning making process and it is subsequently theorised that pedagogical terms are both context and value laden.

This research may be significant within the Welsh context where the 'Foundation Phase' attempts to balance teacher and child agency but at the same time still retains a focus upon pre-specified outcomes. These findings may subsequently have implications for the policy to practice trajectory.


Chicken, S. ‘Words are bandied about but what do they mean?’: An exploration of the meaning of the pedagogical term “project” in historical and contemporary contexts. (Thesis). University of the West of England. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Publicly Available Date Jun 6, 2019
Keywords projects, early years, pedagogy, curriculum, teaching, learning, policy
Public URL
Award Date Dec 19, 2014


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