In a primary school context of nine academies in the West Midlands, our curriculum framework is underpinned by theories from John Dewey’s 20th-century approach to project-based learning (PBL). More recent research on PBL (Thomas, 2000) reports positive outcomes related to student learning in the areas of content knowledge, collaborative skills, engagement and motivation, and critical thinking and problem-solving skills, particularly when focusing on learning where:
- challenges are central, not peripheral to the curriculum
- challenges are focussed on questions or problems that ‘drive’ learning
- students are engaged in a constructive investigation
- challenges are real – as in realistic, not school-like, and grounded in the world around us.
While some research on PBL has shown that it has little impact on pupil outcomes (EEF, 2016), both our practice and other research has found it can be effective when used alongside quality teaching of core subjects (see also Stepien, Gallagher, & Workman, 1993) We designed the approach to centre around three key ideas: that learning should make a difference to the real world; that learning should be immersive and experiential; and that it should be purposeful in developing skills and knowledge that can be applied to different challenges ‘where pupils work as active citizens, committed to take action at a local, national and global level’ (Waters, 2013).
Children are set an open-ended and purposeful challenge at the very start of their learning. Each challenge connects to the real world while fulfilling the national curriculum, with examples including the following.
- ‘How can we bring the countryside to our city school?’
- ‘How can we design a product that solves a problem?’
- ‘How can we celebrate our diverse community?
Through these challenges, children are asked to undertake the design of an outcome for a real audience, with a real purpose.
The immersive step is about capturing children’s interests and finding the ‘zones of relevance’ in their imagination; the crossover between what teachers need to teach and what children want to learn. A trip at the start of the challenge allows students to gain first-hand experience and knowledge. An experience may also serve as a model for the event, product or service that they create, helping them see an example in the real world. By giving children a sense of the world beyond school, we are expanding their realms of relevance. Immersion is key, particularly for children who may have limited life experiences to draw upon.
‘By giving children a sense of the world beyond school, we are expanding their realms of relevance. Immersion is key, particularly for children who may have limited life experiences to draw upon.’
We keep the learning journey focussed through the use of Belle Wallace’s TASC wheel. By ‘Thinking Actively in a Social Context’ (TASC), children undertake a ‘self-explanatory, collaborative, idea-sharing and developmental approach to their learning’ (Wallace, 2012), with the teacher acting as the facilitator. To ensure quality and in-depth learning, we add an essential step for the planning, teaching and learning: What declarative and procedural knowledge and understanding will pupils need to achieve their learning challenge?
When visiting one of our schools, Ofsted stated that:
‘…the rich and varied curriculum is key to the effectiveness of the whole school. School leaders have introduced an exciting curriculum designed to meet the needs of the pupils by ensuring activities are purposeful and based on their interests. Pupils understand not only what they are learning but why. Termly cross-curricular “challenges” ensure coverage of the national curriculum but also recognise additional aspects of learning, such as enterprise skills and creativity… The quality of the curriculum has a positive impact on levels of pupil engagement, developing resilience, self-reflection and reasoning skills as well as raising the level of pupils’ outcomes.’
Pupil voice and feedback has resoundingly shown that through this approach to the curriculum, and when pupils are making a difference through their learning challenges, children care more, try harder and have more ownership. Children talk about their learning with passion and purpose, and they understand why they need to learn so that they can achieve the challenge outcome.
Education Endowment Foundation [EEF] (2016). Project-based learning: Evaluation report. Retrieved from https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Projects/Evaluation_Reports/EEF_Project_Report_Project_Based_Learning.pdf
Stepien, W. J., Gallagher, S. A., & Workman, D. (1993). Problem-based learning for traditional and interdisciplinary classrooms. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 16(14), 338–357.
Thomas, J. W. (2000). A review of research on project-based learning. Retrieved from http://www.bobpearlman.org/BestPractices/PBL_Research.pdf
Wallace, B. (2012). TASC: Thinking actively in a social context. A universal problem-solving process: A powerful tool to promote differentiated learning experiences. Gifted Education International, 28(1), 58–83. doi:10.1177/0261429411427645
Waters, M. (2013). Thinking allowed on schooling. Bancyfelin: Independent Thinking Press.