Project work, cross-curricular or interdisciplinary teaching and learning - storyline as an approach to effective foreign language teaching

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

61 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. What is Storyline ?
2.1. The Origins
2.2. The Conception
2.3. Main Features

3. Historical Precursors and Theoretical Foundations of Storyline
3.1. Historical Background and Origins of Project Work
3.2. Main Differences between Storyline and Project Work
3.2.1. The Story
3.2.2. The Identification with the Characters
3.2.3. Key Questions
3.3. Cognitive and Developmental Psychology
3.4. Constructivism
3.5. Second Language Acquisition Research

4. Storyline as an Approach to Effective Foreign Language Teaching – Strengths and Weaknesses
4.1. The narrative principle
4.2. Relation to Real Life
4.3. Authentic Communication
4.4. Holistic Learning
4.5. Product-Orientation
4.6. Skill-Based and Process-Oriented Learning
4.7. Learner-Orientation
4.8. Developing Learner Autonomy
4.9. Interdisciplinary Learning
4.10. Role of the Teacher
4.11. Assessment and Evaluation
4.12. Relation of Storyline to Other Teaching Methods and Commercial Materials

5. Storyline in the Primary Foreign Language Classroom
5.1. Strengths and Advantages
5.2. Weaknesses, Disadvantages and Problems
5.3. Conclusion: Challenges, Chances and Prospects of Storyline as an Approach to Primary Foreign Language Teaching

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Project work, cross-curricular or interdisciplinary teaching and learning, open-planned lessons, experiential learning – these are only a few of the whole range of existing terms expressing a trend of educational methodology postulated by theorists throughout many past decades. Related to each other by the similar notion of ‘ learning by doing’ they intended to reform the antiquated style of traditional teaching and replace it by a methodology characterised by learner orientation and learner autonomy. Due to the rapidly changing world and its demands the fact-based education system had to move to a skilled-based conception characterised by process- rather than content-orientation.

The aim now should be that students gain the skills necessary to find information for themselves, that they can communicate their ideas in many ways, think imaginatively, tackle problems, test solutions and that they learn how to learn. (Bell, 2000, p. 8, originally underlined type)

Surprisingly today, about one hundred years after John Dewey developed his idea of project work (see e.g. van Dick, 1991), and even though such progressive theories became an integral part of teacher trainings in several European countries, the practical realisation still often lacks teachers’ and principals’ willingness and engagement. Amongst them lots of foreign language teachers may be ascertained who rigidly stick to their out-of-date methods of language teaching through authoritarian textbook-dominated grammar and vocabulary drills.

Since the 1st May 2004 the European Union has been enlarged by ten further countries. The realisation of the idea of becoming one Europe, i.e. sharing political, economical and cultural issues, requires linguistic comprehension. Knowing foreign languages becomes indispensable, but what is relevant in this context is the ability to communicate rather than an isolated knowledge of vocabulary lists and grammar rules. Similarly important seems to be the acquisition of language learning skills – a competence with a lifelong impact. This competence – most language acquisition researchers nowadays agree – must be build up from early childhood on (see e.g. Ergänzung zum Bildungsplan BW Grundschule, 2001; Cameron 2001; Rohrauer/ Schönberger, 1994).

Notwithstanding the lack of practical translation of constructivist ideas in (foreign language) teaching, decisive findings in cognitive psychology, constructivist philosophies as well as many students’ and teachers’ experiences have proved the positive impact of project work and open-planned teaching on effective and successful (language) learning. One of them, the Storyline concept, is the central subject of this work - a more general theoretical reflection - which is followed by a concrete design of a Storyline unit for the primary English classroom.

In the beginning of the theoretical part the original Storyline concept with its main features is depicted (chapter 2). What follows is a reflection on the question, in how far Storyline may satisfy certain criteria for effective teaching respectively learning with the focus on the foreign language classroom. The scrutiny starts with an overview about the historical prerequisites and the origins of project work including constructivist and reform-pedagogical ideas (chapter 3). The same chapter also refers to findings of cognitive and developmental psychology as well as language acquisition research. Chapter 4 critically examines the potential of Storyline to fulfil the requirements of effective (foreign language) teaching. In the fifth section, eventually, the significance and practicability of the Storyline methodology in primary foreign language classrooms is scrutinised. A conclusion is drawn with regard to possible challenges, chances and the prospect of using Storyline for effective primary foreign language teaching (chapter 5).

The second major part of this work is a documentation of the concrete Storyline project, designed around the topic Indians for primary school English in a 3rd or 4th grade.

theoretical reflection on storyline

2. What is Storyline ?

2.1. The Origins

The origin of the Storyline idea itself may be found in Scotland, Great Britain. To counter several problems within the Scottish primary school system rooted in an antiquated textbook-based education with little regard to real-life conditions a new curricular law had been passed in 1965, published as the Primary Education Report in 1966. It suggested a more holistic curriculum that would consider children’s varied developmental needs, interests and real-world experiences. The subject areas of history, geography, maths and science were integrated under the heading environmental studies, art and craft, music and movement were linked to form aesthetic subjects. To assist Scottish primary school teachers in planning and structuring their lessons according to the curricular changes the Storyline concept was developed by an inservice staff tutor team of the Glasgow Jordanhill College of Education in 1967 (Bell, 1995; Kocher, 1999).

2.2. The Conception

In this respect, the original purpose of Storyline was to represent a kind of methodology to design meaningful and motivating topic work for native speakers. The teacher selects a topic from the curricular plan, together with the pupils if possible, and designs a plot – a story – in the form of a series of coherent episodes representing the basic framework for a curricular unit. The single episodes forming a sort of “red thread” running through the whole project (Bell, 2000, p. 3) are again sequenced by so-called key questions. They provide the main structure of the project and initiate the learning steps . Within the context of the story learners receive a wide range of creative stimulating opportunities to acquire knowledge and develop or practise various skills (Bell, 1995; Kocher, 1999).

Into the course of the story the teacher integrates several incidents respectively surprise events to generate ambiguous and problematic situations for the children to solve, as well as creative opportunities for meaningful skill practice. Although the basic story, mainly the key questions and incidents, are determined by the teacher, the pupils invent all the details regarding the three major elements of every Storyline - place, time and characters – as well as the realisation and solution of tasks and activities.

2.3. Main Features

Storyline is characterised by five main features that give the learning environment, i.e. the classrooms in which the methodology is used, a colourful, artistic and vivid appearance and atmosphere (Fehse/ Kocher, 1998 and 2000; Kocher 1999):

One of these typical characteristics are collages: Through art and craft activities and with various materials (crayons, coloured paper, cardboard, fabrics, natural materials etc.), the pupils create the characters and the setting of the story in the form of two-dimensional pictures and/ or three-dimensional objects which again may be assembled in two- or three-dimensional arrangements.

The handicraft works and all other products of the learning process such as written works, posters, pictures, photographs and others are displayed in the classroom either at the classroom walls, at movable walls, at doors of cupboards or on tables as a frieze. The frieze documents the course of the story remaining at display for the whole duration of the project. It may even be modified several times: According to the plot of the story, figures and objects may be replaced, removed or added.

The following characteristic plays an important role particularly in foreign language teaching: the so-called wordbanks. They are collections of useful topic-related vocabulary items – words, phrases and structures – in the form of mind maps or lists systematically sorted according to lexical fields. Created collectively by teacher and pupils as posters or collages the wordbanks are displayed on the frieze, too, thus functioning for the pupils as presence dictionaries.

Various media and a wide range of different materials may be considered as indispensable for Storyline projects. Beside all kinds of materials for handicrafts such as coloured paper, cardboard, fabric, wool, old magazines, glue, colouring and painting materials or even natural materials like stones, leaves, shells, feathers and many more the teacher must provide different (also authentic) media and materials for the pupils to search for information and investigate (books, leaflets, brochures, dictionaries etc.) and to express and present their learning outcomes (overhead projector, cassette and video recorder, also photo and video camera, computer).

The last specific feature of Storyline are the learning arrangements of mostly group and pair work. Tasks are completed collectively, problems solved within the whole group. Even when individual work becomes necessary, the results are discussed in and presented by the entire group.

3. Historical Precursors and Theoretical Foundations of Storyline

In the past, […][the] teacher’s view of her pupil was a very simple one. The child was an empty sack waiting to be filled with the potatoes of knowledge. Unfortunately there were lots of holes in the sack and potatoes escaped with alarming regularity. In order to find out how many remained a weekly test was given with marks identifying right and wrong answers. The teacher was not looking for an imaginative or original potato. She was hoping to have returned to her the potato which had been given to the pupil. (Bell, 1995, p. 17)

Bell’s provoking but apt metaphor clearly shows the problem of former globally practised teaching traditions: Without considering and respecting pupils’ existing knowledge, needs, interests or abilities teachers tried to ‘drum’ pure facts and figures into the pupils’ heads. At the same time they expected their pupils to precisely recall those very facts blaming the learners not themselves or their teaching styles for bad results. In addition, those fact were presented in an abstract classroom context without any authentic relation to the real problems and happenings of the world thus not preparing the pupils sufficiently for their future lives.

In the history of pedagogical theories a break-through has been achieved with the reform-pedagogical realisation that effective learning required a learner-oriented and skill-based education offering challenging problems related to real life conditions. Among a whole range of different progressive concepts (e.g. what is known under the German terms Freie Arbeit, Freiarbeit, Offener Unterricht or Handelnder Unterricht) project work respectively topic work was seen as one possible approach to turn the new theory into reality. The Storyline model may be considered as based on such ideas, predominantly on constructivist theories, which again are rooted in former concepts. In the following chapter, the most important constructivists’ findings as well as their precursors’ ones are outlined with particular regard to aspects that support the significance of Storyline for contemporary foreign language teaching. As, in many ways, Storyline is predominantly related to the idea of project work, the characteristics of the latter concept are clarified, also with reference to differences between project- and Storyline -based teaching and learning .

3.1. Historical Background and Origins of Project Work

With his work Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1654) Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670) has already postulated the learning with all senses in a positive learning atmosphere. He pleaded for schools to be ‘workshops of humanity’. Jean-Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778) expressed his ideal of a holistic, individual and natural education in his novel Emile (1762) thus influencing Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s (1746-1827) idea formulated as “learning with head, heart and hand”. Nevertheless, the significant changes within educational thinking in Europe as well as in the USA came slightly later, with the reform-pedagogical or progressive-educational[1] movement around the turn of the century (between 1890 and 1932) (Kocher, 1999; Potthoff, 2001). Its representatives vehemently criticised the teachers’ ‘dictatorship’ as well as their one-sided teaching methodology “according where children were […] to be passively stuffed full of knowledge”(Knoll, 1997, www). Instead they pleaded for a variety of methods to meet the learners’ needs and interests and engage them in “applied learning to develop initiative, creativity, and judgment” (Knoll, 1997, www).

In Europe, five larger reform-pedagogical trends crystallised. Led by Rousseau’s ideas and Ellen Key’s work The century of the child (D as Jahrhundert des Kindes, 1900), Berthold Otto (1859 - 1933), Maria Montessori (1870 - 1952), Heinrich Scharrelmann (1871 - 1940), Fritz Gansberg (1871 - 1950) and Janusz Korczak (1878 - 1942) postulated a ‘child-oriented’ education (Pädagogik vom Kinde aus[2]) not suppressing but promoting the development of the child’s natural aptitudes by providing an appropriate stimulating environment. Driven by an intrinsic motivation the child would then automatically explore and act with objects from his/ her environment. Alfred Lichtwark (1852-1914) as the main representative of the Kunsterziehungsbewegung intended to arouse the children’s natural creative abilities. The aim of the Landeserziehungsheimbewegung as well as of the Jugendbewegung was a holistic education in a natural environment. Georg Kerschensteiner (1854 - 1932) and Hugo Gaudig (1860 - 1923), important representatives of the Arbeitsschulbewegung, emphasised the relevance of free mental work with pupils independently choosing the goal, materials and techniques for their work (Kocher, 1999; Potthoff, 2001).

Peter Petersen (1881-1952) committed oneself to free working in groups. Célestin Freinet (1896-1966) spoke also of free work using techniques of self-responsible learning within democratic communicative situations. Even though there were several distinct trends within the progressive education reform they all shared the conviction that cognition and the construction of knowledge, i.e. learning, require individual experience and independent self-responsible activity (van Dick, 1991; Kocher, 1999; Potthoff, 2001;).

With regard to project work in particular, today a widespread notion and many pupils’ experience of what is meant by project work is a kind of fun activity often conducted at the end of a school year, before the summer holidays, disguised as so-called project days or project weeks[3]. Even course books use the term without knowing its precise meaning. Some foreign language course books, for instance, use the expression project for simple tasks and (mostly handicraft) activities in order to cover vocabulary drills and grammar practice[4].

The original idea of learner-directed self-responsible learning within the framework of a project dates back at least about a century. The precise answering of the question of when and where projects were used within educational contexts in the past seems not possible. Knoll (1997, www) claims that the “situation in Germany is particularly confusing”, which he attributes to a “superficially and contradictorily” covered history of the project method:

Thus, for example, American historians regard the agricultural experts Rufus W. Stimson with his “home project plan” of 1908 as the first project pedagogue and precursor of Kilpatrick […], while German historians trace the origin of the project back to the university professor Charles R. Richards and John Dewey with their manual and industrial art programs of 1900 […]. (Knoll, 1997, www)

In accordance to that the American philosopher and pragmatist John Dewey (1859-1952) is considered and taught as the inventor of the project idea also at the Pädagogische Hochschule Freiburg, occasionally mentioned together with William H. Kilpatrick (Kocher, 1999; Potthoff, 2001). Dewey developed a concept characterised by learning through independent, active and realistic cognitive experience (learning by doing) within a democratic social environment, coupled with learners’ self-organisation and self-responsibility (van Dick, 1991; Kocher, 1999; Potthoff, 2001, Brockhaus, 1986) thus relating to constructivist theories, on which the Storyline model is built up.

In contrast to Dewey, Kilpatrick’s contribution to the project method, and hence also to Storyline, should be reflected upon more critically. Although Kilpatrick, Dewey’s friend, student and later colleague, was – according to Knoll (1997, www) – the first to thoroughly delimit the approach and to describe it in detail in his essay The Project Method (1918), he departed from Dewey’s original concept being finally criticised by the very same. According to Kilpatrick, a ‘real project’ could be undertaken and regarded as purposeful merely by the child itself, triggered off exclusively by the child’s motivation (Knoll 1997, www):

Whatever the child undertook, as long as it was done “purposefully”, was a project. […] the project did not even require active doing and participating. Children who presented a play executed a project, as did those children sitting in the audience, heartily enjoying it. (Knoll, 1997, www)

Such a conception contradicts Dewey’s model, as it denies any assistance or support by the teacher. Dewey objected to Kilpatrick’s one-sided orientation on the child and emphasised the relevance of the teacher’s role “in providing guidance and direction to students”. He denoted the project as a “common enterprise” of teacher and pupils rather than only “the enterprise of a child” (Dewey, 1938; Kilpatrick, 1927; quoted in Knoll 1997, www).

Furthermore, Kilpatrick did not take into account the relevance of experiential and experimental learning, i.e. a child’s active involvement in solving a concrete problem, which in Storyline is realised by every pupil’s committed participation in activities naturally engendered by key questions and incidents. There is definitely neither a self-organised activity nor a problematic ambiguous situation to solve in “sitting” and “enjoying” a play. Even the mere performance can not be regarded as a “project”. It could, however, be part of a project, namely, for instance, the presentation of a collectively planned and prepared theatre play. In this context, Dewey opposed to Kilpatrick’s definition of purposeful. From his standpoint, it contradicted his own conception according to which the purpose arose from “a kind of problem-solving which […] was designed to challenge and develop the constructive skills of the pupils” (Knoll, 1997, www).

Casting a look at future developments of the project method on the basis of Dewey’s idea, Johannes Bastian and Herbert Gudjons have set up four general steps of project work (van Dick, 1999):

1. Choice of a problematic situation appropriate for the acquisition of skills and knowledge.
2. Collective development of a plan to solve the problem.
3. Experiential examination of the problem.
4. Verification of the solution of the problem with real evidence and research.

To distinguish project work from other concepts and to put their idea into more concrete terms they allotted ten specific features to the four steps listed above (van Dick, 1991; Kocher, 1999):

a) relation of the situation/ topic to various aspects of real life
b) orientation of the topic to the learners’ needs and interests
c) practical relevance for society
d) purposeful collective project planning
e) self-organisation and self-responsibility
f) inclusion of many senses
g) social learning through group work
h) product- (and also process-)orientation
i) interdisciplinary/ cross-curricular conception
j) limits: project work in relation to other teaching methods.

Hence, the pupils make own decisions as regards the choice of the topic, the planning and performing of the working and learning process, as well as the making of a collective product, its presentation, and the evaluation. In all respects the pupils work in teams respectively groups using various media and (also authentic) materials to work out a solution for their problem. The teachers’ role is an important one as well (see above), but, of course, different from the one in teacher-centred methods: Although they keep the fundamental responsibility they remain in the background during the actual classes. They become assistants, advisers, experts and co-learners, which significantly improves the relationship between teachers and pupils as well as the entire learning atmosphere. The greater part of teachers’ work takes place before the actual project work in the form of an elaborated preparation and procuring of materials (Arendt, 1999).

The Storyline model shows most of the project-specific characteristics, such as the relation to a certain topic, the working in groups, the product and its presentation, as well as self-organisation, the learning by doing, by discovery and personal experience related to situations from the real world. By independently constructing their own hypotheses of the studied matters before verifying them with real research and evidence the pupils develop strategies for authentic problem-solving. This again leads to process-based, self-responsible and social learning, and thus to autonomy and self-determination as well as to respect and tolerance towards others. In some significant aspects, however, the Storyline model differs from the traditional idea of project work.

3.2. Main Differences between Storyline and Project Work

3.2.1. The Story

The most obvious distinct point of Storyline is the story running throughout the whole project like a “red thread” (Bell, 2000, p. 3). In contrast to regular ‘topic work’ or ‘project work’ scrutinising a topic from various viewpoints respectively branching out in different directions without any necessary order regarding the content, the Storyline episodes, and therefore the pupils’ activities, have a logical succession determined by the plot. It comprises a couple of episodes linking together the single lessons and aspects of the topic. Although a rough structure of the story, in the form of key questions (view 3.2.3.), is pre-given by the teacher, the pupils themselves decide on the details of the content. Hence, the story provides a coherence and a purposeful direction of the pupils’ activities towards its final aim, the ending of the story (Kocher, 1999; Cameron 2001; view chapter 4).

3.2.2. The Identification with the Characters

Another important difference is the pupils’ identification with the characters of the story and thus with the whole topic. As the pupils create the visuals for the setting and the people of the story, and invent details like the appearances, names, biographies and relationships of the figures, they inevitably become personally and emotionally involved into the plot and their characters’ lives. “The learners, the creators, become those people” (Bell 2000, p. 4), which results in a sense of ownership of the story known as the so-called “ownership principle” (Kocher, 1999, p. 277 originally italic type; Fehse/ Kocher, 2000; Bell, 2000).


[1] As there is no analogous English expression for the German Reformpädagogik, on the account of simplicity either the terms reform-pedagogy and reform-pedagogical or Knoll’s progressive education (Knoll, 1997) are used in this work .

[2] As I could not find common English equivalents for the fixed German terms Pädagogik vom Kinde aus, Kunsterziehungsbewegung, Landeserziehungsheimbewegung, Jugendbewegung and Arbeitsschulbewegung, I kept the German expressions.

[3] In fact, such experiences had been stated by the majority of the students in the PH Storyline seminar.

[4] This was the case in both of the two fairly new course books for secondary English teaching examined in the seminar: SNAP! (Klett) and HIGHLIGHT 1 (Cornelsen).

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Project work, cross-curricular or interdisciplinary teaching and learning - storyline as an approach to effective foreign language teaching
University of Education Freiburg im Breisgau
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Katja Krenicky-Albert (Author), 2004, Project work, cross-curricular or interdisciplinary teaching and learning - storyline as an approach to effective foreign language teaching, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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