Skip to main content

Time to change: a project-based learning approach to primary writing

The English National Curriculum has been criticised for being prescriptive and robbing teachers of the opportunity to experiment. So what is the alternative?  

Project-based learning (PBL) has a bit of a tarnished reputation. If you went to school in the 1980s and before, you might remember wonderful afternoons doing 'topic': a wonderfully evocative phrase to those who remember it as essentially a byword for cutting things out and sticking them in a scrap book. I've spoken about my former teacher Mr Collins and his accidental genius before but I remember one particular topic on fashion. Fashion topic was little more than cutting pictures of clothes out of the Littlewoods catalogue and putting them into groups while Mr Collins heard children read. He'd also made no effort to pre-tear out the pages with the bras on. It would quite possibly be career-ending today. To recent education reformers, my aforementioned encounter with the lingerie section of the Littlewoods catalogue is the perfect exemplar of how PBL was shorthand for lazy planning, poor teaching and ineffective learning.   

Today, PBL has new champions who regard it as the perfect antidote to standardisation. Despite this, it is seldom seen in classrooms today. Indeed, it is so out of vogue that most younger teachers wouldn't remember it.  In its reimagined form, PBL is framed as learning challenges. It involves learners working on projects that promote collaboration between learners. Rather than being loose and baggy, PBL sets learners objectives, purposes and timeframes as well as promoting creativity, experimentation and risk taking. Projects may be instigated or led by the teacher or generated by the learners themselves. Goal orientation gives the work purpose and direction but the flexibility nurtures a richer skill set such as communication, creative thinking and evaluation.  If you're interested in reading more about the modern PBL debate, I'd recommend reading the research on this. Stephanie Bell has written about PBL and 21st Century learning (2010), Stavroula Kaldi and others have looked at PBL in primary education (2011) and David Price's book Open (yes, that again!) considers this too.   

It appeals to me because it presents an opportunity for children to be creative and reflective, to experiment, make mistakes and learn from them and, to varying degrees, to direct the course of their learning. In writing, this might involve the children choosing the genre, form or purpose of the writing. It would give them opportunities to follow their interests such as film-scripts, comic books and interactive stories. It can also be used to help them set realistic targets to manage their progress. Above all, giving children some ownership over the process of learning acknowledges that they have a voice. 

It sounds risky and it is perhaps for this reason that it is seldom seen in this form in modern classrooms where there is little time (or appetite) for risk-taking, and the blurred lines between collaborators makes individual assessments difficult. But the skills that it develops and the high engagement of learners that it encourages means that it is hard to deny it is part of the future for primary education.

It has been suggested that PBL degrades the role of the teacher, or subverts knowing behind doing. But far from reducing the role of the teacher, effective PBL can only happen with a highly skilled practitioner; one who has the knowledge to conceive projects for children to work on but the skills to guide and steer learners towards pushing the boundaries of what they know and what they can do. It is hard to get away from the fact that working in new way will redefine the role of both the teacher and the learner.     

Now, I know what you are thinking. You may have read the above and thought 'That all sounds lovely' or 'I would love to be able to teach like this' quickly followed by a 'but' or a 'however'. And, yes, I'm well aware that teachers' hands are tied by the curriculum and by the existing working culture. It has become so engrained, it is highly possible that most teachers can't imagine what an alternative might look like.

This is something I want to explore further but rather than offer some delicious pie in the sky, I intend to promote an alternative to the tried-and-tested approach to teaching and learning in writing. Over the next few weeks, I intend to outline how the programme of study for writing in English might be reimagined along the lines of Project-Based Learning. The ideas aren't fully formed yet but I have the nub of an idea that I think has value and could change the way we teach writing for the better. If you would like to join the conversation, please get in touch.

Keywords: project-based learning, PBL, primary education, creativity, literacy

Popular posts from this blog

Progression in primary drama - going beyond the National Curriculum

Drama is an integral component of primary English teaching. It is the engine that drives creative responses to stories, helping children explore characters, settings and predicaments. Yet the primary National Curriculum for England (DfE, 2013) makes scant reference to drama. Some generic guidance indicates the importance of speaking, listening and performing although these points are both too obvious and too generalised to be useful to teachers and subject coordinators hoping to embed drama across the whole school. When writing our forthcoming book, Teaching Shakespeare in Primary Schools: All the World's a Stage (Routledge, David Fulton, 2021), both Maureen and I felt that whole-school drama guidance for primary teachers - so integral to teaching Shakespeare's plays - was notably lacking from online resources currently available (apologies if you have produced such a document but we could not find it!). We decided to compile our own. In fact, you may have found this blog post

Filthy wretch or poor thing? Rethinking the Island, KS2, Week 1

A treat for the final half term - a new workshop at a delightful school in Leeds! This half term I am working with two Year 5 teachers to develop a cross-year group, cross-curricular writing project based on my favourite picture book, Armin Greder's The Island . I've done this book many times and every time the response is different! This week, we got to grips with the facts, possibilities and mysteries of the story. What do we know about the story so far? (we only ever read up to page 6 to leave it on a knife edge...) What doesn't this story tell us and what could we infer or predict?     We looked at the crowd of islanders who 'welcome' the stranger's arrival. As in every class, country or community, no group ever sees the world the same way and we discussed how the islanders might react differently to the man. Is he a poor thing who needs to be rescued? Is he a curiosity? Is he a threat? We each adopted an islander and took on their perspective f

The Dragon Boat's afloat! Art with Year 1

This half term I have been teaching art with Year 1. Far from just being an art project, this work has shown how vital DT in helping children apply what they have learned in core subjects. For this art project, our topic has been the Chinese Dragon Boat festival, celebrated by Chinese communities around the world in early summer. We even had one here in Leeds! Our challenge has been to create a dragon boat that will float on water. The children drew and painted 3D dragon heads to attach to the scaly bodies that will make the floating part of the boat. The trickiest part was attaching the corks to the inside that would help the boats float on water. It took a lot of trial and error using a water tray to get it just right. The children did a fantastic job and have really enjoyed it. It just goes to show how vital art and DT are to children's learning - not only do they draw in creative aspects of learning, completing a project like this requires knowledge of science, math