Monthly Archives: November 2016

Project-based learning – complementary to FE re-sits

It’s an odd metaphor that repeating something results in improvements, yet paradoxically the re-sit in FE of English and Maths seems to – arguably – cause more problems than solutions. For repetition to yield improvements, the conditions need to be appropriate, and in education, least of all FE, conditions are far from appropriate and the numerous variables are complex and messy, which is why educational research is so awkward.

I’m interested in project-based learning as a pedagogical vehicle, so read Tom Bennett’s blog post on it with an open-mind. His is an admirable reputation in education at the moment: informed critique of dubious ideas with guile and intellect. I’m glad there’s a Tom Bennett: it’s entirely necessary to shoot down dodgy knowledge in our age and whenever I’ve read him, he does so with aplomb and humour. He seems like a good bloke and all that.

My view of project-based learning is of its capacity to represent an alternative framework of provision in FE to the English GCSE.

To my understanding, project-based learning (PBL) has the hypothetical capacity to

  • drive content of personal interest to the individual
  • allow for investigative, discovery-based approaches
  • promote the creation of products over the consumption of them
  • be multimodal in the presentation of work
  • be organised as portfolio, allowing for the creation of artefacts
  • allow for technologically-supporting and disseminating approaches
  • complement vocational courses of study
  • enable a mastery-based approach to process and content, aligned to vocational models
  • be evaluated in different ways than standard exam-based, summative assessment

In an ideal world, students are motivated and curious, which may well be necessary mechanisms to PBL (if not all pedagogical strategies). I’ve attempted PBL approaches before with students, with mixed responses that I’ll elucidate on shortly. However, a few things first about PBL.

Organised inappropriately, PBL can centre around a premise of highly student-centred activity based on conditions that are likely to fail. Mitra’s SOLE approach is confused as PBL, where students are given a central question, some resources (‘the internet’) and are let loose like eager beavers to find the answers. Mitra’s studies of kids in the Indian slums given access to computers and the internet (‘Hole in the Wall’) remind me of when people say “x is the fastest growing economy in the world”, where x is a recently emergent industrial society that’s recently discovered oil, so is bound to be fastest growing from a position of 0.

“Kids in the slums learned quickly from the internet and were self-directed. Much more than…” What? Having no access to any education?

Our students (in FE) are stuffed from learning in school: crammed full of it, institutionalised upto their ears, assessment-fatigued and textually-jaded. Many are academically celibate. Opportunities for new paradigms of learning may well enthral them, but left to their own devices many will flounder because of these reasons, rather than fly with the wings of opportunity.

Anyway, I’ve always have difficulty with some research report which says ‘you learn a lot more…[ this way, or that]’ as if ‘learning’ was a countable noun that was so easily measured. This is the basis of much research, including the EEF report that Bennett criticises. You can tell early on in his blog that he’s not a fan, because his approach is to treat pbl to a line in hilariously snarc-astic language that assuages me to agree with him. Fair enough.

The EEF report was centred on Year 7 students and schools placed under strict research guidelines in order to control the comparisons, including time-apportioned to the study. A key thing here: the definition of PBL, drawn by literature review, is thus set in stone (rather than fluid and responsive) as it needs to be for the purpose of the study. PBL in my mind is more adaptable to a teacher’s personal approach and knowledge of their students. Tom criticises PBL entirely based on the report, because it is not structured around delivery by a subject specialist.

But hang on, why shouldn’t it be, even if the EEF say it’s so? My approach to PBL would have drafting, focused feedback on improving literacy and reviewed feedback ascertaining changes shared with students to gauge their own improved quality. There would be loads of subject specialism, thank you.

This would hinge on the initial input of a teacher-specialist delivering conventional grammar lessons, before students take to projects in lessons (with the expectation of those grammatical structures as implemented).  This isn’t so different to reading Steinbeck and writing an essay on it, where the text (and the questions) is the vehicle for the training of communication skills.

The EEF report based its study on school-contexts and Year 7. There is an entirely separate argument here about whether PBL is more appropriate to one age group or context than another. I think it’s a strategy that requires intrinsic motivation, for sure, and Year 7 students may well have that more than post-16 students (or not).

What is reasonable to assert is that different aged students in different contexts require different models of learning. PBL may be more akin to HE study, making it a pedagogy fit for the FE transitional context.

I have no particular gripe with chalk-and-talk knowledge transmission. But I know it has its’ limits with re-sit students arriving (apprehensively) to a classroom from a studio or workshop. Being a compulsory re-sit in a post-compulsory sector, can students be given some license to engage with curricula content (‘vehicle’) of whatever shape, as long as there is a literacy development programme in place? ‘Independent study time’ is routinely in place in FE colleges everywhere.

I don’t consider PBL as ‘independent’, but the concept of taking some tools (grammar constructs) and completing work to a deadline, furnished with supporting instruction of research and presentation skills (how to use technological tools to search, select and share, i.e. video, powerpoint, textual formats) and tailored to individual choice (personal choice of subject matter), with a dialogue that helps guide the entire process (‘Can you tell me why you have included that detail? How about using x to fit with the narrative of your study? Is there an alternative view of this subject? You might want to look again at the section on…&etc’).

Sounds a lot like FE-styled approaches (except the re-sit ones). It’s called Heutagogy in some areas and – while an iffy word to some – represents a plausible direction of travel for Tertiary Education.

So, we know the EEF has fairly narrow defined prescriptions of what PBL is.

Let me conclude by discussing the pbl approach I tried with my FE students. I’ll be honest, the way I’ve presented it here didn’t work well. Tom suspects that “the least able lose out the most” (don’t they nearly always?). Tom also suggests an “enormous upheaval” in terms of curriculum cost.

So, in my case I arranged our 35 week re-sit to be organised as two separate 90 minute classes, instead of one three hour intensive lesson (standard in some FE colleges). One of those 90 minute lessons would focus on syllabus, with the other focused on PBL, particularly with technological support, alongside grammar drills and sessions.

I explained the aims of the year to students in September, that each week we would meet in the computer suite once, where there would be grammar sessions and project time. I invited them to consider their projects and how these would or could be presented, so in varying sessions I introduced them to Padlet, Twitter, Prezi, WordPress, Glogster, Book Creator apps, Explain Everything, Evernote, Wix and Dropbox. Students could work individually or in collaboration, but the condition was focused development towards targeted outcomes – integrating formulated language structures, meeting deadlines, drafting, being responsive to feedback, taking ownership of language mistakes where identified.

One student started on her own company website as her project, modelled on professional ones but with input augmented from her course and small-scale own business practice, with another student electing to support her. In terms of content, it stretched the project a bit, but their enthusiasm was notable and paid dividends to the main syllabus.

Two other students wanted to investigate Gun Crime (as there had been a mass shooting in America at that time). Rather than the free rein of PBL set out by the EEF, I gave guiding questions continually to frame and shape the process, inviting statistical representation, supplementing the research with a news article, presenting different attitudes about the issue, arguments from pressure groups and lobbying organisations, organised and challenged by their own views.

Another pair of motor maintenance students investigated the Volkswagen emissions controversy that was in the media spotlight then. Another student, lost for an option, explored a career path of his choice, researching opportunities, identifying and explaining routes into it; imagining himself an employer, he wrote a mock-interview script with a potential candidate, which he presented in roleplay with a peer and left to the group to decide the employers decision.

Of course, not all students were so ‘engaged’ and some spent the time perfecting thrilling spinning movements on desktop chairs. Herein a problem with flexibility, but it’s certainly not a problem exclusive to pbl.

Despite lessons being workshop-like and supported with starting drills and resources based on straightforward grammar and vocabulary activities, they lost shape and structure after about two months, but this wasn’t really due to pbl.

With a typical mixed cohort, typical re-sit FE problems arose: namely, attendance and workload-pressures of the students’ main vocational courses. Splitting the course across two days meant students had double opportunities for absence and took the choice of which lesson to attend. We ended up, sometime down the path, using the pbl-based lesson to consolidate the lost time on the syllabus lessons to ensure readiness for controlled assessments. However, I would stress that this was always a fail-safe mechanism in my planning from the start.

Students who felt prepared for the assessment through good attendance had the freedom, then, to personalise the curriculum time with their projects.

This is by no means an illustration of the perfect project-based curricula, but I’m lead to write about it because of the EEF report, which fixes it to defining constraints that I consider unhelpful to its potential.

If the PBL products my students made could be accredited, they could result – I believe –in work akin to the level of essays on Of Mice and Men, but richer, more dynamic. Why not? Isn’t it better than repeating a formula that hasn’t worked, despite repetition being a route to mastery.  Re-sit students deserve the opportunity for differentiated practice. With the appropriate conditions (clear outcomes and experienced guidance) PBL can represent that.






Filed under English re-sit, FE, Learning technologies, Uncategorized

Positive approaches to re-sit delivery – interpersonal and intrapersonal negotiation

Sciolism (noun): superificial knowledge or show of learning.

In  my last post, I described the re-sit GCSE phenomenon, which seemed to resonate with people who teach it. I also made claim to some success over years of teaching it, which was asking for trouble. I’ve tried to reflect on some of the things I do and hope they may help others, though the more I drew on my thoughts, the less this seemed exclusive to re-sits. Therefore, I don’t claim that these approaches are in any way a sure thing (or even original).

I’ve persuaded the college where I teach that resits should be two classes of 90 minutes, rather than one 2 or 3 hour session. This has held for the last two years and appears to improve concentration and achievement in lessons. My argument was that little learning was taking place in concentrated classes. What I mean by this is…

Almost all resit students need grammar embedded into the course. This is too often overlooked in time-intensive courses, where we teach to the next controlled assessment. What is the point of a resit? To improve ability or to get a C? Certainly the former.

Writing improvements

With two 90-min sessions, one lesson focuses solely on writing ability and control, the other on curriculum. Grammar can be embedded in more ‘engaging’ (said it) ways than the syllabus. If the GCSE should be reformed for FE it must focus on mastery, rather than teach-to-the-test. Judith Hochman‘s ‘connectives’ sentence expansion activities is an effective method of developing written ability.  We have also practised a ‘slow-writing’ approach, with a set of prompts from lessons giving students a methodical process for adjusting writing style deliberately and considering what they are about to write in advance, i.e. ‘Use a subordinating conjunction in the next sentence to add more information’.

To focus on improvement and mastery, ‘slow-editing’ guidance is introduced after writing drills, to ensure students review their work. This may be simple, i.e. ‘count the number of sentences in each paragraph‘ (to improve checks on punctuating control), or more complex, ‘include decalarative statements‘, but is designed to support checking.


GCSE resits should revisit prior knowledge formulaically. Don’t assume students know nothing and show them their gains, as it’s advantageous as a building block and to revisit as more knowledge is accrued. I  invite students to organise their prior knowledge on poster paper or Padlet if we have computer access and return to it to add more in plenaries.

Even though they may have much (or little) prior knowledge, introduce something new in every session – ideally something that would never have been done in school.


Although this is very difficult to ascertain, I at least aim to address my 16-19 students as adults in a level-fashion, rather than get some weird group-speak repeating going on (like in Machaela schools). Communication is vital in FE. A resit teacher should speak with:

  • sensitivity
  • urgency
  • respect
  • a touch of pressure

And often very directly. Though not always motivational, it’s important to be blunt sometimes, to show where expectations have not been met and that the maturity with which your students are treated (in how you communicate to them) has been let down. This is hard to explain without sounding like either a military officer or a feeble teacher whose feelings are easily  hurt, but if the rapport is established then students will perform better – and they can hear from your tone where they may lose your respect, if not your confidence.


We’re often confronted by deep existential questions: ‘what’s the point of this?’ The answers can become a bit ‘ventriloquistic‘. Some stock responses:

  • ‘You’ll be ahead of the next person in competition for a job.’
  • ‘It’s important to know your language.’
  • ‘Don’t you find it enjoyable?’
  • ‘The Government says so.’
  • ‘Low literacy is a form of poverty.’
  • ‘You failed at school.’

I might not always use all of those, but think I have at some point where students have been persistently listless. I’ve also given out letters from previously jaded students who succeeded, but some resit students are so negative or have such low confidence in themselves that in truth, I’d advise avoiding that conversation altogether (or it will go on and on). Instead:

Challenge students to see the value in it at the end of May. Promise them if they keep an open-mind the course will be stimulating and transformative. Guarantee them that the more open they are to the lessons, the easier the year will be. Assure them that the easier the year will be, the better the odds of success and (quid pro quo) the more enjoyable it will be.

If students are really inquisitive about ‘the point‘, a microistic level can help, e.g.

Targets and goals.

These are crucial for students to see the bigger picture. I routinely reference dates on the calendar to improve self-preparation, goal-orientated behaviour and organisation.

‘Why are we doing this?’

‘If you understand the terms (knowledge), you can include them in your essay points. If you include them in your essays, your essay has more cohesion and is more informed. This is part of the mark scheme of what to include. Do so and you stand a better chance at qualifying.’

At some point, you can turn this round to ask the students the point in learning activities. If they’ve bought in, the plenary of a lesson is half-written for you.


Argyris talks of Double-loop learning, which is an excellent way to view the re-sitters experience and our obligation to help them. In this model, reflection is critical in order to improve decision-making. I ensure that I have 1-to-1s as quickly as I can to build rapport with students and try to stem any funny business from them. During these meetings, however short they are, I try to broach some analysis of why the student hasn’t passed before. There are countless acceptable explanations: dyslexia, poor teaching at school, lack of interest, poor confidence, long-term illness absences, lost coursework. I try to get students to regard these past experiences as ‘reasons’, rather than excuses. This allows us to establish a contract for improved success opportunities based on personalised targets (ILPs) and gives me a prompt for that student if they’re acting-up or falling-behind.

Rather than nag, we recall what has previously gone wrong and focus on correcting the behaviour by doing something different. If, for instance, the problem is continued attendance issues (and we all have those students who keep apologising and assuring you they’ll be fine), intervene early – the course is short. Ask them how they will remedy the absence with extra work outside lessons.

Put the responsibility for problems on the student. This is not always the case. Some resit students have incredible challenges and we are not always equipped with LSAs to support us. Bitesizing the curriculum is paramount, which is again linked to…

…Targets, because I aim to create a thread-like narrative throughout the course, treating specific and core ‘threshold knowledge’ aspects as key in certain lessons (i.e. the imperative aspects of a unit – for instance the prosodic features for the Spoken Language unit). Threshold knowledge act as knots to help students pull themselves towards those targeted controlled assessment dates. The thread is ‘double-looped’ and requires continual joining-up.

What becomes integral to lessons is a continual internal referencing – looking back and forwards to train the mind on reflection and targets, knowledge learned and the point of it. Using social learning technologies is helpful to self-organising, with a spare use of push-notifications assisting with…


Re-sit students can have very poor memories, studentship qualities (attitudes) and organisation skills. Twice weekly lessons can help with constant consolidation of knowledge (if attendance is secure), but also may improve an overall ‘horizon-scanning‘ approach, treating all targets as achievements towards goals. Currently, on the old spec, the CAs helpfully designate progress in per centages, so after each unit is rushed through (and they are), I over-do the accomplishment with congratulations and ‘what a relief…never again…’, before hoodwinking them into a new challenge: ‘Right. next unit.’  Higlighting where targets have been reached is a good negotiation strategy for sustained endeavour: ‘You’re 3/4 of the way there now. Just the exam left. You’ve done the hard part. Keep going. I can see daylight’ &etc.

This post is dragging on, like most of mine. Clearly to cut-corners and deal with attendance issues, students can be helped enormously with the right resources that can almost guarantee a C for an essay, no?

  • Quote-matching activities to language features
  • true or false questions to create personalised responses summarising opions about a text
  • a ‘sparkling vocabulary’ list
  • a template of suggested phrasing, and finally
  • a clear skeletal plan of an essay

Obviously this is sciolisitic; it’s far better that students are perpetually writing draft paragraphs with frequent intensive grammar drills and tasks for long-term improvement, but…well, we’re expected to cut-corners and get kids through a 2 year course in 32 weeks, so we cut corners pretty efficiently. However, I’ll be frank: if students miss by a few marks, give them another go at it – even if they are a pain in the arse all year and your marking is piled sky high. Indeed, I would go further and show the student exactly what to include to get the assessment up to a C. If they’re a pain in the arse, I want to give them every opportunity to never have to do English with me again. ‘Controlled’ assessment, I ask you! My arse. AQA, if you’re reading, this is FE. We do things by mastery.

Also, students will always do things half-heartedly. I train focus on the controlled assessment dates by saying in the build-up (with a wee touch of anger in my voice) that it’s down to them to be sure they’re ready. At the start of lessons I measure confidence of writing the assessment based out of 10. This is reviewed at the end of lessons to gauge rough improvements and remind them of their obligations.

I also check in with them: ‘What else do you need to cover. We have two more lessons. What do you want to know?’ Then we do it. And if they don’t say ‘owt, then they must be ready : )


We achieved about 50% in the last year of A-C English resits, not bad for an FE college as national average is reported at around 9%. I hope we improve every year and this year has already started well in terms of attendance, mainly due to improved buy-in from Vocational staff nagging about English and Maths in all sessions and a concerted emphasis of it at induction. This emphasis on the importance of literacy across college is really important, but it still doesn’t help that half the students who passed in school disappear at those times. A reformed FE qualification would see all students take some sort of class. I’ll write on proposals for this later.

Image Creative Commons courtesy: © Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under education, English re-sit, FE, writing