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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

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