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Project-Based Learning – the future of education?

February 26, 2012

Years ago I read an article from the think-tank Demos, which said that in the future, three things will become commonplace in schools:

  1. projects (extended learning activities with real-world outcomes)
  2. student portfolios (as a method of recoding progress and learning)
  3. school-community brokers (a new kind of teacher who takes the school into the community, and brings the community into schools)

I remember thinking at the time how much I agreed with this, and yet it’s only now that I feel we’re beginning to put this in to action at Blackfen School.

For the purpose of this post I’m going to focus on the first point – project-based learning. Project-based learning (PBL) is a well established way of organising learning, but there are various definitions for it. In my mind PBL has three characteristics:

  1. students has some choice in the content and/or process of learning
  2. developing students’ skills is as important as building their knowledge
  3. the projects all have a real purpose, a real audience and a real outcome.

In the best PBL you can see all three of these characteristics in action, but if you were going to prioritise them, it’s the last one – real outcomes – that is the most important.

I’m sure you can see how similar this approach is to good Citizenship teaching – give students a say, focus on skills and enable students to take action. However, this is much more than good Citizenship practice, it’s a pedagogy which is relevant to absolutely all learning and all subjects in schools.

I want to explain some of the theory and thinking behind this approach, and then give some examples of it in action.

Some Theory and Thinking Behind Project-Based Learning:
My inspiration for PBL comes from many sources, and the following is not meant to be a comprehensive academic paper, but a few thoughts and theories which have influenced me.

One of my favourite educators is the Brazilian Paolo Freire. Now his most well-known book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is not the easiest read, but it’s worth the effort. Among many things, he talks about is ‘praxis’. According to Freire, praxis means:

It is not enough for people to come together in dialogue in order to gain knowledge of their social reality. They must act together upon their environment in order critically to reflect upon their reality and so transform it through further action and critical reflection.

That for me is a neat summary of what both Citizenship education and project-based education is all about. There is so much more to Freire, but I’ll save it for another time!

Another thing that has always resonated with me was research by Vito Perone from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Perone asked a wide range of learners a simple question: ‘When are you the most intellectually engaged?’. This is what they told him:

  • when we help to define the content
  • have time to find a particular direction that interest us
  • create original and public products
  • did something…took part in political action, wrote a letter
  • sensed that the results of our work are not predetermined or fully predictable
  • when teachers encourage different forms of expression and respect our views

All these things can be achieved through project-based learning. Sadly however, they are not the characteristics of most education. In 2000 MORI asked students the following question: ‘Which of the following 3 things do you do most often in class?’, and starting with the things students did most often, the results were:

  • Copy from the board or book
  • Have class discussions
  • Listen to the teacher for a long time
  • Take notes while the teacher talks
  • Work in small groups to solve a problem
  • Spend time thinking quietly on your own
  • Talk about my work with the teacher
  • Work on a computer
  • Learn things that relate to the real world.

Now you could justifiably argue that this is data that is now over 10 years. My fear though is that if MORI did the same poll today, not much would have changed. In fact, my students are currently carrying out a similar poll among their peers, and I’ll share the results with you when they have finished. My point is this, if research suggests we are most intellectually engaged when we ‘help to define the content of learning’, ‘create original products’, ‘do something’; then why are ‘copying from a book’ and ‘listening to the teacher for a ling time’ some of the most common things students do in classrooms? We have to look for a new approach, and my solution is project-based learning.

Here’s a final bit of thinking to illustrate my case. I think learning can either be:

  • entirely teacher led and controlled, or students can take control over some elements of what or how they learn
  • entirely classroom-based, or it can reach out into the real world, with real purpose and a real audience.

In the grid below, I think far too much teaching takes place in the top left square. What we’re trying to do at Blackfen, and what project-based learning is all about, is to move teaching down to the bottom right square. When this happens, you will see a huge change in attitude from your students because they will finally see the point in their learning because it will have a real purpose, which they get to choose. From a Citizenship perspective, you will also be reflecting the principles of democracy in the way you teach and the way they learn.

Enough of the theory and thinking, now how have we tried to put this in to practice?

Project-Based Learning in Practice:

I’ve said already that project-based learning (PBL) has 3 characteristics:

  1. students has some choice in the content and/or process of learning
  2. developing students’ skills is as important as building their knowledge
  3. the projects all have a real purpose, a real audience and a real outcome.

1. Student Choice:

What we have tried to do is, where appropriate, give students an element of choice in what or how they learn. The degree to which you give them choice depends on their (and your!) skills and experience. Here are some examples of how we have done this:

  • In our Blackfen’s Got Talent project, students choose a skill they would like to become talented at, and then have a number of weeks to master the talent
  • In our recent Endangered Animals Campaign students choose which animal they are most concerned about, and then choose who they will lobby to help establish Britain’s first Endangered Animal’s Day. (Actually this project had a much higher level of student choice, because they were the ones who came up with the idea in the first place)
  • Students make a Citizenship film, but they decide the subject matter for the film
  • Citizenship GCSE courework – students work in small groups to choose an issue that concerns them, and then plan and carry out a project on it.

These are just a few examples of student choice in action – they are not earth-shattering examples, but they are meaningful and manageable ways to get whole year groups of students taking some control over what and how they learn. They represent a small shift from learning that is entirely controlled by teachers, to learning that students have some control and ownership of. As Ian Gilbert, in his brilliant book, ‘Essential Motivation for the Classroom‘ says,

You the teacher are not throwing your entire classroom…into the hands of your students. What you are doing is working in such a way that they at least feel that they are in control of what’s happening, co-authors of their school career and not…passive passengers on the journey…”

2. Developing Skills and Knowledge:

It’s curious how schools are still obsessed with knowledge over skills, when knowledge is now available to all and ever-changing, and yet skills are increasingly sought after by employers. I think the Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills introduced in the last curriculum review were (are) brilliant, it’s just a shame Mr Gove doesn’t agree. I suspect he thinks you either focus on knowledge OR skills, when of course we must do both. The crucial thing however is not whether it’s knowledge or skills, but the order in which you get students to focus on these things.

Traditionally, when you plan a scheme of work, you start by thinking about what do you want students to KNOW, then you might consider what do you want students to BE ABLE TO DO, and occasionally you might just find time to apply some of this knowledge and skills to a real audience and outcome. The way we plan project-based learning is completely the opposite. We start by thinking, what actions could students take on an important issue (it might be topical like the conflict in Syria, or an up-coming election, or it might just be a great idea you have dreamt up, or it might be something students propose). Once you’ve established the ACTION for the project, then you consider, what SKILLS will students need to master this project? And then finally you think, what KNOWLEDGE will they need to succeed in this project?

In other words, you invert the planning process, and instead of going from knowledge to skills to action (if you have time and energy!), you start with the action, then skills, then knowledge. As a result, you have a classroom of students who actually want to develop the knowledge, because they can see how it is vital in order to succeed in the project. The knowledge has a context which is meaningful to the students.

Here are just some of the ways we give skills a big push in our projects:

  • most of our projects require students to work in groups, and many of our assessments are based on their group work skills
  • all students are expected speak regularly in front of the class without using notes or PowerPoints
  • we play a lot of simulation games, followed by reflections on the activity
  • we do a lot of reflection on learning itself – what helped you learn, what did you notice about how you learned that etc.
  • we do a lot of reflection full stop – from simple things like What Went Well / Even Better If, to more complex activities
  • we assess skills as much as we assess knowledge, from public speaking to group work to debating skills
  • many of our lessons have two objective – one for knowledge and one for skills.

3. Real action with a real purpose for a real audience:

Finally, and most importantly, all our projects have a real action for a real audience. Without this, I don’t think you can say you’re doing project-based learning. A couple of thoughts on this. First, we always do these projects with whole years groups of students (210 in our case). We don’t believe there’s much point of devising great projects if they only benefit a small number of students. Secondly, we keep close tabs on what is going on around our school, community, country and the world so that we can tap in to real things. For example…

  • we’re currently planning a project on the United Nations and debating skills, because of what is happening in Syria. Our students will then lobby their elected representatives with their views on this;
  • we recently learned that our borough, Bexley, was about to hold elections for the local Children’s Parliament and Youth Council, so we created a project on Parliament, elections and democracy in time for our students to stand for election… in a real election;
  • last term we ran a project on climate change  in time to lobby delegates at the UN Climate Change conference in South Africa.

Finally we’ve found that there are dozens of ways students can take real action, on real issues with a real audience:

  • our students created videos to promote Fair Trade, and these now play on the TV screens in our canteen and reception;
  • our students have made Citizenship films which are show to all other students in assembly;
  • our students have invited their local MP in to school to ask for his support for an Endangered Animals Day;
  • our students take part in our own Power Up! Speak Up! public speaking competition and are judged in a grand final for governors and our Headteacher… and there are so many more examples on this blog.

Project-based learning makes learning real and relevant to students; it boosts their motivation and enjoyment; it gives them real experience and skills which benefit them now and in the future; it empowers them as articulate, informed and effective citizens… and it makes teaching fun and energising! 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Brenda East permalink
    February 27, 2012 8:18 am

    I couldn’t agree more!! Having used the Young person led approach to active citizenship.
    There are issues arising though Pete and from experience they can make or break the whole idea.
    1. Lack of training for staff many colleagues felt they lacked Health & Safety Training, as non specialists in Citizenship they weren’t confident especially with Controversial issues.
    2. For some teachers it is a situation where they feel they have no control which terrifies them. The concept of “guide on the side NOT sage on the stage” and how to show students that a failure can be a valuable learning experience too is a whole new ballgame
    Positives are
    All students can show progress even those who may not be the most academic they often have life skills that higher achievers lack and its great to see them shine
    There is no commitment to a piece of work like a student who is exploring and doing positive action on a subject that they are passionate about
    Hang on to your hat because frequently the project doesn’t end with the curriculum and you could be amazed at where it may take you. I found myself in meetings with MPs, & ministers with my students telling them they were misquoting a report they had been involved with preparing. However I must say that they were some of the most memorable lessons I was ever involved in, hugely enjoyable and most of all great fun I truly think PBL is a methodology that we should be using more often & in more subjects

  2. Pete Pattisson permalink
    February 27, 2012 8:17 pm

    Thanks Brenda – I totally agree – it’s not straightforward, but it’s worth the effort. Hope you’re well. Pete

  3. March 29, 2012 10:51 am

    This is my first comment, so please excuse the intrusion. In my opinion, the problem with traditional learning is that it is not directly linked to what our students perceive as a reality. Therefore they do not see why learning enables them and makes them more competent “in real life”. Kiran Bir Sethi explains it as “the I can bug”.

  4. Pete Pattisson permalink
    March 29, 2012 9:11 pm

    Hi Calzascortas – thanks for your comment. I couldn’t agree more, and I certainly admire Kiran’s work. We’re coming from the same direction here. Pete

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