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.