Project-based learning – part one

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This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in May 2016. This is the first of a two-part article. 

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here


We know from Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence – which I summarised in Eight steps to teaching excellence (SecEd, September 2014: http://bit.ly/ZCVf3s) – that the first step towards encouraging students to produce high-quality work is to set assessment tasks which inspire and challenge them and which are predicated on the idea that every student will succeed, not just finish the task but produce work which represents personal excellence.

We also know that the most effective assessment tasks offer students an opportunity to engage in genuine research not just research invented for the classroom.

We know, too, that a student’s finished product needs a real audience and that the role of the teacher is to help students to get their work ready for the public eye. This means there is a genuine reason to do the work well, not just because the teacher wants it that way. Not every piece of work can be of genuine importance, of course, but every piece of work can be displayed, presented, appreciated, and judged.

We know that assessment tasks work best when they are structured in such a way as to make it difficult for students to fall too far behind or fail. Tasks also work best when they are broken into a set of clear components so that students have to progress through checkpoints to ensure they are keeping up.

Good tasks have in-built flexibility to allow for a range of abilities. We also know that assessment tasks work best when they have in-built rubrics, checklists if you like, which make clear what is expected of each student at each stage of development. In other words, the rubric spells out exactly what components are required in the assignment, what the timeline for completion is, and on what qualities and dimensions the work will be judged.

However, we know it is not enough simply to make a list, a rubric, of what makes a good finished product, be that an essay or a science experiment. It is not enough to read a great piece of literature and analyse the writing, or to look at the work of a great scientist. If we want our students to write a strong essay, to design a strong experiment, we need to show them what a great essay or experiment looks like. We need to admire models, find inspiration in them, and analyse their strengths and weaknesses. In short, we need to work out what makes them strong.

And what is the best way of delivering all of the above? According to Berger – and many others besides – the answer is project-based learning.

Project-based learning

When I think back to my own school days, many lasting and colourful memories I have are of project work. I recall the excitement of being given a brief and knowing that I had the freedom to meet that brief in any way I wanted, to work independently over the course of several lessons, gathering evidence and testing a hypothesis or answering a big question, then presenting my findings in a creative and personal way.

Many of us, when asked about a positive memory of school, will similarly remember a research project with real-world application that engaged us and that we were able to share with our friends and family.

According to the Galileo Educational Network (2004) in the US which has pioneered what it calls enquiry-based learning in American schools, project-based learning is “a process whereby students are actively involved in their learning, formulate questions, investigate far and wide, and build understandings, meanings and knowledge (that is) new to students and may be used to answer a question, to develop a solution or to support a position or point of view”.

Research, such as that carried out by Kuhne in 1995, suggests that using project-based learning with students can help them to become more creative, more positive and more independent.

It helps if project-based learning forms part of the whole-school culture, if it is common practice across all classes and year groups, and if it is the accepted mode of learning.

Learning from Studio Schools

Studio Schools and UTCs have embraced project-based learning as a means of preparing young people for the world of work. They cite evidence that employers are looking for – and yet not finding – key employability skills among school-leavers. In a recent CBI Employer Survey, for example, 70 per cent of employers said they wanted to see the government do more to make the employability skills of young people its top education priority.

However, extensive research shows that equipping young people with employability skills alone is not enough. In a competitive and uncertain world, young people also need to think creatively, build resilience, and be able to respond effectively to rapidly changing circumstances. The evidence suggests that embedding creativity and an ability to respond successfully to change is vital if the UK is to compete in an increasingly globalised service economy. The question for schools has been “how”?

Studio Schools took their name from the Renaissance period (1400-1700) when working and learning were integrated. Students were taught by an experienced master in the same workshop in which the master created and produced his work. Their goal is to take this tradition and apply it to the 21st century by creating schools in which students study academic and vocational subjects by means of real work experience, such as happens in medicine and law.

There is strong evidence that, by bringing working and learning together, students can perform better, and be better prepared for their working lives. Project-based learning lies at the heart of the these schools’ curricula. Students learn through enterprise projects based in school, in local businesses, and in their surrounding communities.

In order for other schools to make project-based learning a part of their culture, too, senior leaders must have a clearly articulated vision for developing it and they must be strong in dedicating time and money to it.

In its early stages, there needs to be a group of enthusiastic champions willing to try it out and promote the advantages. Teachers need to collaborate and support each other. Problem-solving and investigative skills also need to be valued throughout the school.

Making it work in your classroom

While a whole-school commitment to project-based learning is desirable, it is by no means essential – individual teachers can make it work in beautiful isolation in their own classrooms.

According to Drayton and Falk (2002), individual classrooms in which teachers emphasise project-based learning – even when the rest of the school does not – tend to have the following characteristics:

  • Projects take the form of real-life problems and work within the context of the curriculum and/or local community.
  • Projects capitalise on the areas of students’ natural curiosity.
  • Data and information are actively used, interpreted, refined, digested and discussed.
  • Teachers, students and other key staff (such as the librarian) work together to plan projects.
  • The local community is connected with the project in some way, either as research material or audience, or indeed both.
  • The teacher continually models the behaviours required of the student-researchers.
  • The teacher uses the language required of the student-researchers on an on-going basis.
  • Students take ownership of their own learning from beginning to end.
  • The teacher facilitates the process of gathering and presenting information.
  • The teacher and students use technology to advance their project, both in information gathering and presenting.
  • The teacher embraces project-based learning as both curriculum content and pedagogy.
  • The teacher and students interact more frequently and more actively than during traditional instruction.

Building a culture of project-based learning in your classroom also means recognising, supporting and teaching the role of metacognition. Certainly, project-based learning provides opportunities for students to develop life-skills (as explained by Hacker (1999) and Huhlthau (1988) among others) such as character or grit.

The three golden rules

In part two of this article we will explore in detail how to plan, run and assess a project, but for now let us consider the three golden rules – the cornerstones of effective projects. These are: a genuine outcome, multiple drafting, and on-going assessment.

A genuine outcome

If students are to commit time and effort to their project, they need to know that there is a genuine outcome, a real audience and means of exhibition for their work. In other words, if students know their work is going to be put on public display, there to be critiqued by members of the public, including their family and friends, and not just their teachers, they are more likely to work hard and produce their best quality work.

Multiple drafts

In real life, when the quality of work matters, we rarely submit our first attempt at something. But in many schools students hand in their first attempt at something, have it marked and returned, then discard it before moving on to the next task.

Project-based learning enables students to positively engage with the drafting and redrafting process, and encourages them to make time for and recognise the importance of polishing work until such a time as it represents their very best efforts. Producing multiple drafts is not only a great way of teaching students about the real-life importance of redrafting, but it also provides great opportunities for personalised assessment, talking of which…

On-going assessment

Producing multiple drafts helps students to engage in formative assessment, learning from feedback and making gradual improvements. Redrafting also enables students to learn from each other by critiquing each other’s work. Regarded in this way, critique, – far from being a distraction or added burden – becomes integral to the learning process. Critique can become a lesson in its own right, providing opportunities for the teacher to give instruction, to introduce or refine concepts and skills. Such lessons can also bring students’ misunderstandings to the fore, enabling the class to respond en masse.

Ron Berger argues that effective feedback is kind, specific and helpful. This is also a good way to structure critique sessions:

  • Kind: Presenting their work for critique puts students in a vulnerable position. The person critiquing work, on the other hand, can – in their enthusiasm and eagerness to help – say hurtful things, albeit inadvertently. Therefore, students need to be taught how to be kind and avoid personal attacks.
  • Specific: Although it is important to be kind, feedback must not – as a result – become too vague and anodyne; it must offer specific advice about how to improve if it is to be useful.
  • Helpful: Critique should not just be about articulating what is strong and what is not, it should also be about working out how to make the work even better; it should offer suggestions and ideas.
    There are two main types of critique session: instructional critique and peer critique.

An instructional critique session is led by the teacher and usually involves the entire class. It can be used to introduce a model at the start of a project.

A peer critique session is what students use in order to get feedback on their drafts. Peer critique sessions are usually carried out in pairs or small groups, though they can also be carried out by a full class.

They might take the form of “gallery” critique whereby work is displayed on the walls around the classroom and the class walks around the room taking notes on the drafts and sticking notes to them offering general impressions and suggestions.

They might take the form of “dilemma” critique, whereby students are placed in groups of four or five and share something they’re struggling with on their product, or share a draft, and then allow their fellow students to discuss possible solutions.

They might take the form of “workshop” critique whereby students are placed in groups of three with specific teacher-generated questions about the product in hand. Students take turns presenting their product to the other two students and then discuss the questions as a way to improve the product’s quality. Each student spends about 10 to 15 minutes on presenting and receiving feedback/critique.

Finally, they might take the form of “pair” critique whereby two students work together to provide deeper critique, really digging into a product, evaluating the work, and challenging each other for 15 to 20 minutes.

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One response to “Project-based learning – part one

  1. Pingback: Project-based learning – part two | Bromley Education | be inspired·

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