Category Archives: R.E.A.L. Projects

R.E.A.L. Projects – Critique, assessment and tuning

This post is part of an ongoing series written by our PBL Lead Laura Jackson, about how we are implementing R.E.A.L. Projects in school.

As I said when I ended my previous post, I feel very excited when I see the staff project folders with exciting projects in them. There is a summary of all of these at the end of this post and I’m sure you’ll agree that these projects will give our students an exciting variety of different learning experiences during our projects week. I think it’s important to detail how we got to this place in such a short space of time.

Back in February, all staff spent time with our PBL coach, Cara, planting “seeds of passion”- to try to find a way to ignite little sparks of exciting energy to then develop and create into Rigorous, Engaging, Authentic Learning experiences.

These words are vital but how can we apply rigour? How can we ensure projects are engaging? How can authenticity be validated? All of these need to be encapsulated within a learning experience. What do they actually mean? How do we do it?

The Innovation Unit says:

REAL projects



We also had to decide how to assess each project and also projects had to be “tuned” to make sure they had been given critique, and that and questions the project leader or the critique group may have had about the project were acknowledged and addressed if needed.

Project Tuning

One of the most important parts of project work is the giving and receiving of critique. This happens at all stages of the project but the earliest stage would be at the “tuning” stage. This was also possibly the most challenging part to co-ordinate from my point of view as each project needed to be tuned but also as part of a group, who would be the critique providers. 

critique play doh

My critiqued creation from our session with Cara

In preparation for this, Curriculum Leaders took part in a Critique and Tuning workshop with Cara to allow them to take this process into their Project groups. I then led a critique workshop for the rest of the staff which ensured we all felt it. If you have an emotional connection with something then you feel more passionate about it and believe in it more. If people start changing things, adding bits, taking bits away then it changes YOUR work and YOUR emotional connection with the work.

It was important to me that all staff took part in this session and it was also a light-hearted way to introduce critique to staff, but with a serious message. If critique is given in the wrong way to anyone- staff creating, developing or delivering the project or students who are completing the project, then this would not be useful to anyone and would have a detrimental effect on the person receiving the critique. As adults, we are very protective of our own ideas and values and if they are questioned in the wrong way then it becomes a negative experience and this should not be the case. This is also true of our students we work with day-to-day.  This task made me think about how we self and peer critique in lessons and I intend to use the same session with students towards the end of the academic year, time willing.

power of protocols

Working with Cara has also introduced me to a fantastic book- The Power of Protocols which is extremely useful in terms of gaining the maximum usage out of a set amount of time.  This way of working was also used in a session I attended at School 21 in February when we were discussing enabling conditions for projects in schools. Although I first thought using protocols seemed very regimented, I quickly realised that having set times for different parts of discussion, meeting and critique work is actually extremely useful and stops a lot of time being wasted just chatting or wandering off topic.

To tune projects, there is a need to be very specific and concise to articulate the project to others. In the protocol there are also “norms”

  • Hard on the content, soft on the people,
  • Share the air (or “step up, step back”)
  • Be kind, specific and helpful

This allows all the conversation and discussion taking place to be focused solely on the project and the content.

Within the tuning protocol, there are also different roles :

  • Facilitator -Begins the session by reading through the protocol. During the protocol, the facilitator is responsible for keeping the discussion on point and reminding participants to adhere to the norms.
  • Timekeeper– Keeps time for each section and lets the facilitator know when time is up.
  • Presenter – Shares his/her work with the group.
  • Critical Friends – Includes all people present except for the presenter.

During the tuning process, the presenter gets time to present their project idea and the area or aspect they would like critique on. The critical friends then ask clarifying questions to gain a deeper understanding of any aspect of the project or specific area. The critical friends then discuss the project with the presenter taking notes on their discussion without being involved and then they respond to this discussion at the end. The response could take the form of addressing some of the issues discussed by others, drawing conclusions from what has been said or discussed or simply acknowledging the points made by others.  The facilitator introduces each part of the protocol and the timekeeper ensures the protocol timings are adhered to. Timings may differ depending on time constraints- we tuned projects in 15 minute blocks (2 mins- 3 mins- 8 mins- 2 mins) but clearly timings and therefore the timings within each part of the protocol can be changed as needed.

Project Assessment

As well as tuning our projects, we also needed to decide on how our projects would be assessed.

“Academic rigour- head, hand and heart” was my message from the School 21 retreat. Within our discussions in school also, the learning that would take place during the week needed to be meaningful, exciting and also rigorous. The word rigour again:


The Innovation Unit use Buck Institute for Education’s “21st Century Skills” framework to assess PBL work. The Buck Institute website contains a myriad of resources, ideas and information about PBL from all over the world and contains some fascinating work and reading. Their twitter account is definitely worth a follow.

We focused on:

ICT Literacy

  • how to find information
  • how to use equipment

Cognitive Skills

  • Critical Thinking
  • Creative Thinking

Metacognitive Skills

  • Self- management
  • Reflection

Personal Characteristics

  • Risk Taking
  • Accountability

Interpersonal Skills

  • Communication
  • Collaboration

As Curriculum Leaders, we discussed our projects with one another and looked for assessment opportunities within these discussions. Once we had these then we put them into the categories above, to allow us to see where the most likely assessment opportunities lay in our range of projects.

From this we then decided on three assessment strands which would be able to be assessed in any project taking place. We also added a learning target to each one to show what would need to be achieved in each assessment strand.

Communication – I can communicate my learning to others in an appropriate way.

Gathering Information – I can source, locate and investigate appropriate information using ICT.

Cognitive Skills – I can reflect and adapt to overcome challenges in my learning.

After further discussion with Cara on a different day, we also decided that to assess all three in one week would be very difficult, especially because critique could lead to multiple drafts. It could also potentially dilute the quality of assessment and critique in the project. Only one strand will be assessed in each project and this is to be decided by the project delivery staff on each project.  This is another benefit of using Cara’s expertise as she works in this field and has experience in this area- I, and we, are still developing our skills all the time and this small tweak means that time will be used effectively and assessment will still be rigorous which is what we require.

From this, short term learning targets have been created within the project plans to individualise the learning target for the projects.

Finally, I would also like to share the variety of projects staff have created and the essential questions driving the projects.

Project Title Essential Questions
Would you feed your hungry neighbour?
  • 1 in 5 UK mums regularly skip meals to be able to afford to feed their children – is this fair?
  • If your neighbour was hungry would you help them?
  • Almost 1 million people living in the UK needed emergency food supplies from 2013-14, how can we help?
Zombie Apocalypse
  • Are you a survivor?
  • How would society cope with the breakdown of civilisation?
  • Would you fight or flight?
Flotsam and Jetsam
  • How can we rethink our current use of material ?
  • What materials can be Salvaged/re-used ?
  • Can another use for a waste material or product be found?
  • How can we create a more sustainable lifestyle ?
Orienteering in the local community
  • What is orienteering?
  • Why is orienteering a sport that anyone can do?
  • How can we get our local community involved in orienteering?
Mood Music
  • Can music change your mood?
  • Do we respond differently to different kinds of musical stimulus?
  • Can music help us to relax/prepare for work/get us angry?
Travel Tracks
  • If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?
Maths Movie Making (M3)
  • What’s the problem with maths?
  • Can I make maths interesting for all students?”
Afternoon Tea
  • Can we prepare and deliver an event for the local community?
  • Who were the Durham miners?
  • What can we learn about community from the Durham miners?
  • How has coal shaped our community?
Set, Props and Costume
  • How can the set, costumes and props enhance the performance of Grease?
Does Fashion have a price?
  • What is the true price of fashion?
When in Rome…
  • How have the Romans left their mark on the North East?
  • How did the Romans on Hadrian’s Wall live?
  • How did the famous gladiators fight for survival in the arena?
  • What can we learn from the Romans?
  • Vikings: Bloodthirsty raiders or cultured traders?
Durham Cathedral through your own eyes
  • What are the secrets of Durham Cathedral?
Kidz for Kidz
  • What kind of books do 5-6 year olds like to read?
  • How can we make reading enjoyable for young children?
  • How can we encourage and inspire young children to become more independent readers?
  • Do films dictate our morals today?
Rock Climbing
  • Could I climb Mount Everest?
  • Will we be able to visit Seaham beach in 50 years time?
Science: Great Beauty or Horrifying Monster?
  • Do you consider Science beautiful or does it disgust you?
21st Century Britain
  • What is British?
  • Could you make clothes out of the things you throw away?

I intend to create a daily diary blog during our Projects Week – 29th June 2015 to document the week as it happens.


R.E.A.L. Projects – The Beginning

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…..

REAL projects folder

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”.

Ethic of excellence, Berger

Leaders of their own learning








The Dream

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.

The Reality

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!


“I do!”

 What are R.E.A.L. Projects?

REAL projects logo

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.

centre stage

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