PBL - more than cutting and pasting

Education Associate Beth Lomax reflects on her experience teaching, and one acronym that is worth exploring:

As a profession, teaching has more than its fair-share of education related acronyms and jargon. When you’re planning your lessons, you need to sure that you build in AFL (Assessment for Learning) strategies and differentiation for your SEN (Special Educational Needs), G&T (Gifted and Talented) and EAL (English as an Additional Language) students. If you’re struggling to understand what those mean, then you might need to attend INSET (In-School Education Training).

On the face of it, PBL, or ‘project -based learning’ might just sound like another faddy education acronym. What does it mean? Who uses it? Project-based learning is essentially about students learning through enquiry-based methods: investigating real-life problems and developing the skills and understanding required to tackle them. At the end of the project, students present their work publicly, having redrafted their work to reach the final outcome. At Enabling Enterprise, PBL is one of the cornerstones of how we aim to achieve our mission: to equip children and young people with the life skills, aspirations and experiences they need to succeed beyond the classroom.

A Confession

I have a confession though: throughout my three years as a secondary school English teacher, I wasn’t really aware of PBL as a ‘concept’. I recognise now that I definitely incorporated elements of PBL into my lessons, such as the week when I got my rather unruly year 9 English set to develop a new brand of cereal and pitch it in an ‘Apprentice’-style competition. Students had to determine their target market, develop a prototype, create an advertising campaign and finally pitch their ideas on what why their idea was the best.

The transformation was astonishing: a class of 33 bright but challenging students, who had previously seemed incapable of completing the most simple of tasks, were suddenly working together, delegating work and putting in extra hours – I had to try to hide my look of utter surprise when one group asked, ‘Miss, can we finish it for homework?’. More importantly, there were using their English skills in a way that made the real-life context and application perfectly clear. And that is really what PBL is about.

Since working at Enabling Enterprise, I have seen and heard first-hand about the transformative effect that PBL can have on students’ learning, whether it’s primary school students putting on fundraising events, or year 7 students planning, organising and running a French café for the teaching staff during an after-school INSET as part of their MFL (another acronym- Modern Foreign Languages) learning.

Why it Matters

So why is PBL important? Well, the success I had with my year 9 class aside, you can’t have failed to notice the spate of headlines in recent years that are variations of the following: ‘Employers Can’t Find Graduates with the Skills They Need’. The media and graduate recruitment sector talk of a ‘skills gap’, which along with harsh economic conditions mean that youth unemployment and worklessness remain high. Indeed, another more serious education-related acronym is ‘NEET’. Originally an adjectival phrase to describe someone who is ‘not in education, employment or training’ after finishing full-time education, NEET has become a noun, an unfortunate label applied to a young person for whom those things are true.

I am not going to pretend that PBL is the panacea for all of the employment problems faced by young people today, but it may go some way to helping to lower it. In his famous TED Talk, Ken Robinson outlines the dilemma of trying to equip young people in schools for future jobs that we don’t yet know even exist. Teachers are no longer the sole purveyors of knowledge; it is, after all, difficult to complete with Google. It might seem like a hopeless challenge, but focusing on developing transferrable skills can enable children and young people to adapt to an ever-changing job market. This is what PBL can do.

Why is it not more popular?

This begs the question: why aren’t more schools using it? According to The Innovation Unit, a social enterprise which seeks to equip practitioners with the tools they need to improve, PBL fell out of favour in the 1970s, when it was deemed to lack rigour and structure. However, there is a growing body of evidence from the United States which suggests that, effectively executed, PBL can have a significant impact on student engagement and development. In the UK school system today, there is often a fear that deviation from the curriculum or focus on exams will result in a drop in attainment. As a teacher, I often felt frustrated by the pressure to deliver exam-focused curriculum content. Like many teachers, I had the increasing sense that I was working within a system in which exams dictated the curriculum, or where the proverbial tail was wagging the dog. PBL can offer an antidote to this: a way in which students can engage with the curriculum and acquire knowledge without being restricted by jumping through examination hoops.

This is not to say that there aren’t already great examples of PBL going on in schools, but its potential scope and application is far broader than we might think. When I cast my mind back to the hours I spent drilling Year 10 and 11 on exam-focused content and the class of bored, blank expressions that looked back at me, I can’t help but wish that I had been able to make it more exciting and relevant for them with some project-based learning. Perhaps rather than dragging out (in some cases literally) seemingly endless pieces of English coursework, students could have produced a genuine piece of writing as part of a travel agency marketing brochure, or planned and delivered a lesson to younger students on how to improve their writing.

The possibilities for projects are endless, and the upsides are that we have more engaged learners using real-life skills that they will be able to apply to real-life contexts. Because quite frankly, I’m still not entirely sure why I learnt how to solve quadratic equations or when knowing the lineage of kings of England will come in useful; perhaps if I’d applied that knowledge to a genuine, real-life situation at school, I might be able to tell you.

To find out more about Enabling Enterprise programmes for your school, visit www.enablingenterprise.org/contact

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