Going from dull to dynamic with PBL!

Richard Read

Richard Read is a Science teacher at Plymouth School of Creative Arts. He is very excited to be developing a Science department from scratch, looking at how he can enthuse pupils towards Science, and enable them to become independent Scientific researchers in their own right, passionate about playing and experimenting in order to explore and discover.

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Website: www.plymouthschoolofcreativearts.co.uk Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Image credit: Dexter's Laboratory // Cartoon Network. Image credit: Dexter's Laboratory // Cartoon Network.

Project-based learning (PBL) changes how we look at education and the best ways to engage young people in learning. Learning is all around. It is in books, in classrooms, outdoors, at home, in museums and workplaces; everywhere all the time. We learn through reading, listening, engaging, but mostly by doing. When we apply what we learn to something tangible - something interesting to us - we remember it. We want to learn more about it, and learn more about things around it.

Soon after joining Plymouth School of Creative Arts I was intrigued, but sceptical, when I was asked if I would take part in a project to trial a Learning Platform that was 'Learner Centric', and had the potential to make teaching less didactic. “I rarely provided pupils with an opportunity to be inquisitive.”When I heard the platform was based on PBL and competency-based teaching principles, my curiosity was further aroused. Could 'tech' bridge what received opinion says is a gap between learning which learners engage with for intrinsic reasons (PBL) and learning they are often not motivated by ('typical' lessons), whilst achieving or exceeding expectations in a standards-based curriculum?

Having engaged in the project what I found was a real opportunity to shift from what I had become used to; lessons structured around PowerPoint, with me presenting as the font of knowledge. This approach, whilst useful for ticking off learning objectives, meant I rarely provided pupils with an opportunity to be inquisitive, to explore ideas or, crucially, to make and rectify, mistakes… and anyway, it just didn’t feel like there was time for such ‘niceties’ before it was time to ‘move on’!

With the support of 'tech', what I found was that PBL's multi-disciplinary character helped to provide meaning and gave pupils ‘a why’ for what they were expected to learn. Finding a way to use PBL “The room more feels like a research library than a classroom.”in the classroom was a riddle I had not been able to unlock without the right tech, but with it I found I could completely ‘flip’ my approach to teaching. The PBL based learning platform's ability to map out ‘Work Plans’,with discrete modules, steps, learning checkpoints, and final products also meant that an individualised sequence of tailored learning opportunities could realistically be experienced by each and every learner. As a result, many really flew! It wasn't always the ones I would have expected either. I found that many less-able pupils, including those with specific learning needs, responded well to the structure, simplicity and clarity of expectation, that PBL supported by tech provided.

A key benefit for me of a tech supported PBL model is that pupils can take leadership of their learning. The way the wider staff team works has changed too.

Rarely, if ever, will you now find me teaching the entire class from the front. Instead, myself and colleagues in the studio are more likely to 'manage by wandering about', working with small groups of pupils, moving with the ebb and flow of the lesson. When it flows at its best the room more feels like a research library than a classroom, with engaged, motivated pupils focused and on task and staff being flexible providing additional support and challenge where, and when, needed.

Using PBL at PSCA, I have been able to evolve almost everything about the way I teach; from how I structure lessons to what I’m assessing pupils for and how I assess. It has been a steep learning curve, which doesn’t look set to level off any time soon, but it feels like a hugely positive step in the right direction.

A long time ago Henry Ford observed that asked what they need in order to go faster, people would typically say 'another horse'! The message of that story reminds me of a much more recent comment by Professor Stephen Heppell who said, “This isn’t the time to use technology to refine the model we had before; this is a time to harness technology, to let children go as far and as fast as they want.” I believe that's what PBL, harnessed to the right tech, can deliver.

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