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How to use project based learning?

Project based learning.  How can we use project based learning, and indeed, should we?

What is Project Based Learning?

The Buck Institute for Learning is an American Teacher Support organisation.  It describes Project based learning as something which:

‘… prepares students for academic, personal, and career success, and readies young people to rise to the challenges of their lives and the world they will inherit.’

Impressive stuff.

Project based learning sets a problem, challenge or investigation for a student to complete.  It is child centred; the best projects address the individual needs of a particular student.  Work is dynamic, and student led.  It develops transferable skills such as research, time management, collaboration and problem solving.  It offers great opportunities for cross curricular learning.

Ideally, every student will have a project which will offer interest to them, and develop skills particular to their needs.  Practically, with a class in the mid twenties or, probably, more, such an approach is impossible.

However, within a common theme, pupils can (with help) set their own learning plans, taking an angle on the project which sits within their own interest and experience, and leads to learning and skill acquisition that fits their own requirements.

Examples of Project Based Learning

The world is out oyster when it comes to choosing a topic.  The Problems Facing Oyster Fishermen in the Era of Brexit being a good, if slightly boring, title.  It might not draw on the lifestyles of many of the class (unless we are in a school in Whitstable, but even the most disinterested of teens cannot escape Brexit.  However, there are even better titles than that.

Issues around social media, screen time, sustainability, pressure on young people and so forth, are all good – if slightly worthy – topics which call on the experience of the student.

Designing a school, or creating a curriculum are a little old hat, but there’s nothing wrong with aged millinery.

For some pupils, often those on the autistic spectrum, an intense interest in a subject can be used to promote learning in a child who struggles with mainstream study.  I recall a boy with an intense knowledge of the London Underground; that challenged the creativity of his teachers, but led to ultimate success in education.  Another, very tricky, child would do just two things in class.  Rock on his chair or work on dinosaurs.  I wouldn’t like to boast of my subsequent knowledge of these prehistoric creatures, but Steven Spielberg, if you ever need expert knowledge for the latest Jurassic Park film, you know where to come.

Perhaps my own favourite example was project based learning with a group of Year Eight, high ability students who were studying the First World War.  It included liaison with the History department and a focus on poetry.  We took the students to Ypres to study trenches and cemeteries.  On return, we combined the experiences with a memorial board in the library.  Each student was charged with researching into one of the names on the board.  In addition, they looked into their own family’s involvement in the first world war, researched and produced fact booklets, wrote poetry and studied the works of Owen and Sassoon.

‘The iced East winds that knive us…’ means a lot more when we have stood in a trench and felt the wind slicing across the open fields.  Each student was directed towards work that helped their particular needs – perhaps IT usage, maybe language use, sometimes comprehension or understanding the reliability of sources.

The point is that the topic fitted the learning the students needed to undertake, was individual to them within a manageable setting and, for most, was interesting (and not just because we bought them waffles in Ypres).

Back in the 1980s, we took our Windows projects to local schools.  We took groups of children to look at windows.  We got them to sketch, we made them write stories with titles such as ‘Through the window’, we used drawings of windows to calculate area, we looked at windows through history, and around the world (surprisingly unvaried, we discovered.)  We wrote music on the theme of…you’ve guessed it.  That involved a lot of bells and xylophones.  We learned that there is only so much to know about windows.  The lecturer gained a module of coffee drinking, while her charges were out in the real world.  The children learned nothing.

A project on ‘Windows’ is laziness from a teacher.  An end of year filler that says we have run out of things to do.  A project based learning opportunity, for example creating a family tree, (research, writing, arrangement of facts – the three Rs; even Gove would be pleased) is excellent practice.

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