Tag Archives: Ron Berger

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


Building an Excellence & Growth Culture

I was delighted when Shaun Allison asked me to write a case study about our work in school to be included in a new book he is writing with Andy Tharby. Shaun’s Class Teaching blog was the original inspiration for the Belmont Teach blog and Andy’s thoughtful and insightful blog posts have been must-reads since we both started blogging around the same time over a year ago. Our similar philosophies led to Shaun, myself and a few other edu-bloggers setting up the Excellence and Growth Schools’ Network last year as well as sharing ideas on a range of concepts – most significantly perhaps around curriculum design and assessment. Since meeting at the Growing Mindsets convention last year, Shaun and I are like old pals now and can be relied on to clog up each other’s timelines with recipes, pictures of single malt and the lyrics of indie bands circa 1989! Here’s my contribution to the book, although the final edit could look a lot different once Andy has put it under an English teacher’s microscope……………………….

Key influences

Much of our recent work in school has been strongly influenced by Chief Program Officer for Expeditionary Learning, Ron Berger’s publications “An Ethic of Excellence” and “Leaders of Their Own Learning” as well as Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, Dr Carol S Dweck’s books “Self Theories” and “Mindset”. Untitled drawing (1) All of our staff – teaching staff, support staff and governors – have been given wide access and exposure to this work in school. We have multiple copies of these books in our Teaching and Learning Library, which top our loan statistics by some margin. All of our Learning Hub Leaders have a personal copy, as well as those who had elected to read them in their Edu-Book Club as part of their Personal Professional Development programme. This is supported by a compendium of blogs and videos we have compiled and continue to update on excellence and mindset.

Learning Hubs

To further ensure we develop an Ethic of Excellence and Growth Mindset amongst our learning community, all members of our teaching staff work in a choice of one of five Learning Hubs as part of their Personal Professional Development programme.

Learning Hubs logo 2014

Our Learning Hubs operate along the lines of Dylan Wiliam’s “TLCs: Teacher Learning Communities” model, with each hub, comprising approximately 8-12 staff meeting for 2 hours once every Half Term, with the following aims: Challenge

  • To embed a culture of ‘growth mindset’ across our learning community in order to raise aspirations and expectations of what students can achieve.
  • To ensure high levels of challenge for all students in every lesson, every day.


  • To use e-Learning to embed a culture of ‘growth mindset’ by empowering students, staff and parents to become engaged, confident, independent, resilient, information-literate users of e-Learning.
  • To develop personalised e-Learning resources for staff (teaching/pedagogy), students (learning) and parents (to support learning process as active participants).

Feedback and Critique

  • To consider the nature, timing and engagement of our students with feedback and critique.
  • To develop feedback and critique systems that ensure increased clarity, effort and aspiration amongst our students, supporting a culture of ‘growth mindset’.


  • To consider how the language of subject specialisms can be explicitly taught by all teachers and supported by parents through a range of strategies.
  • To develop students’ chances of academic success by insisting that academic language is used in the classroom, and at home when talking to parents about school work.


  • To develop deep and probing questioning for teaching/memory that elicits students to think hard supporting a culture of ‘growth mindset’ and questioning for assessment that informs teaching, e.g. hinge questions, multiple choice quizzing etc.

Mindset across the curriculum

Our Mindset work forms not only part of our pastoral programme, but is also supported by subject areas in lessons around five key themes:

  • Motivation & Inspiration
  • Aspiration
  • Resilience
  • Self esteem
  • Mindset

All students complete a learning journal during tutor time as part of this work.

A golden opportunity

The abolition of levels at Key Stage 3 provided us with an ideal opportunity to create not just a new assessment system, but an entire curriculum based on the principles of Excellence and Growth. Central to this was the idea that everyone is capable of excellence. gold The curriculum we have created is a curriculum we value. A curriculum designed to focus on fewer things in greater depth, rather than being “inch deep and mile wide”. To achieve this we have invested in regular blocks of time for our staff so that they can work together in teams to design subject specific curriculum and assessment.

Key components

Each subject started by establishing their organising concepts, or “big ideas”, which required a review of the entire National Curriculum from Key Stages 1 to 4. Knowing the prior learning of our students enabled us to accelerate from it and ensure high challenge from the outset. It also allowed us to introduce GCSE knowledge and skills in year 7 and go “beyond” the typical confines for the year or Key Stage. We’ve also been very careful to pay attention to what cognitive science tells us about learning and memory, embracing the work of UCLA Psychologist Professor Robert Bjork. As a consequence organising concepts are spaced and interleaved in order to try and build greater storage and retrieval strength. In doing this, we hope to be able to challenge our students further, by increasing their knowledge base and recall to free up working memory to allow them to think hard about, and assimilate new information. Assessment is then focused on mastery of fundamental concepts, ideas, knowledge and skills by designing rubrics containing learning targets for each unit ranging from “establishing” at a basic understanding through to the highest thresholds of “excellence” and “beyond”. As part of our commitment to excellence and growth, we believe that futures aren’t fixed and that all students have the potential for excellence and can improve by:

  • working hard and putting in their very best effort
  • acting on feedback from their teachers
  • becoming leaders of their own learning

As part of this commitment, all students are given access and the opportunity to demonstrate their learning right up to the “beyond” threshold. As well as specifying information about lesson resources, homework and assessment opportunities, each unit also contains a link to previous interleaved sequences, as well as deep and probing questions, which are designed in advance to encourage students to think hard about new information. As Professor of Psychology Daniel Willingham says: “memory is the residue of thought” or as Durham University Professor Robert Coe puts it: “learning happens when people have to think hard.”

Assessment, Recording and Reporting

In a similar fashion, our Assessment, Recording and Reporting of student progress has been revised to incorporate our philosophy of excellence and growth. MidYIS testing on entry is used to identify any potential that may have been missed previously. Progress is reported relative to starting points in simple terms as “excellent”, “good” or “not yet” – incorporating the language of growth. The bar is set high, so that meeting your baseline threshold represents good progress from the starting point in each unit. In a similar way, our revised descriptors for effort encourage excellence and growth. For effort to be classed as excellent, for example, a student must:

  • Consistently strive for excellence
  • Take ownership of their own learning
  • Be highly organised and self disciplined
  • Show initiative and responsibility
  • Show real determination in pursuit of goals
  • Demonstrate resilience when things get hard
  • Continuously seek, reflect and act on all feedback
  • Actively participate and contribute for the benefit of all

This year, in our efforts to help our students become leaders of their own learning, we have replaced our traditional annual report with a series of student led conferences in each subject area, which give students an opportunity to share their work and talk about their progress with parents and teachers by reflecting on and articulating what they have learned.

R.E.A.L. projects and realsmart

Recently, we’ve been working with realsmart to try to support this process even further by giving our students the opportunity to submit evidence of meeting learning targets to their cloud based learning portfolios. Any evidence submitted can then be used as a starting point to discuss progress at their student led conferences. We’ve also started working with Cara Littlefield, a Project Based Learning coach from High Tech High in San Diego through the Innovation Unit to develop R.E.A.L. Projects whose three key principles support our philosophy of excellence and growth, i.e:

  1. All students are capable of excellence regardless of prior attainment, needs or background
  2. Student work should matter
  3. Schools and classrooms are communities of learners

Through this work our staff and students are being trained to build a culture of peer feedback, critique and multiple drafting through the use of models of excellence. These skills are further developed during our whole school Project Week in the Summer Term, which involves public exhibition of high quality student work. Our Ethic of Excellence gallery, which sits in the heart of our school also complements this by displaying beautiful student work nominated by individual subjects. IMG_0031 IMG_0033 IMG_0034

An Ethic of Excellence

We recently held the first in a series of voluntary curriculum conferences for mid-leaders to share their ideas about what might influence the design of our new post-levels curriculum.

Ideas that were shared during our first meeting:

  • Designing a new English curriculum and post-levels assessment system from scratch (which you can read all about here)
  • An Ethic of Excellence
  • Using cognitive science to inform curriculum design
  • Assessing without levels

Ethic of excellence, Berger

For those of us that have already read ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger, I’m sure most of us would agree on the deep and lasting impression it left upon us.  For many of us, myself included, it has had a transformational effect on our work as teachers and school leaders.

Here, Head of Performing Arts Laura Jackson, shares her thoughts on the book and how it has influenced her thinking.

“It’s not a quick fix, it’s a way of life”

Ron Berger was an American Elementary School teacher .  He was a craftsman, a carpenter by trade.  He believes that “work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same.”

An Ethic of Excellence

The book is written as a personal account of his findings, more like a story than an academic style book.  In it he talks about the culture he has embedded in his own school and then in others as a consultant – that excellence cannot be achieved first time.

An Archiver of Excellence

Berger collects student work for his portfolio which has been built up over many years.  The sharing of student work for the purposes of modelling and critique is central to his teaching repertoire.  Archived work is shared with students.  It shows development and progression – from first draft to “excellence”.  Students spend time discussing the work of others and receiving critique on their own.

We were then treated to this, now legendary video of Ron Berger in action.  It demonstrates the power of archived work in supporting students to achieve excellence, through the process of critique and re-drafting.

A School Culture of Excellence

The culture we create rests in our community – “in every effective school I’ve seen has a strong sense of community….staff and students in all these settings feel that they are part of something – that they belong.”

Positive Peer Pressure is used to create a safe learning environment, where striving for excellence is encouraged.  Here, the positive critical feedback outlined above is crucial in achieving this.

Bigger is better?  WE ARE LUCKY! “in a small school students and staff are highly accountable – it’s hard for the students to fall through the cracks”  this is a privilege for us – we can make a bigger difference!

Work of Excellence

“We can’t first build up self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow.”

Project based learning is at the heart of the curriculum.  The curriculum is “thematic” containing multidisciplinary themes over weeks and even months.  High quality projects are celebrated everywhere so that the ethic, understanding and motivation are there right from the start.

Literacy and numeracy are built in throughout the curriculum – from basic to higher order skills.  Work completed is genuine, of integrity and requires students to carry out their own research.

Assessment is continuous and used to build stronger students.  Multiple drafts of work are the norm.  Critique is used prior to each new draft, which must be:

  • Kind – safety
  • Specific – no wasting time
  • Helpful – to help the individual not the critic

“Students need to know from the outset that quality means rethinking, reworking, and polishing. They need to know that they will be celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board.”

At the end of the year all student work is presented to a panel and made public through exhibitions or performances.  Work is recorded to show the next intake what is expected in a year.  Deadlines must be met – positive pressure is used throughout to ensure excellence.

Teaching of Excellence

The critique process doesn’t just apply to students, however.  Teachers also critique each other’s work, and are expected to present and explain strategies that might be recommended.  Teaching is seen as a craft – and with ‘expert’ status requiring as much as 10000 hours, feedback on practice is welcome and supports improvement.  Relationships are seen as central to getting the best out of each other.

“Teaching isn’t about papers and pencils, it’s about relationships”.

Building strong relationships makes it much easier to ask ourselves and each other the fundamental question:

“How do we make the work stronger?”


To finish, Laura shared some of the ways in which the book has already impacted on her practice:

  • Critique – first draft listening marked by students and re-written.  This may take time away from “music” but when doing a similar task for the first time several weeks later, there was a marked improvement in first drafts.
  • Excellence – Displaying the work for others to see, collecting a portfolio of “excellence” as a hard copy and a visual file to show students and staff.
  • Adding context / value – Year 9 “showcase” performance – showing their best examples of performance work, Year 7 “Creative Arts Celebration Evening”
  • Collecting examples of excellent work, evidence of excellent performances and practice work to display.  Once it’s set up it is easy to update and develop.

Music examples of excellence wall zoom

Music wall of excellence 2

An Ethic of Excellence, by Ron Berger is available from our Teaching and Learning library