Phil Divers is a REAL Projects Teacher at Joseph Swan Academy.
Taking the leap
Students do not take a subject at A level because they want to be well prepared for an exam. They also do not take it because they want to hear you talk about it at great length. They choose your subject because they love it, they have a passion for it, they want to be immersed in it.
I thought about this when designing my programme of study for my A2 Philosophy class last year. In front of me I had a group of inquisitive, dedicated students who had a real passion for Philosophy. I had been trialling REAL projects – new designs for learning that connect deep subject content with real world problem solving – with Key Stage 3 and after a few months could see the benefits. Students were more engaged, harder working and producing work of a measurably higher quality. I thought to myself, with A level students you already have the engagement (they chose to be there!) and they are dedicated to their studies, so given the right tools, how high could the quality go? The decision was made, A2 Philosophy would be delivered through REAL Projects.
Planning for going deeper
The key was to map all of the significant content first. Being an A level course this was obviously a large undertaking and this was time consuming, however once completed I knew this was worthwhile, I had a personalised scheme of work and every lesson planned. Once this was completed the next stage was to decide how the students would access this. Teaching ‘normally’ this is a simple process – I tell them what they need to know, they process it and then I mark some kind of assessment. Simple. However, this approach was not engendering the kind of deep thinking that is required to really understand Philosophy. So, I used a planning document from the Buck Institute website and mapped all of the content and how students would access it, utilising many of the protocols that I had been using at Key Stage 3 to ensure focus and direction. This also meant that at strategic points, and when accessing particularly abstract theories, extra support could be given. The last job was to source and collate all of the materials so that students could work independently and access the resources they needed, when they needed them. I felt now I was in a position where my students would learn Philosophy rather than me teaching them Philosophy.
The reality of rigorous, engaging, authentic learning
It would be fair to say that the students were initially sceptical. “We’re in Year 13, we just want to know how to pass the exam”. We discussed why they had chosen the subject, we discussed how if they had a deeper understanding the exam would be easier, that the exam is the final assessment of your learning not why you learn. I pointed them to examples of schools in the USA who successfully used this and this seemed to reassure them. I informed them that this was a process of discovery for me also and that we would review the process as we went along and could “revert back” at any time. And so we began. The project was framed as a “University experience”. They would be making presentations, attending ‘seminars’, have reading weeks, and write high level academic essays. Whilst there was not a final ‘product’ per se, the process of making the final exam part of a larger process, rather than what all of the learning was about was how the project was sold
The going back to ‘normal’ teaching conversation never happened. Given licence, given the trust to be in charge of their own learning, the students thrived. It was a mixed ability class, ranging from A* students to those for whom a C was a real achievement, and this approach allowed for all students to access the subject in a personalised way. There were no more ‘lectures’, the A grade students who grasped the concepts could move on to the next area, and those who needed some extra assistance were able to speak to me as my time had been freed up from delivering content. The classroom had a real collegial feel to it with students taking responsibility for their learning and as such gaining a deeper understanding. During observations it was noted how “students could articulate the direction and purpose of their learning”. Student voice surveys recorded that students felt that the effective use of a variety of protocols ensured they never felt they were left to flounder and that they appreciated the space and time to think that REAL approach gave them in lesson time.
Risk and Reward
There was clearly a level of risk in putting the onus on the students in this way. Throughout the process students were positive and I felt that that my interventions were more meaningful as they were always targeted and personalised. The real proof though would be in the exam results, could this approach work with terminal exam results at stake?
The answer was a resounding “Yes”. All students either achieved or exceeded target grades, all of the students improved on their AS grades by at least one (one student by three). I firmly believe that REAL Projects are the way forward for exam classes, and I will be teaching all A level in this way with the next step being GCSE.
Although the results were obviously pleasing, I think the most satisfying aspect can be summed up by one of the students evaluation responses:
“Learning in this way made me more motivated to do more and read more widely. I was trusted to make decisions on my own learning which was something different. I felt equipped to perform my best in the exam, more so than I had done previously and was definitely not as nervous. I really enjoyed the fact that the teacher was like an extra resource and if I did not need help I could move on but if I did then he was able to work with me on my own. I feel really prepared for Uni now, I think I have the skills to be able to work independently which will be really important there.”
Can REAL Projects prepare students for GCSE in KS4 and 6th form? In a word, Yes. We need to prepare children to learn, be resilient and adapt to an ever changing world. REAL projects can do this, and in doing so it can also deliver amazing results.