Joe Pardoe is Humanities and PBL Lead at School 21, Newham.
When I first started experimenting with PBL in School 21, one of my biggest concerns was the emphasis on students working independently and the teacher acting as a facilitator in the classroom. I had very bad memories of this concept and had seen some truly terrible examples of it in practice. I really struggled to imagine what the classroom would look like. Like all aspects of my experimentation with PBL I threw myself reluctantly into the challenge, half hoping to fail and prove my scepticism to be well founded. Unfortunately, I am now becoming accustomed to being proven wrong.
Student independence has become a key focus for development in my teaching over the last year or so and this piece represents my reflections on the process. I have, through a shortish(ish) but very intense period of trial and error, come to a few conclusions which I would like to share (and open up for critique) with this blog post.
Training is not the answer – culture is
When people come to see PBL in action, almost universally one of the first questions I am asked is ‘how did you train them to be so independent?’ That question is part of the problem – I didn’t train them to do anything. I believe in this country we have moved way too far into a system where we ‘pre-empt’ or ‘pre-load’ before we get to the ‘doing part’ of the lesson or project. For example, I was taught in my training, and I see and hear of it happening all of the time in all lessons, that we need to teach the skill before students apply it. We need to teach them how to analyse a source before giving some sources to analyse for themselves. We need to do forty examples of meaningless PEE paragraphs before giving them anything meaty to analyse. We need to schedule 5 CPD sessions a year about differentiation because if we are not told about it, we can’t do it, or maybe we will forget!
I often found that the part of the lesson where I was trying to explain a concept was a struggle (a necessary evil) and then the second part frustrating as I didn’t have the chance to help all of the kids (usually most of them!) who hadn’t actually bothered listening to the first part and then didn’t really know what to do. The ‘spinning plates’ metaphor was crashing all around me. I think theory can help explain why this was / is the case. Firstly, Nuthall demonstrates in his fantastic work ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’ how cumulatively, the class can already do and know about 50% of what you are trying to teach them. The fidgety behaviour is probably the manifestation of the same feeling you get when you have to sit through a CPD with someone explaining AfL for the 16th year running – when all you actually want to do it to get on with the task of implementing AfL in your lessons. Secondly, there is a vast amount of material written about motivation which I will explore in more detail later.
However, this is not to say that students will miraculously become independent over night, but rather careful planning needs to take place and a strong culture needs to be fostered.
Independence or Compliance?
I have come to believe that the only way to develop true independence in students to create a culture in which students need to be independent, are highly accountable for their work and know that they will be allowed to fail if they have not worked hard enough. There may be some short term hiccups, but over the long term, you will develop a culture of real independence in your classroom / school. Before going into more depth about how I have attempted to develop this culture in my teaching, it is important to distinguish between two concepts which on the surface appear to be opposites but in some observed teaching practice have almost become synonymous.
For example, I have seen teachers proudly claim how independent their students are because they are silently working and not asking any questions. This teacher achieved Soviet levels of compliance – jobs given, jobs done with minimum fuss and almost a self-censorship imposed to avoid any trouble. I once saw a teacher give a twenty minute demonstration from start to finish of a scientific experiment and then complain about lack of independence when the students were expected to carry out identically the same ‘experiment’. I have also observed teachers ‘prove’ to me that their students are incapable of working independently by ordering them to complete a one-off task after giving a five minute lecture about how to do it and then standing back and watching the class self destruct in scenes not too dissimilar to The Walking Dead. None of these anecdotes are examples of what I view as independence. I do not believe that students will ever work independently in short term islands of freedom – independence is a long term, slow burning process. In part 2 of this blog (coming soon), I will outline how this slow burning processes requires ALL (or at least almost all) of the following criteria to be met (adapted from the REAL Projects formula developed by Innovation Unit):
- Transparency – “What we doin’ today, Sir?’
- Public Exhibition
- Authentic Audience
- Significant Content
- Student Generated Final Product
- Multiple Drafts / Student Critique