Create, question, adapt: first steps into Project-Based Learning

Posted on: 24 Apr 2018
Posted by: Emily Hill

Emily Hill, assistant head (academic) at Bethany School, writes about the benefits of Project-Based Learning which has inspired her pupils by connecting learning to the real world.

Much of the debate that takes place in Bethany School about curriculum development is: “how can we ensure that we provide an innovative education that is relevant to the 21st century?”

One approach that we have begun to invest in this year is Project Based Learning (PBL). This approach begins with a ‘big question’ that pupils spend time investigating before producing a response, and delivering their outcome to a real-world audience. In March, after several months of planning, we launched our first project with our Year 7 pupils. The ‘big question’ was how can you improve an aspect of life for people with a specific disability? After three days of working outside of the confines of the ‘normal’ timetable, the project culminated in pupils displaying their research, planning, prototypes and evaluation to a panel of judges and parents in advance of parents’ evening.

So, what have we learnt from this experience? To begin with, we know that – for several very good reasons – we will be doing it again.

Firstly, levels of engagement were high. We saw pupils play to their strengths and pupils thinking creatively; we saw pupils grapple with the challenge of working within a team and persisting; we saw pupils questioning, reacting to what was happening and reflecting on their progress. Having had the privilege of being with Year 7 for three whole days, we saw our pupils excited about their learning and taking pride in the outcomes they produced, in ways that would perhaps not be seen in a 50 minute lesson in a classroom.

Secondly, being able to connect their learning with the real world makes a difference: who wouldn’t be inspired to come up with an aid for the shaking hands that our guest from Parkinson’s UK experienced, or to invent something to improve site accessibility for a blind person after hearing about the difficulties that blindness might bring? PBL makes learning real; the skills are the same as those used in the classroom, but the context is different. The opportunity to present their work at the end in a public display also helped pupils to focus because it made the task time limited. It also allowed them the opportunity to verbalise their successes as well as the things that hadn’t quite worked: things that they would do differently next time.

Ultimately, it made us think about our role as educators. How often do we have the opportunity at secondary level to step outside of our subject; to see pupils in other areas; and to work collaboratively for sustained periods of time with other colleagues? How often do we get the space to verbalise the adjustments that we need to make to planning, or to evaluate in so much detail the learning process and outcomes? How often do we get the space to reflect on ourselves as teachers? On a personal level, it certainly made me step outside of my comfort zone and forced me to think about facilitating rather than leading from the front. I don’t think that any of those involved would dispute that it has aided professional practice.

So, as we look to do it all again, we will be using what we have learnt this first time round to refine and improve. For example: our assessment frameworks were over-involved and need simplifying; we have questioned whether some of the paperwork was necessary; we want to improve the quality of pupil reflection and consider how we hand over complete control of outcomes to pupils. Although we cannot be sure how PBL will change and shape the curriculum in the longer term, we do know that at Bethany School it will have a place and, in the short term, we have some more projects planned. Project two will run this summer term – have you heard of The Crystal Maze? It might hold a clue as to what we are planning…

About Emily Hill

Emily Hill is assistant head (academic) at Bethany School in Kent.