How can pupils and teachers excel in project-based learning?
Project-based-learning (PBL) isn’t for everyone, but it is an alternative way to teach and learn in the classroom. There is plenty to think about and some pitfalls to avoid it turning into a hellish experience.
Some employers are now looking for a workforce who can adapt to many different environments and support many different roles. Workplaces are skills-based environments, and although knowledge is required to be able to use these skills, pupils still need to practise these skills in education. One way of doing this is using projects to practise skills such as independent research.
The Star Wars Saga
As a group of teachers, we were given a training afternoon to plan based upon the theme, Star Wars! (How exciting I hear all those 70/80s babies scream.) We had the perfect excuse to watch Star Wars and create lessons based on it! We taught to a group of pupils, half of whom had never heard of the films or watched them, who had no idea what was going on with “the man with heavy asthma” (this was before the revival of the films).
One problem though, was that watching the films made content difficult to gel. And we couldn’t spend most of our time watching the films (six of them!) just to understand the context. The initial idea was sound, but the execution wasn’t. It was a learning curve.
How to make project-based learning work?
What we also realised early on, was that all staff were not as invested. Each teacher was to teach another subject other than their specialism and offer as a presentation from that subject. ICT was also an issue. This was well before any idea of one to one equipment was implemented in schools – we had one computer room for a cohort of around 120 pupils. To print any items required the end of a rainforest!
We persisted with project-based learning for the time I was at the school and things did get better. Finally, after much practice and more time planning, we produced some exciting projects. We even had pupils rotating around the staff with our own timetables which allowed teachers to teach one lesson over and over to different classes.
So what are my tips for making it work?
1. Make it relevant to the pupils
If you are considering project-based learning, make it a world issue or problem pupils care about. Later, I created drop-down days based around big events like the ‘London riots’ and set pupils off to see how they would have solved the issue. This gave the pupils a sense of making a difference to a real issue; being asked about adult issues and making them feel responsible.
2. If it doesn’t fit… don’t force it
Selecting a theme is important but don’t force subjects into one. Find a different theme if things don’t fit. Ideas such as fair trading, immigration and dare I say it, Brexit, can open up many topics. Be mindful of teachers also working outside of their specialism.
You need a lot of resources! A budget needs to be in place for this and, if working across departments, set a project-based learning section of the budget. If this isn’t in place, don’t go ahead! If the senior leadership team want this kind of learning they must also foot the bill. Also ICT may appear an easier option but is not the only way! You will need to think content and sources of information; other resources such as outside visitors, trips and printing in the budget too.
Don’t assume pupils have the skills needed for project-based learning. They need to know how to research, summarise, problem solve, work in a team, avoid fake news (e.g. Google) and so on. If I had my time again, the first project-based learning theme would be a fun way of learning these skills so they knew what to do correctly and how. As with all independent practice, a teacher must moderate pupils work.
You need to think about how the work is going to be assessed. This is essential from the start and must not be left to chance: plan and communicate the success criteria for pupils. The most common way in project-based learning is to give a rubric at the start or a success criteria. This is useful but don’t make it too wordy and end up ‘wordy A4 pages’ with tiny boxes to tick off with all the levels!
Think about having a product that would be made with the final assessment – a book, a piece of art. Once we had a showcase of all the work in a hall (for a project with China as the theme) where we invited local people around to have a look. Pupils were much more invested when they knew their work was going towards something.
For project-based learning success, the key is to plan, plan and plan again.