Available at above link. Completed and passed, August 2017.
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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.
Link to my article for the Mobile Learning journal I edited last year, for archive and CMALT accreditation purposes.
In some microscopic detail of my days, you contributed to my present.
Though I rarely knew you, two years at best, memory transported me through time today when, this morning, I discovered you gone. Not only gone, but dust now. Dust, our days long dutiful destiny, but not for you, smashed to ash in the fastest moment. Your words, your work, your honour, your research, all smote in a second in a thoughtless chess move by some blind hand brushing at your wing.
And a baby boy, a year old. And a sister. And 295 nameless others, whose faces wakened the world on forgotten front pages. To no consequence, save lives left behind shattered in the mirrors of memory.
At Hogmanay we drank, danced, laughed. I lead you all through the dark mazes as a crazed native. In my mind I recall you singing Auld Lang Syne, holding your man, whose loss I cannot understand. You knew all the words, you always knew all the words from a foreign script, just as you adored the world and all its people and all its life, you gave everything to know and to share the song. Fireworks blighted the sky in a terrible trembling premonition we were never to know. The next day we scaled Arthur’s Seat and you studied the city, full of yourself as you had earned. And you scanned the land, and planned to give it back.
And you stayed with us in London, and we shared you our city, and you sent me invulnerable words, but they couldn’t be bulletproof.
I wish I’d cradled you when I knew you and coaxed your light. You invented your own magic. You gave your light away for others to carry and someone, some political pawn, stole it, exploded and extinguished it out of the sky. I can only wish that some divine intervention, some mystical palm, would have cradled you down to safety then.
How do we consolidate the fallen? In memory, your glory burns, but fades. In your home land, they believe the soul persists as a ghost if the shell perishes far from its territory. Then I pray, though I pray, that the winds carried you all carefully, gently, that your spirit still warms his heart and strengthens him on. We hold the dust, we won’t let it go.
Two years too late, today, I couldn’t share your welcome home, like your global family did. Though headlined words imprint you more than many, they, the people you touched, carry your name and hold it from fading. They posted condolences to the wall as ‘Welcome Home’, but it took RIP for me to see, to realise JC, it took that for me to see that you are in peace. I hope your husband has also become there. Peace. “May you stay forever young.”
31 degree heat, and suncream and sweat sting your eye blind. A fairly inopportune moment to become more disorientated.
I’m, say, 7500ft up in the Tyrolean Alps, my heel is at 90 degrees to a 300ft drop. I’m squatted, moving backwards, hand over hand, foot by foot; my neck twists back to check that the corner I’m edging towards is closer.
My palms, sweat-greased and copper-stained, grip a horizontal 50metre long cable hammered into the wall of Ellmauer Halt, the highest peak in the Wilder Kaisser range.
I’ve no karabiner or other equipment, I’m nauseous, and giving myself a profanity-loaded pep talk constantly and I’m heading down, alone, because I already lost my head to vertigo 300ft from the summit. My brother and nephew are up near the top, some place where you scale huge slabs of limestone rock to ascend to 2344m, which we’d decided, impulsively, to climb when at the col below.
To compound the drastic situation I’m in, as I wriggle backwards across a cliff face along this dangerously narrow fissure, others – coming up – wait at the far side for me. They’re a patient, calm Austrian team, bedecked in the full catalogue and – when I reach the relative safety of their slightly wider ledge – they chide my lack of a helmet.
“You may be hit by a rolling stone.”
I’m too breathless to laugh at the idea of getting jumped by Charlie Watts. I move on down, exhausted and shaking.
Besides Alpine anxiety at dizzying heights, in this last week my mind has mainly been trained on two things:
1. Notions of thresholds, momentum and purposeful motivation
2. Intrinsic pleasures.
I draw on these in this post about my experiences on this trip.
You’re training, physically, for Kilimanjaro in December. It’s alarming, then, to discover that your mental capacity needs more training. I grew up climbing mountains and have been up them all over the world. Whence this new vertigo, then? Suddenly spontaneous, unexpected and shatteringly terrifying.
It happened three times inside a four-day hike. The first you overcame with calm deep breaths and approaching the 90 degree ladder disappearing into the clouds with some kind of steeled determination before the panic could really stick. The second was just sheer panic for about thirty minutes, up and down Ellmauer.
You endured it. The hyperventilating. The choked sobs. Your brain floating and careering in a dizzying spin, vision unable to fix on detail, thumping headaches, nerves crumbling. A perpetually nauseating compulsion to look down. Horrific.
Amidst this turmoil, like a nut, your mind flips to educational theory, to research, to students’ experiences. Some reflexive engineering.
Meyer and Land’s proposal is of problematic knowledge and overcoming liminal thresholds to emerge anew. There’s little grounding of this empirically; it appears phenomenological, but it resonates.
At the bottom of Ellmauer Halt was a plateau of boulders, basic obstacles to get to the ascent. The plateau is used as a metaphor for progress flatlining.
You see symbols in everything. Navigation, contours, landscape. Inner psychology mirrored to the map, or the lack of one.
Since attitude is socially effected by the affective, how can you manipulate student mindset to encourage determination? I’m not sure you can. In your third bout of vertigo you uncovered a new low: a horrible rage at other people, a blame game, that others had misled you about the height, the danger, the landscape. You projected your lack of confidence onto others. If there had been a team, some support, some encouragement, this may not have happened.
You must learn to scan the horizon, to anticipate challenges, to draw strategies from what you already know. But vertigo is irrational, so logic like this goes absent.
You thought about how you may need to get some counselling to handle if this happens in Tanzania, but you don’t want to ‘learn to cope’ with vertigo. You don’t want it at all. The worry is that you have created new physiological memories from failing to achieve the summit, and of the anxious experience of vertigo. Will you look for the symptoms next time you climb? Will you imagine them, confuse adrenaline with panic? How do you approach a problem with different methods? It requires much confidence. How do I convince next years resit students to try a new approach, to keep an open mind, to avoid repeating mistakes?
Meyer and Land was like alchemy when I first read it. They describe overcoming thresholds as epistemologically transformative, as ontological integration, that it is irreversible. Learning theory framed like music.
My notion is that momentum (purposeful actions) occurs when motivation is intrinsically situated through visible objectives. The culture is vital to this: an accessible community, a range of means to communicate, a continual network in which to distribute these expressions, perpetual challenges and opportunities to create momentum. Without these elements, fatigue sets in. Fatigue is engagement atrophied.
While in Austria, you overcame thresholds. So why the repetitive vertigo? Because you had no choice but to carry on? The third vertigo was sustained, going unexpectedly higher and higher when you expected to descend. The way took in a prolonged ridge, dramatic drops, sudden ledges. No goals or end in sight. Without targets, progress can’t be tracked. You’d reached the saturation point of panic.
The abyss stared back at you.
And then I suddenly became weary of vertigo. I’d simply had enough of feeling anxious. It was as if I’d made a choice. I sat down among some trees and reflected. I listened to the perfect stillness you receive at altitude. A silence in which my fears had screamed. The silence is a void. There’s nothing there. We feel compelled to fill it with noise, because the emptiness is profound and terrifying. I started noticing details again: a leaf quivering of its own accord studied closer revealed an ant, struggling to cope with the load, but persisting, getting it to the nest, past a train of marching brothers all moving intently. I noticed my breathing had regulated, my heart had slowed. The sun’s warmth poured into me.
Ascension used to be a high. Now it’s a bind. What’s the pleasure in this? Gruelling heat, lightning and downpours, heart smashing at my rib cage.
What is it for?
What is the intrinsic value of enduring this?
People talk about overcoming fears, but I feel I’ve embodied them, and ultimately accepted them, because when there’s only one direction to go – onward, upward – you just have to keep going.
Slides from my Presentation on Adult learners at the ARPCE Conference in FE situating literacy practices in online communities of practice available here
It was good to meet people from the sector, sadly cut short by having to return north, so I missed some fascinating presentations but this was tempered by having a drink post-conference with a few notable figures and hearing about their work, with many cross-overs between theories and practice emerging.
If I had one criticism of the conference it was the lack of unifying sub-themes to the array of subjects clustered to the ‘adult learning’ flag. Themes are useful signposts for focused organisation.
I’m still a bit bewildered thinking about the picture I found in an Oxford window on my way there, which so symbolically represented an attitudinal barrier of education to the adults I teach, who cross thresholds and develop with increased confidence. Picture below – note condescensing caption. This coupled with the plethora of university colleges, neatly walled behind ‘private property’ and ‘no visitor’ signs was a curious manifest of ideas represented in my research. Makes me think of Blake’s Garden of Love poem.
Well Oxford, as quaint as your dreaming spires are, let me tell you that your ring road is terrible. A really beautiful setting, anyway.
At the start of the week I also presented at the APT Conference at Greenwich through the LSE, which explored a different strand of results from my doctorate research in terms of the deficit of Momentum – Social Media Fatigue, which I’ll be talking more and more about in future, much to everyone’s delight chagrin.