4 min read
10 Jan

When you visit the DfE offices in London you are greeted by a wall of portraits of every Secretary of State for Education since 1945. There are a lot of framed pictures. Since the Second World War there have been 34 different incumbents, equivalent to an average tenure for each new Education Secretary of just under 2 years. Michael Gove therefore lives a very charmed life having served twice the average term this coming May. In my career alone, I’ve seen off a dozen secretaries. When Gove finally departs it will be an unlucky 13 (for him anyway). In any walk of life, this constitutes high staff turnover. It certainly wouldn’t wash in any of our schools if we were trying to build capacity and sustain long-term improvement.

Education has always been a political merry-go-round. It’s no surprise therefore that initiatives come and go about as regularly as Secretaries of State. I do at times feel some sympathy for a new Education Secretary who is desperate to prove his or her worth by coming up with an idea that is truly original or ground-breaking. They simply don’t exist, unless of course the idea is hare-brained and ill contrived (and I won’t go there).  I’m sure we can all recall ‘new’ government initiatives, only to realise that we did them 20 years ago. It really does feel at times as if there is a Secret Initiative Rota somewhere that all Education Secretaries turn to when stuck for ideas to see which one has come back to the top.

Thankfully, all of the best ideas have come from schools. There is one out there though that hasn’t appeared on any rota for over a hundred years (probably because it’s never actually gone). It’s called Project-Based Learning. A quick search of twitter and you’ll find hundreds of excellent schools all extolling – quite rightly – the virtues of PBL. The term is rarely mentioned in a tweet without the inevitable hashtagged inclusion of #enquiry or #flip or #P4C. In fact any strategy involving 21st century learning deserves to sit at the top table with #PBL.

What may surprise you though is that PBL is perhaps the ultimate merry-go-round fad, originating not within the past few years but back in the nineties – the 1890s to be precise. The Victorians do not immediately emerge as a lead contender as the protagonists of modern-day enquiry-based learning. Instead, images of Mr Gradgrind spring to mind instructing pupils that if it didn’t have forty teeth then it couldn’t possibly be a horse.  For Gradgrind though, learning is all about knowing. PBL on the other hand is all about doing something with the knowing. John Dewey in 1897 first used the term PBL as a pedagogical approach that served to counteract the Dickensian notion of learning by rote. The role of the teacher was to act as facilitator, coach, influencer and to not force-feed facts.

According to Dewey’s 1897 definition, project-based learning:

  • is based on real world problems
  • must capture students’ interest based on choice
  • needs to provoke serious thinking
  • ensures students acquire and apply new knowledge
  • must solve a problem or challenge

However, this is no longer enough if learners are to acquire the necessary 21st century skills. This is why it’s essential to incorporate digital technology, flipped/blended learning and collaboration tools such as TASC wheels in which pupils complete learning challenges by Thinking Actively in a Social Context. All of this needs to sit within the context of a creative curriculum that is real, immersive and purposeful and continually builds learning power.

Interestingly, PBL is not about doing projects. It’s about learning  new skills and concepts as if they were a project. When learning about how to measure angles, instead of being shown how to do it by the teacher in a lesson, the learner tackles it in the same way they would a project on dinosaurs or sport. A PBL approach allows pupils to learn about angles through enquiry, application, collaboration, reasoning, imitation, critique etc.  Of course the child needs to be taught the skill of measuring an angle, but PBL allows the learning to be placed within a real, purposeful and challenging context, perhaps as part of a flipped classroom. And herein of course lies its weakness: To do so takes time and time is something teachers simply don’t have in the current national curriculum with its many pressures and limitations (take SPAG for example). Why adopt a PBL approach when it’s a lot quicker to simply show them how to do it, complete a worksheet and move on? Perhaps Gradgrind was right after all.

So does PBL have a place in a knowledge-driven curriculum? One of the advantages of being an academy means that we can design our own thematic curriculum around a series of learning challenges that demand project-based learning. Take Professor Kiran Egan’s Learning in Depth for example which we are currently developing in school. At the heart of LiD lies the concept of mastery learning in which pupils become experts on a subject. During their time in school they research and learn all there is to know about their assigned area using their 21stcentury thinking skills. They keep the same theme for their entire time at school. This ensures that pupils encounter the necessary grit, struggle and discipline in their learning. The Joy of Being Stuck is at the heart of powerful and deep-rooted understanding.

PBL is all well and good. But it does have its limitations, not least ensuring breadth of coverage, the teaching of maths (very difficult to do within PBL despite my angles example) and the ability to assess outcomes accurately. Other concerns are that it lacks rigour and is too utilitarian in that in order to maintain a group’s status quo it is pitched at the average level of a group and thus lacks challenge for all pupils.

A discussion is called for. PBL is not about advocating the importance of teaching skills over knowledge or vice versa (if indeed the two are different). It’s not about preferring any given teaching style. There is plenty of room within PBL to go whichever way you want. The stakes are high and perhaps with an Ofsted visit looming PBL actually serves to disadvantage a teacher who is eager to demonstrate outstanding teaching outcomes within a 25 minute window. As an inspector myself I am very clear that it does not. I always let out a silent cheer when I walk into a lesson and see it set up around PBL.

Let’s hope Project-Based Learning is here to stay. As pedagogies go, PBL has clearly stood the test of time and has even managed to re-invent itself with the use of blended learning and digital technology.  Instead, there are a great many other fads that we need to turn our attention to ensuring they don’t stick around until the next Secretary of State (let alone another century or so). I am reminded of Julie Walters’ character, when meeting her teacher for the first time in Willy Russell’s stage comedy and film, Educating Rita: ‘My mind’s full of junk isn’t it? It needs a good clear out.’

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