Around this time, our Headteacher, Dean, saw project-based learning (PBL) in action at XP School in Doncaster. They were using cross-curricular expeditions to bring the curriculum to life. We’d found our next step! Before the pandemic, Helen and Olly from Edge Future Learning came to deliver a PBL training workshop. Each department had a representative present and as Deputy Head of English, I wanted in! We’d never done anything like this before. It was exciting. We snowballed some ideas about what might work and how to weave this into the curriculum.
For English, our focus was To Kill A Mockingbird. We had grand ambitions. We wanted to take pupils to a courtroom, meet real lawyers and put on a mock trial. Then the pandemic hit, which changed everything. After returning to school, PBL was on the backburner. However, we had to get the kids re-engaged with their education and quickly realised PBL could help us achieve that. So we went ahead, albeit on a smaller scale – the school selected four departments to run pilots, including English. Ours was also the largest pilot, covering an entire year group.
Due to Covid, we weren’t teaching To Kill A Mockingbird anymore. But a similar project could be applied to J.B. Priestley’s play, An Inspector Calls, which we were teaching. Fortunately, we could reuse many of our initial ideas. Instead of racial justice, we shifted focus to social and gender inequality (core themes in the play). While we couldn’t go to a courtroom or welcome lawyers into school, our Careers Leader recommended some contacts at the University of Sheffield.
Connecting with the university’s law department, I explained our predicament and sent them a snapshot of what I was hoping for. I wanted the students to learn about gender and social inequality within the law, referencing real-life cases where these factors played a role (like Grenfell Tower). They came back to us with an incredible online presentation: a virtual tour of the different aspects of a courtroom, and an online talk about different career paths in the legal sector, and how these linked to what our pupils were learning.
We also went ahead with our mock trial. The students were fundamental in this – they took on the role of lawyers and characters from the play, wrote prosecution and defence speeches and even made costumes. The play tackled some complex issues around socialism and capitalism, fairly abstract topics for thirteen-year-olds! But what was interesting was how PBL let them delve into the topic, asking questions about the structure and nature of our society and justice system. They began thinking independently, without us teachers constantly guiding them towards an analysis. Instead, we became facilitators. It’s been a fresh way for us to engage with something that we otherwise teach the same way every year.
The project culminated with the pupils’ speeches collated into a book that they got to take home. Parents loved it and I’ve genuinely never seen students so excited and engaged as they were seeing their names in print. For a demographic like ours, something like that is unusual. It was lovely to see their joy and the recognition that they’d done something so impactful.
I’m delighted to say that we’re now in our second year of PBL at Firth Park Academy and I’m hopeful we can introduce the live elements that were missing the first time around, too.
We’re also rolling out PBL across departments. Once again, Edge is supporting us, helping subject leaders decide what to teach; especially topics that pupils struggle to engage with. In science, for example, they’re proposing a project where pupils create super villains to learn about the impact of radiation (that’s how every villain gets their superpowers, after all!) And in history, they’re proposing a project where pupils produce and curate museum exhibits, bringing the idea of historical sources to life.
Part of my role now is supporting these proposals across the school. Truth be told, though, I’ve not had to contribute much – everyone’s so driven. That’s the main takeaway for me: if you’re adopting PBL, it needs passion. Define your end goal and you can work out the practicalities, but without commitment and teamwork, it won’t get off the ground. It’s easy to be intimidated by the idea of PBL – but it needn’t be that way. It’s not an extra burden – just a new approach to teaching material in a much more engaging, fun way. And as Covid shows, even when things are thrown into chaos, there’s a way to make it happen. I can’t recommend it enough!