Education in England isn’t working as well as it should. Many young people are put off by an educational offer that is perceived as boring, is unconnected to the world of work, doesn’t relate to their future aspirations and doesn’t recognise or value wider skills such as creativity, problem-solving, teamwork and resilience.
Organisations like The Edge Foundation are working hard to transform the system for the 21st century. A key strand of Edge’s work involves finding innovative approaches from around the world that are applicable here in the UK. Over the past few years, Edge Future Learning has been gathering evidence of what works (and why) using this to support UK schools and colleges. While their work is tailored to each school’s and college’s needs, Edge’s approach falls into three overarching categories. These are project based learning, real world learning and community connected learning.
Project based learning is a student-centred pedagogy that aims to develop knowledge, skills and motivation through interactive project work where students work on a driving question towards tangible end-products, such as presentations or portfolios.
Real world learning provides students with opportunities to engage in authentic activities in the community, the classroom and or/with local employers and to apply knowledge and skills through connections to the real world. Through real world activities students learn about the world around them including different career pathways and professions.
Finally, community-connected learning encourages students to collaborate and address societal challenges through engagement with local communities. It aims to enhance personal wellbeing, social and problem-solving skills.
A solid research base is central to Edge’s work. So when I was asked to collect evidence to support Edge Future Learning, I was happy to get involved. Now published in the Edge Future Learning Evidence Base, this provides a strong justification for the work that Edge is doing.
The report contains evidence to show that Edge’s approach can contribute to a system that fosters a greater sense of agency in young people, all the while better preparing them for the real world. When implemented effectively, students, teachers, employers and local communities are engaged on multiple levels. Moving forward, though, there are several challenges faced in implementing these approaches.
An underlying problem is that of teacher training and professional development. Applying new pedagogies requires more than simply bolting on a novel idea to the system. It needs a shift in thinking about what (and who) education is for. For instance, project based learning requires teachers to relinquish direct instruction (to some extent) moving towards a facilitator-based approach. Not all teachers are comfortable with this so professional development is essential.
The same challenge applies to community connected and real world learning. Much of the research literature encourages approaches that help students look beyond the classroom walls and to cross curriculum boundaries. Teachers need this, too, but many lack up-to-date industry knowledge, which is vital for careers education and a curriculum that privileges authentic learning experiences. While training and externships are part of the solution, this also requires institution-wide implementation, giving teachers the time and space to collaborate across subjects and industry boundaries.
The core challenge, however, is one of policy. Our approach to assessment, the narrowness of the curriculum, and high levels of accountability when faced with inspections and government targets are all at odds with a more expansive view of education.
This is not an insoluble problem. The evidence base highlights what works, where challenges lie and how these practices play out on the ground. Along with Edge’s delivery work, all this points to how project based, real world and community connected learning can benefit teachers, students, employers and – ultimately – the economy. This should be compelling for policymakers. Government-level change is required to transition to a robust educational system that works for all.
Policies that remove obstacles to professional development would allow teachers to undertake training more easily, such as through industry placements, whereby teachers are enabled to familiarise and update themselves with current workplace practices. Also important is that teachers have the time to maintain and sustain relationships with employers so that together teachers and employers enrich the curriculum for students. This is not a false hope, there is already work underway here. The recently formed Rethinking Assessment movement, for instance, is challenging the status quo regarding exams and recommending alternatives that are proven to work, so long as the right policy frameworks are in place.
Most importantly, though, this is all about empowering and enabling young people to flourish. Project based learning, employer engagement and social action can prepare them better for an unpredictable world. So let’s shift policy. Let’s empower teachers to adopt new pedagogies. But most of all, let’s trust our young people to take agency over their learning.
Dr Lynne Rogers is a Reader in Education at the Institute of Education, University College London.