London International Conference on Education

Co-constructing learning in the

early years using project-based learning

Brendan Jacobs, Melbourne Polytechnic, Australia

Adam Usher, Melbourne Polytechnic, Australia


The co-construction of learning is an important part of education in the early years, but new research using digital technologies is showing that supervising student projects can also impact the learning of the supervisor/teacher by creating mutual zones of proximal development.  This paper uses evidence from three case studies to demonstrate how multimodality can expand the possibilities for project-based learning with students of all ages.


1. Introduction

There is constant commentary in the media about educational systems, globally, which ‘teach to the test’ and where quantitative assessment data is used primarily to inform league tables and determine school funding rather than being coupled with qualitative data to inform the development of effective learning and teaching. Quantitative data from standardised assessments is easy to collect and correlate but there is an apparent paradox as advocates for league tables and standardised testing will assert that evidence and assessment are of vital importance to demonstrate improvement.  The irony is that the evidence that is collected is often of a very shallow nature and the statistics gathered could more accurately be described as evidence of failure rather than achievement.  Co-construction, as opposed to simple cooperation, is much harder to achieve but is critical to creating rich opportunities for learning and engagement as the focus and the design is centred on learning dispositions.  Critically, co-construction of learning and understanding provides both the design and the evidence of learning development as, to be effective, it inherently requires key learning dispositions such as critical curiosity, learning agency and meaning making.

2. Theoretical framework

Vygotsky’s [7] zone of proximal development (ZPD), where learning is extended through working closely with a more experienced other is one of the most widely accepted theories in education.  What is not so well know is that Vygotsky speculated that “what children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their [learner] development than what they can do alone” [7].  Co-construction can provide an authentic context for the dynamics of learning by teaching, particularly when digital technologies are introduced.  The concept of learning by teaching has been around for thousands of years but Papert saw the potential of technology to enhance this practice:

‘Learning by doing’ is an old enough idea, but until recently the narrowness of range of the possible doings severely restricted the implementation of the idea. The educational vocation of the new technology is to remove these restrictions [4].

Education has a long tradition of embracing technology, but often to use new technology to do the same old things with these new tools. Vygotsky’s notion of tool use was intrinsic to his understanding of mediated action, as a tool only becomes such when it is used.  As Dron has argued, “a tool separated from its use is meaningless: a stick lying in a forest is just a stick” [1].

The use of digital technologies is a theme throughout this paper as each of the three case studies used digital technologies as tools to document and facilate learning.  The case studies are presented chronologically in both the year in which they were conducted and the age group of the participants.  Wells [9] conducted a longitudinal study which tracked the development of 3 year-old children for a period of 7 years until they were 10.  Jacobs, Wright and Reynolds [2] reported a case study which worked with upper primary school age children in grades 5 and 6 making animations for the sake of their own learning.  Academic writing at Melbourne Polytechnic shows how co-construction can be just as vital when working with adults in their capacity as pre-service teachers.  Although digital technology played an important role in each instance, learning was the focus and particularly how co-construction can enable all participants to take an active role in lifelong learning.

3. Case study A [9]

Gordon Wells conducted the longitudinal Bristol study between 1979 and 1985, where audio recordings were made every 15 minutes of 28 children for a period of 7 years.  One of his observations was that parents play a transformative role in their children’s education through the deliberate modelling of constructive dialogue.  Young children might utter just a few words but a caring and patient parent can guide and build on such utterances by clarifying and repeating what the child is saying, thereby scaffolding purposeful reflection and understanding.  Importantly, it is the child who initiated these conversations according to anything that caught their attention, such as a bird landing in the backyard.  Wells lamented the shift in each child’s formal education as they entered kindergarten and primary school where the competing demands of multiple students and an obligation to implement a curriculum reduced the educator’s ability to be truly child-centred despite their best intentions.  He described this as a qualitative change that most children experience.  “Instead of the child’s interests and goals being the focus of attention when teacher does engage the child individually, it is almost always the adult who sets the agenda, asking questions that are designed to bring the child to the teacher’s predetermined answer” [9].

In a recent participatory action research project in Denmark [5] it was found that, while teachers and students understood the ‘ideal’ of co-construction of knowledge and understanding, they saw their ‘real’ practice as being more aligned with a transmission model than a co-construction reality.  Using the Crick’s Learning for Resilient Agency (CLARA) dimensions, the participating teachers and students reflected that they did not identify strongly with the key learning dimensions that would be necessary to create co-construction; in their case the stick lying in the forest remained just a stick, as their practice was separated from their purpose.

This first case study provided a vivid picture of child-centred learning in the early years but it did not involve project-based learning.  What was evident throughout the Bristol study was the co-construction of meaning through the ZPD.  Project-based learning with genuine student choice has the potential to recapture a child-centred approach. 

4. Case study B [2]

Eight boys and girls in grades 5 and 6 participated in an explanatory animation creation project over a period of 17 weeks where they worked on their animation for one hour each week.  The children were making these animations for the sake of their own learning and the multimodal nature of their work, combined with the simple practice of saving their work as different date-based files each week, created a digital chronology of their conceptual consolidation embodied in their evolving animation artefacts.  The multimodal nature of the data also provided a rationale to present this thesis in its native digital format.  This resulted in the world’s first digital PhD in the field of Education ( 

The animation platform which was used was Microsoft PowerPoint.  The children simply inserted auto shapes and then created duplicate slides of each slide (i.e. animation frame) before making incremental changes in position to create the illusion of movement.  Saving the work as a series of images (such as JPG) resulted in numbered frames.  The images were the combined together using video editing software to render a single video file.  The children required some technical help with this process but they were also given conceptual help for their topics.  Co-construction was a major theme in this study which reinforced the nature of proximity with the ZPD as both the student and teacher wrestled with the same pedagogical issues.   Although the children were free to choose any topic, 7 out of 8 of the children chose scientific topics as they wanted to know ‘how things worked’.  Such learning dynamics often result in shared learning for both the teacher and student. When both the student and the teacher are learning they could be said to enter a “mutual zone of proximal development” [3] as collaborative partners. 

Some of the greatest educational theorists of the past century such as Vygotsky and Dewey have noted how concepts develop over time and that they are not immediately grasped by the learner.  Jacobs, Wright and Reynolds [2] suggested that cross-modal cognition occurs on a continuum between abstract and concrete as ideas become increasingly concrete as they become consolidated.  Accordingly, we present Figure 1 as a way to understand the ZPD nuanced with Vygotsky’s insight that learning develops over time: 

Description: zpd.jpg
Figure 1. Learning in a mutual ZPD.

The broken lines represent learning that has yet to become consolidated and the solid lines represent consolidate learning.  The incongruence of the child and helper shapes indicates that both and are in a mutual ZPD and that the child’s knowledge can exceed that of the helper in certain instances.

Another feature of this case study was that the children recorded directors’ commentaries to document their decision-making processes.  This provided a window into their own learning and encouraged metacognition in tangible ways as the children’s voices could be heard discussing their pedagogical decision-making processes and aesthetic choices.
5. Case study C

Pre-service teachers in the Bachelor of Education (Early Years) course at Melbourne Polytechnic conduct practitioner action research in their third and fourth years of study linked to their childcare and primary school placements.  Research proposals and literature reviews are the initial assessment tasks leading up to the final research reports.  These are submitted in Microsoft Word format but, rather than writing comments on hard copies or tracking changes within Word, a direct editorial approach is used where strikethrough is put through redundant content and a blue font is used for new content (comments are also in blue but in brackets).  These practices continue the pedagogical use of modelling to show the pre-service teacher customised examples of how their writing can be tightened up.

The pre-service teachers were consulted about augmenting the above-mentioned editorial procedures to increase efficiency for both the students and the lecturer before the final research reports were submitted at the end of Semester 1 in 2017.  The idea was that the lecturer would make these changes directly.  This was faster for the lecturer as strikethrough and font colours take extra time, and much faster for the students as they did not have to do anything once their reports were returned to them other than read over them.  Of course, the students were graded on what they submitted rather than what was returned to them.  Although this was time consuming for the lecturer, particularly when checking over the reference list for accuracy and completeness, the end result was a body of research reports of a sufficiently high standard for publication.

The objective of raising the pre-service teachers’ understanding of the potential importance of their research is to encourage them to reformat their research reports (at a later date) into potential journal articles.  In this way these research subjects also function as advanced writing classes where the students are able to repurpose their own research according to the conventions of academic journal writing.   

6. Conclusion

It is clear that the critical commonality between each of the case studies was not the newness of the technology, but the use of technology as a tool to make visible the form and purpose of the activity.  When students construct multimodal artefacts for the sake of their own learning such as research reports or animations, they are “faced with a task that can only be resolved through the formation of concepts” [8].  Vygotsky characterised the nature of this link by stating that “the path through which the task is resolved in the experiment corresponds with the actual process of concept formation” [8].  The alignment between purpose and activity illuminates not only the resolution of the issue, but also the connection between the students to themselves as learners. This is where formative assessment data abounds, particularly when working in the digital realm as every iteration of a digital project is preserved and easily accessible for critique by the educator and learning self-reflection by the student.

Reconnecting the pre-service teacher with the kind of exploratory learning practice that they likely experienced as young children is important. Through the case studies, students are encouraged to reconnect with this type of learning through a purposeful, multimodal structure that supports the co-construction of knowledge, understanding and practice. This is of critical importance for the pre-service teachers as it provides a lived experience of co-construction, which they will be better prepared to recreate in their own classrooms.

Co-construction is at the heart of the ZPD as formative assessment whereas standardised testing is typically summative.  In our experience, reintroducing choice to students is a key to engaging them in their own learning, which, to use another famous term from Vygotsky, enables the student to stand “a head taller” [7].  For educators across each of the early years contexts, “the only instruction which is useful in childhood is that which moves ahead of development, that which leads it” [8].  However, the reality of the current and historic discourse around collaborative learning is that it is based on a what can be compartmentalised rather than on the basis of a higher learning purpose.  In light of the opportunities afforded by digital technologies, it is our hope that the prevailing learning mindset and practices described in these three case studies can serve as a rationale for focusing on learning rather than achievement.  The student acquisition of knowledge and skills is meaningless if it is not placed within a learning context or a learning ‘construction zone’.

7. References
[1] Dron, J. (2012). The pedagogical-technological divide and the elephant in the room. International Journal on E-Learning, 11(1), 23-38.

[2] Jacobs, B., Wright, S. & Reynolds, N. (2017). Reevaluating the concrete - Explanatory animation creation as a catalyst for cross-modal cognition. Mind, Culture, and Activity. 1-17.

[3] John-Steiner, V. (2000). Creative collaboration. New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Papert, S. (1991). Perestroika and epistemological politics. In I. Harel & S. Papert, S. (Eds.) Constructionism (pp. 13-28). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

[5] Usher, A. & Sandvad, M. (2014). Developing teachers' glocal teaching and learning identities: Early findings from the Danish glocal educators project. Paper presented at Athens Institute for Education and Research (ATINER), 16th Annual International Conference on Education, 19-22. May 2014, Athens, Greece.

[6] Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.

[7] Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[8] Vygotsky, L. (1987). Collected works of L.S. Vygotsky (Vol. 1). R. W. Rieber & A. S. Carton (Eds.), New York: Plenum Press.

[9] Wells, G. (2011). Integrating CHAT and action research. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 18(2), 161-180.

Project-based learning

Research question
Research question

Figure 4.22

12 data sources

Data sources

Multimodal thesis
Storyboard - Brendan Jacobs

A rubric for conceptual conslidation

Learning in a mutual ZPD

Description: zpd.jpg