This post was written by Laura Jackson, our Project Based Learning Lead.
There is a shared folder in My Drive which makes my heart flip every time I look at it…..
Rewind almost 18 months and I had just finished reading Ron Berger’s “An Ethic of Excellence” closely followed by “Leaders of their Own Learning”. The message that stuck with me and I think of several times per day, every day and often quote is:
“It’s not a quick fix, it’s a way of life”.
In June 2014 I was extremely fortunate to visit the annual Festival of Learning at Cramlington Learning Village and saw some of the R.E.A.L. Projects that the students had been working on in their “Project Fortnight”. The quality of these projects, coupled together with the articulate young people who had been working on them, left me leaving Cramlington wishing we could create something similar. Highly engaging, high quality, wide variety and fantastic outcomes for students. High quality learning experiences that provided the learners with something truly unique for two weeks.
As Project Lead I have been extremely fortunate to have been given first hand access to what can arguably be called the best experiences in Project Based Learning this year. Working with one of High Tech High’s Project Based Learning Coaches Cara Littlefield from the Innovation Unit to develop our first ever “Project Week” has been amazing – and we are not finished yet. Visiting the inspirational School 21 in Stratford, London allowed me to see some jaw-dropping learning experiences and outcomes and how R.E.A.L. Projects can be integrated as part of the curriculum in a school. I also met Ron Berger at the Whole Education Annual Conference in London in November – who inspired my passion and belief that we can use Expeditionary Learning principles to develop the learning experiences for staff and students in our school community. He signed my “An Ethic of Excellence” book and my husband commented at the time that in the picture with Ron, I look even happier than I did on our wedding day – whoops!
What are R.E.A.L. Projects?
R.E.A.L. Projects are Rigorous, Engaging, Authentic Learning experiences. We are lucky to have Cara from the Innovation Unit guiding our school through the process and protocols to ensure we produce exciting, engaging, high quality learning experiences for our school community. Using outside expertise has allowed us to gain knowledge and experience of something we had little knowledge or experience of. Things that may go wrong or that haven’t worked elsewhere can be avoided; things that work and provide outstanding experiences for all students can be embraced. This expertise allows us to craft our Project Week into what we want it to be, in a guided way. Projects created by our own staff to deliver to our own students means that our learning community will be enhanced. We are all on a learning journey together. It’s been an exciting process so far and when I say “so far”, I know that it will always be “so far” as it is an always changing, tweaking, modifying process.
Where did we begin?
Cara came to Belmont initially in February to launch our project planning. Staff were asked to think of their most positive learning experiences as a school student, and also think about their own personal passions. How can these passions, hobbies and interests be developed into unique, rigorous, engaging learning experiences for our students? The type of learning experiences that will deliver high quality outcomes, that will provide a lasting legacy for our school and the surrounding community and will also allow staff to provide this experience to our students. Projects did not have to be departmentalised, teachers did not have to stick to their own subject area, people could work alone or choose to collaborate with others. It was a free choice.
Within this free choice needed to be some structure:
- What is the essential guiding question?
- What do you want students to do,to produce, to create, to learn?
- What experiences can this offer that is like no other lesson they will have in school?
- How can you live, breathe and be the project, to draw the students into the experience you want to offer them?
- How will this fit into a week / 5 hours per day / 25 learning hours in a week?
Cara also spent a second day working with Curriculum Leaders who would act as “trainers” within school to guide and work with a smaller group of staff. Initially we kept people in their own curriculum areas to work with their department but that caused confusion as to whether projects needed to be subject based, so different groups were created to ease this confusion. Critique workshops and project tuning workshops took place with our staff being guided through the process by a facilitator, to enable them to be the facilitator in their group.
In the meantime…..
Less than one week after R.E.A.L. Projects 2015 was launched at Belmont, I found myself visiting School 21 as part of an Innovation Unit “Retreat” day. This deepened my curiosity, desire and belief in Project Based Learning and I am so thankful to have been able to visit a truly innovative learning environment. The most useful session I attended (they were ALL useful though) for me as the Project Lead in school was the session on Enabling Conditions which was led by the Innovation Unit’s David Jackson and School 21 Head of Secondary Oli de Botton. Their clear message was that Projects must take centre stage. It should not be an add-on or an extra, it should be the main event.
Clearly it is very different planning a whole school curriculum as opposed to 25 week-long projects, but the enabling conditions are still the similar. They include:
- Exhibition of beautiful work – All of the R.E.A.L. Projects planned at Belmont include an exhibition of work. Exhibitions range from a fashion show, books created to sell, a travel app and documentaries to hosting events within the local community.
- Aligned assessment– All projects will be assessed for the same elements, regardless of the type of project or the project content. This will ensure that the academic rigor we wanted to include will be upheld and where the R.E.A.L. learning will take place. This took place after a discussion facilitated by Cara via Google Hangout where all group leaders discussed assessment opportunities in their own projects based on 21st century skills. As a group we then decided the three we will assess throughout all projects and set long and shorter term learning goals – these will probably change – we are still “so far” with this too.
- Timetabling / protocol / time planning/ pooled time – Staff are busy. Staff need time to plan, to discuss, to bounce ideas around, to test their ideas out. Oli de Botton said giving staff time was crucial. Staff have had time to plan their projects and this has led to some very exciting projects being created for our students. Currently we are scheduling the next block of time to allow assessment and planning workshops to take place in small groups led by Curriculum Leaders.
So far the reality has outlived the dream and we have not arrived at Project Week yet. The whole implementation of this process so far has provided me with one of the most challenging learning experiences of my career so far. Seeing staff project folders with exciting projects detailed in their planning documents makes me realise what a passionate and skilled set of colleagues I work with every day. Of course I know this, but the variety and content of the projects mean our students are about to experience one of the most exciting weeks of the school year, if not their school life so far.
The message I left the retreat with was:
“Academic rigor – head, hand and heart”.
I want everyone to feel it too. Ideas in people’s head, passed onto students through handing them these experiences based on passions that live in their hearts.
More information on R.E.A.L. Projects can be found here