Joe Pardoe is Humanities and PBL Lead at School 21, Newham.
In part one of his blog, Joe outlined how student independence has become a key focus for development in his teaching, and how independence itself is a long term, slow burning process. Below, he sets out the criteria required for this slow burning process to blossom into a genuine culture of independence in project-based learning.
Transparency – “What we doin’ today, Sir?’
My first observation is that we need to be very transparent about the learning which will take place during the topic. When I recently started teaching a new group that had not been used to independent workin, it took me a long time to get them to stop asking ‘what are we doing today?’ When you think about it, how can a student possibly work independently if every lesson is a new surprise? If they want to do some extra work, can they? If a parent wants to take their child to a museum to help with their school work, do they know where to go? If you want students to be independent, you need to be open and transparent. This includes:
A genuine bibliography of the topic. By genuine, I mean don’t assume that the student can’t / won’t read Bede’s ‘Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum AD 1-731’. Admittedly, the vast majority won’t, but why limit them if they want to try? You might be pleasantly surprised at a student’s desire to learn outside of the classroom – I certainly was. One student got further through Paxman’s terrible ‘Great Britain’s Great War’ book than I could stomach.
A clear and detailed timeline of the project. It is only fair to layout the project in detail for the students and, barring circumstances outside of your control, stick to it. How did you feel that time you turned up to school on your day with a nice chunk of PPA only to be given cover at the last minute? Remember that time that you spent ages cutting up a card sort for a lesson which was cancelled 15 minutes before to make way for a celebrity guest speaker? How would you feel if you turned up to work and were expected to take part in a meeting which you had not had time to think about or prepare for but other colleagues had prior knowledge of the topic leaving you at an unfair disadvantage? You get the point.
All of the resources that you will use. Some of your students might have some free time over the weekend and want to get ahead and do extra work. Why on earth would you want to stop them doing that?
The assessment information. If you are being held to account, surely you want to know what the measurement will be. Isn’t one of the frustrations of OFSTED that you don’t know when it will happen, what exactly you will be measured against and it is an arbitrary judgement of your teaching. Don’t put your students through the same feeling!
Tell parents / guardians. Send a letter giving details of the project. Give a list of suggested museums and days out. Make a website and let everyone know. Tweet about it.
The first question I usually ask when I set a task is ‘who is this actually for?’. If the answer is me, then the chances are, students will not work independently. If I go into a lesson I always ask what are you doing. Almost always students can explain the task. I then ask why are you doing it, if they answer because I have to or something similar they are not working independently. One of my big beliefs is that schools should open up to the community and other visitors every term. Students should know that everything they produce is attributable to them. Their books should be on display. When I told my new Year 7 class that at the end of the term, they will be expected to display ALL of their work to their parents, other members of the community and history experts, a number of them asked to be given new exercise books so that they could present their work more neatly. This may not be the best example, but it does highlight that when students see that their work is attributable to them they seem to take a lot more pride in what they do. I could (and hopefully will) write a whole blog about public exhibitions and what I have learnt over the last year or so, but simply, I believe regular, public exhibitions are key to developing accountability and fostering independence.
Linked to public exhibition is developing projects which actually add value to the world. This does require some imaginative thinking but the rewards are worth the effort. I still haven’t truly cracked this in my teaching – the best I have done so far is an exhibition for local school children and a drama performance for the community. However, we are moving in a more authentic direction; one project team is working with the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park team to write a report about the wildlife in the park and I am currently working on a project with the Migration Museum Project to help them promote their cause as part of a Humanities project in year 8. The point is, we need to shift the discourse away from teacher vs student to teachers helping students. When I was teaching in Asia I noticed that this was the way most students, parents and teachers approached education – a team effort to achieve the best for each child. This often becomes the case at KS4 when students begin to see the value of their work (it gets them, hopefully, a useful qualification) but this is often lost at KS3. An authentic audience gives purpose to a student’s labours and the student begins to know that they need the teachers’ support and guidance.
This one is rather obvious, so I will keep it brief. Put simply, students need to know that they are learning things. Show them how it links to the curriculum and how it will help with exams in the future. I believe that through PBL you can cover as much, if not more, content than through more traditional means. I also do more direct instruction than ever before in my career. The difference is that I do it on a small group or 1:1 basis as and when the students need it. I lecture, but never to the whole group. The project should be incredibly rigorous and cover lots of knowledge. As we know, students can spot instantly when they are just being kept busy!
Student Generated Final Product
This can take many forms and students should feel like they have some choice in the project and can take ownership over something that no one else is doing. This is not them deciding the project or a free for all; it is a carefully designed process. In a current immigration project, students can choose from a list of different ‘immigrant groups’ on which to focus. In a WWII project, students have the choice of 1 of 6 essay questions. As part of a revolutions project, the students chose either the French or Russian Revolution and had quite a lot of freedom about how to display their learning (as long as it was immersive theatre). Give them a say about groupings. As I say, this is not the much maligned ‘teacher disappears and gives all power to the student’ approach. It is more that space is designed in the project in which students can create, explore and take ownership.
Multiple Drafts / Student Critique
I am assuming most people reading this blog have seen Ron Berger’s ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ video. Students should feel that the work they are doing is not a one off. That they will craft it and make it better. Of course, the final draft will end up being a collaboration rather than a student’s own work, so we compare 1st draft in one project to 1st draft in an exam to ensure progress. Again, I intend to write a blog about this aspect of my practice at some point in the near future.
Finally, students need to be accountable for their work every minute of every lesson. 100% engagement and focus 100% of the time is unusual in any walk of life, but meeting deadlines to a high standard is fairly common. Set out deadlines, check progress 1:1 / small group, advise and support but expect the student to meet the deadline. You can make them accountable to deadlines through three main techniques:
Accountable to the authentic audience:
If the work the student is completing is actually valuable work then there should be a real need to complete it to a high standard and on time. If the students are putting on a drama performance start publicising early and sell tickets. Invite experts to critique their work on a regular basis – experts from the Migration Museum Project are marking my students’ essays! All students now know that at the end of each project they will have to present their work to outside experts and professionals – not just their teacher.
Accountable to the group:
This is always a difficult one: group assessments are always a minefield and many would (rightly) argue unfair. The key thing here is to not assess the work the group produces but how well the group functions as a unit. In our project assessment students are only ever assessed on their own work. However, when considering oracy and communication skills we do assess how well they worked within or led a group. They should also know that their work as an individual helps to make up a broader group outcome. For example, each student was given an individual space in a room as part of our WWI project. The student was only accountable for their space. However, they also knew that the whole room had to look good, one good piece of work in the middle of a sea of terrible work is not good. They were accountable to each other but assessed individually.
Accountable to themselves:
This is obviously the most important level of accountability. Students need to recognise that with freedom and trust comes a responsibility to meet deadlines, work hard and learn from mistakes. The discourse of the classroom needs to shift from students feeling that blame lies with a teacher for poor performance to knowing that if they don’t work hard, they will fail. How do we do this? Firstly, the PBL approach allows long periods of the session (usually most of it) where students are simply ‘getting on with work’. This frees up the teacher to have small group / 1:1 chats with students. I mark their books with them in front of me. I question them. I challenge them. I tell them if the work is not good enough. I make them do it again if it is rubbish. And I tell them I will be back to see them again within 20 minutes. After a while, students know that a couple of times each lesson, they will be challenged directly about their work.
Conclusion: Trust them, they can
‘That’s great, but my students can’t work like this’, I hear all of the time when people visit my classroom. That, linked to the training point mentioned above, is a key part of the underlying problem. That students can’t do something until the teacher has taught them how. Of course, there are many, many things that a student needs a lot of help with and told how to do it, but this varies wildly between students. Carpet bombing the whole class with the assumption that they all can’t do it because of one bad experience with a student strikes me as unfair. The problem is that very few teachers actually have the bravery to trust students to work through their mistakes. Of course, they might not get it right the first time. But that is not a cue to jump into to save them. Let them try again.