Project-based learning – it’s a pedagogical approach that’s been around for decades, but has recently found a new lease of life thanks to teachers all over the world who are redefining what its outcomes should be.
Ian Phillips is Assistant Head and Director of ICT at The Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School in Hertfordshire. It’s one of the top independent schools in the U.K., and caters for high-achieving boys aged between 5 and 18, as well as an Intel® Education Visionary and a member of Microsoft’s Independent School Steering Group. He spoke to us recently about a project he has run with a group of year 10 GCSE computer science students, which aims to teach them not the subject itself, but how to learn.
At the start of term, Ian presented them with Genuino 101* physical computing boards and asked them to come up with a problem to solve. As an added incentive, the students knew that they would have to then pass on what they’d learned to a group of year 9 pupils three weeks later and present their projects to parents at the school’s open day.
“What I’m trying to do is get them to choose what to work on, so they become the agents of change and the owners of their learning,” Ian says. “The goal is that the soft skills they learn in projects like this will better equip them to tackle real-life problems as they progress through the education system into real life. Hopefully these boys will end up being the future leaders of our country, and there are huge problems our society has to solve – environmental, economic and social. The skills needed to identify and solve these problems begin here.”
Ian deliberately shortened the course so that the boys wouldn’t have time to build the final version of their ideas, but they did have to show a working model. He uses Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook as a collaborative resource the whole group can access to document their progress and collaborate and he is sure it will come in useful during exam revision. It prompted the class to split the curriculum up between them and tackle individual sections for everyone’s benefit. It means students can work on the project at any time, on any device, but Ian’s keen to point out that his goal wasn’t to enlarge the school day to creep into every student’s free time – just to work smarter and think about what type of activity is best done when and where. You can read a more complete write-up, including information on a similar project with a history class, on this Microsoft blog post.
One crucial aspect of the new style of learning is the switching of homework time and class time. This may be familiar if you’ve encountered the idea of the flipped classroom, but the concept is that students prepare for classes in their own time by reading texts or watching videos, then spend class time collaborating, discussing ideas, solving problems, and sharing ideas. “When you’ve got all these smart kids and an inspired teacher in the same space, getting them to work in silence seems pointless,” says Ian.
Now that the project is over, Ian is confident that he can take the idea and repurpose it for other subjects and classes. He believes that several aspects of the project can deliver a more meaningful learning experience. First of these is the fact that it was “low stakes” work. Ian says that humans are very good at short-term performance for high-stakes tasks, like exams, where we swot up on a subject, perform well in the exam, then forget the material. Projects like this, however, allow students to fail – and learn from that failure so that learning will help build deeper understanding.
He also talks about “desirable difficulty”. “It’s important to struggle,” he says. “We learn by making mistakes, and by creating situations where students struggle, and have to talk and collaborate to push through, you suddenly start to see lots of little lightbulb moments as things sink in. It creates a greater sense of achievement. If we can give them that challenge and give them an opportunity to learn about their own ability to deal with failure and perseverance, that’s a life lesson.”
The next project that Ian has in mind is another problem-based exercise, this time ‘how can everyone in the class get an A*?’ “We’re looking at how to solve problems, and their GCSE exam is just another problem, so hopefully they can apply the same techniques working as a group,” he says.
Look out for our next article on where Ian gets his inspiration, where we talk to Ian about his inspirations and influences, or meet Ian in person, at Bett 2017 - Intel stand C210.