I’ve finally managed to cobble together my first post since starting back in September. What with starting a new job, teaching A level for the first time in over a decade and languishing in post-publication blues after the release of my (hopefully) first book, I’ve not had much headspace for writing and I’ve missed it. Hopefully, this post marks a welcome return to the blogosphere.
There’s so much going on that it’s been hard to pick what to write about but I’ve settled on detailing how I’ve gone about solving the age old problem of what to do about everyone’s favourite year group: Year 9.
We took the bold decision to completely overhaul the antiquated SATs hangover of a Year 9 programme of study with something fleet of foot and fit for purpose. It should go without saying that students of English need to begin their studies in Year 10 with the twin skills of analysis (reading) and writing (creativity) well honed, but they also need to have spent Year 9 doing something purposeful. At my last school they bean their GCSE course in Year 9 and this helped: they took the work they did so much more seriously. They could see that it mattered. But, the external pressures applied against early entry and the internal pressure of coming to the conclusion that even though it was great for students’ attitude to work, quality suffered. They just weren’t ready at aged 13 to be judged against the standards set for 16 year-olds and so ended up doing the work again the following year.
My solution to this quandary was Project Based Learning (PBL). Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence persuaded me that this wasn’t (as I’d initially suspected) just a load of educational New Age pap but a way of getting students to produce genuinely fantastic work. Yes, the process of producing it is important but the focus is the crafting of a high quality product. This slots in perfectly with all the thought I’ve been giving to the idea of Slow Learning (see post below) and giving students the chance to acquire mastery.
The Buck Institute for Education (spiritual home of PBL) advocates that “students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. Rigorous projects help students learn key academic content and practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking).” Now, it’s not that I’m against 21st Century Skills, but I am suspicious of them and a lot of nonsense takes place in their name. But ‘rigorous’, ‘extended’ and ‘complex ‘, I like.
One of the essential ingredients for getting PBL right is Critique. For those who’ve come late to the party or aren’t yet sure exactly what this entails you could do worse that watch Berger himself explain:
We all know how important feedback is but there are many pitfalls for the unwary. Most of the feedback given to students is not ‘received’ or is, to put it bluntly, ignored. Anything which gives feedback a higher profile and presents in a way that it’s less likely to fall on stoney ground is a very good thing.
Armed with this and much invaluable help and advice from Darren mead and Martin Said up at that Mecca of innovative pedagogy, Cramlington Learning Village, I started to feel my way into what I wanted to be a completely new approach to learning for the students at my school. The main precept of PBL is that students’ learning should be authentic. Most of what we get students to do in school is ‘pseudo-learning’, that is to say, we as teachers create artificial problems for students to solve. This might be the maths problems which ask to calculate the mileage of imaginary train journeys, the production of a theatre programme for a non-existent production of a play, or the dried up twig of the speaking and listening assessment in which students are supposed to give a monkeys about something in front of a classful of their jeering peers. Either way, not good.
The National Curriculum in its most recent (although imminently doomed) incarnation urges English teachers to adopt real audience and purposes for the work students do. And, God knows we try. But, all too often this merely results in piles of unread persuasive letters to the Headteacher urging him or her to lighten up on school uniform cos, like, it’s restricting my individuality, init.
PBL, starts from the other end. it asks us, as teachers, to tap into a real issue in our community and then work out how we could get our students to interact with it in a meaningful way. The Buck Institute for Education suggests applying the 6As to your ideas for a project to ascertain whether it meets their, frankly, deuced high standards:
So far so good, but there are still lots of lightweight, empty projects out there that do little more than keep students busy and I want no truck with them. This articles 8 Essentials for Project Based Learning and Main Course Not Dessert warn of some of the dangers and give sensible advice on how to avoid them. And this project checklist is a handy tool to keep nascent PBLers on the straight and narrow.
The starting point for designing what the year would look like working out what could be salvaged from the existing Year 9 SoLs. The team were keen to keep the units on War Poetry and Dystopia and Shakespeare. This morphed into three broad themes: War and conflict, Love and relationships and Crime and punishment. From this shortlist we selected War & conflict as our first project.
The driving questions we came up with were along the lines of: Why have so many writers written about war and conflict? What makes these themes interesting to readers? We then came up with the following statement:
Throughout history we have been interested in reading about war and conflict. Is this because we want to celebrate violence? Or is it because we need a way to express our feelings about traumatic events and feelings? It might also be that we want to warn others about the consequences of war and conflict. The project will examine the writing around various conflicts including World Wars I and II to investigate what this sort of writing has in common and what makes it so enduring and popular.
Laudable, but it’s not really authentic is it? At this stage I started talking about our ideas to the head of History and then we had a breakthrough: we would create a War Museum. We got in touch with the British Legion and local historical society to see if they would be interested in getting involved. They were. Together we conceived the idea of students setting up a Clevedon War Museum on 9th – 11th November to which the whole community would be invited. As part of the exhibition we would present students’ creative writing and their response to a variety of writing about war. To get the tone right we felt we needed to give them an experience of a real museum so we planned a trip to the Imperial War Museum to give them a taste of the solemnity and scale of what we hoped they’d produce. Sadly the IWM is closed for refurbishment so we’re taking them to the Cold War Museum instead, but still. At this point we decided to involve the Art department to ensure that students’ exhibits would have a suitable aesthetic feel and with that we were ready.
The launch for the project was a real extravaganza with sirens, dry ice, flash lights, barbed wire, some actual military vehicles and Edwin Starr blasting out his classic War! What Is It Good For? The students were mesmerised. Staff, dressed in a motley collection Army and Navy surplus, corralled the entire Year group into the transformed school hall and bombarded them with sound and images before revealing what the hell it was all about.
On the way out students were buzzing about what they’d seen and what was going to happen. I’m not sure myself. I feel prepared for the project to fall short of my very expectations and I know we’re not able to tick all the BIE boxes on what constitues a proper project. I’m sure there’s plenty of folk out there who’ll be pleased to point out where we’ve gone wrong. One of my most notable failures was that I hadn’t completed the project myself before embarking on it with the kids, but I am working alongside them and holding up my own work for Public Critique too. But whatever happens this will be better than what they would have had. And next year it’ll be even better!
We’ve planned regular checkpoints into the project and I’ll report back on our progress in due course. Wish us luck.