Getting the most out of project based learning

Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn has been a state school teacher for fourteen years in the UK, working in deprived inner city schools. In 2013 he decided to move his career to an international environment and now works at the Edron Academy, Mexico DF as an English Teacher. He is currently working on a number of projects including emotional intelligence and literacy, homework without additional workloads and online learning.

He is keen to challenge current models of teaching and equip all students with 21st century thinking and learning skills. 

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With flip teaching being discussed and debated frequently, different methods of employing homework are being looked at. A group of teachers are revolutionising the issue from a school in Desierto de los Leones, Mexico. Founded in 1963 by Welshman Edward Foulkes and Canadian Ronald Stech, The Edron Academy (an IB World School since 1995) is currently looking to get the most out of after-school exercises. Michael Flynn, an expat who used to teach in the UK, now teaches English at the Academy.

At the risk of sounding unprofessional, homework has always been a thorn in our side. The children dislike it, teachers can have workload issues around it, and both the school and the parents can have unrealistic expectations of it. It is an entity in which no one has a common opinion. It is also an incredibly emotive subject; if you open any teaching publication there are hosts of opinions for and against homework. In research completed in 2006 Cooper, Robinson, and Patall noted:

'With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant. Therefore, we think it would not be imprudent, based on the evidence in hand, to conclude that doing homework causes improved academic achievement'

However, this view was opposed in the same year by Bennet and Kalish in the publication, 'How Homework is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It'. In this, the authors criticised the impact upon family time, the meaningfulness and the quantity of homework.

In my experience some teachers use it to complete unfinished classwork, some teachers using it for 'flipped learning', and some teachers use it without any structure merely to keep the school and parents happy. At the Edron Academy in Mexico DF we have set ourselves the task of making homework meaningful, without adding meaningful amounts to our workload.

Current research informs us that 87% of what we learn as children is through what we see (Murphy, 2010). Under Fleming's (VAK/VARK) model we have visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners to consider in all classrooms as well as differentiation and cultural differences, and the need for our children to be independent learners (Martha Burns, 2013). These are big considerations when we are planning lessons, but sadly these are forgotten considerations when it comes to homework. Homework tends to sit on the bottom of the pile when it comes to our priorities, not because we are unprofessional, but because we don't have time. At the Edron Academy we are challenging this!

We have created a project based learning homework (PBL) package focusing on vocabulary expansion which promotes five skills, involves parents and prompts the children to consider the same ideas within their own culture. It is marked and graded by the children themselves and facilitated by the teachers. For the first time, the children themselves have ownership over homework and it's starting to produce amazing results.

Continuing on from research completed by the Emotional Intelligence faculty at Yale University, we have developed an emotional literacy package. This term we have taken forty words connected with emotion; each word has a reading, writing, reflecting, analytical and research task attached. The homework material relies heavily on images and text that work together. This way we can guarantee that the visual, auditory and kinesthetic students all have an opportunity to learn.

We have taken famous people from British society connected to these words and concepts to express the meaning and action of these same words. In the reading task, we have looked to celebrate the best things about the British culture through its great characters in the form of short articles. In the reflective task we have asked the children to interpret these words and interview their parents and guardians with questions connected to the definitions. In the analytical task the children define the words through symbols, which always provides some insightful responses to how their minds and creativity works. They write these results up in the written task and continue to write for the research task. In the research task they look at the word from a cultural perspective and find someone or something similar.

The results have been amazing; firstly their vocabulary has grown. Year 7 students are comfortably using these multisyllabic words in their everyday speech and writing. It can be heard in class discussion and seen clearly in their assessment work. Parents feel more involved with their children's schooling, adding their own experiences to complement their children's learning at school. The cultural divide has been diminished as the children look more avidly for the similarities that exist between us and not the differences.

For the first time in my experience every party is happy, the children are working independently, the parents are involved and the school are surpassing homework expectations without an increase in workload for the front line teachers.

For more information about PBL, please feel free to get in touch with Michael Flynn at [email protected] or John Kelly at [email protected]

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