The argument for project-based learning

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Phil Parker argues why project-based learning is the future of education.

Twitter is becoming the repository of information that we in education thought we’d likely never see. A recent article from the University of Education in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, sums up a wealth of international research which shows why project-based learning is important.

The wealth of sources includes America’s innovative Commission of Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) and its enGauge 21st Century Skills framework. The article opens thus: “The old-school model of passively learning facts and reciting them out of context is no longer sufficient to prepare students to survive in today’s world.” It goes on to list the skills needed for the 21st century:

  • Personal and social responsibility.

  • Planning, critical-thinking, reasoning, creativity.

  • Strong communication, interpersonal and presentation skills.

  • Multicultural understanding.

  • Visualising and decision-making.

  • Technological literacy.

The article argues that project-based learning weaves all these skills together by providing multiple assessment opportunities, encouraging independent thinking/learning yet also teamwork, by applying the skills in a multi-tasking capacity, and by encouraging communication at different levels and with different audiences.

Evidence from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has found that students fed on a diet of project-based learning become lifelong learners; they gain satisfaction from finding out things for themselves rather than have it spoon-fed.

These learners gain greater self-esteem because they realise their preferred approach to learning, their own style of learning profile, is valid. That’s how they work; they’ve developed the method over time. It hasn’t been repressed or forced into another identity just to pass exams.

Project-based learning allows students to perceive their learning in real-life contexts while also addressing prescribed content. It isn’t a question of either/or. We all know that boys are particularly prone to wanting to know why they are learning something; it needs to be relevant to them.

Project-based learning allows for this, content is contextualised. I’ve worked with a school for two years to develop their project-based curriculum. Students in years 7 and 8 receive three hours a week in this innovative approach to learning. Students entered the school with low levels of achievement but project-based learning has rapidly turned that around.

They talk of learning as an activity, they study individual subjects throughout the week but they are not confined to thinking that way. They realise something learned in one part of the curriculum may be relevant elsewhere. They know the skills they acquire can be applied not just in their lessons but beyond it.

Each student, by the end of year 7, has a clearly defined identity as a learner. They know which skills need developing, which ones they have mastered.

As I write, the right-wing media and politicians are wailing at Britain’s performance in international league tables for maths. A tweet has bemoaned the fact that our failure is down to the lack of time in the curriculum allocated to core subjects. But isn’t this missing the point?

Via project-based learning students will be employing numeracy (not just maths) and literacy all the time. It will feature in myriad ways and just needs careful and thoughtful planning. I know of several schools that are looking at this model of learning as a way to raise achievement, aspirations and personal self-esteem in their students. It’s exciting to witness what they’re doing and the impact it’s having.

We mustn’t lose sight that these three goals are what we’re about as teachers. Across the world teachers are doing the same thing for the same reasons.

  • Phil Parker is an ex-senior leader of a successful school and is now a director of Student Coaching Ltd. Visit www.studentcoaching.co.uk


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