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In May I was privileged to run a workshop on ‘Project Based Learning’ at the Aletheea conference ‘O altfel de educatie pentru o altfel de generatie’.  Project-Based Learning (or ‘PBL’) is a big part of what we are trying to achieve with the English department at Aletheea, as well as at the school in general.  So I wanted to share some of the powerful ideas, methods and benefits that PBL offers to the students, and put them in the context of the coming academic year.

First of all, a little background:

Last year I returned to teaching after a 20+ year absence.  Coming back to teaching at Aletheea felt a bit like coming home – I love working here and the job.  And I strongly believe that those years away gave me a perspective, values and skills that could be of great benefit to the children, if I could find a way to teach them.   One thing was clear to me:  what (modest) success I enjoyed in diverse careers was down to engaging head-on with the tasks in front of me.  We learn by doing.

This is not an original thought – Aristotle and Confucius said it, as well as Franklin, Carnegie, Picasso and more.  Learning is an active process – only knowledge that is used sticks in the mind.  Or to put it another way: it is literally impossible to teach someone to ride a bike without a bike for them to try.  So we believe that by giving the children meaningful, engaging and carefully designed projects (a bike!), we are giving them a context and a need for the knowledge we supply along the way.

And there is another – perhaps urgent – reason for adopting these kinds of methods.  When I was at school I had a class called ‘Technology’ that would seem like Ancient History to today’s students.  The world is changing so fast that nobody knows what work or culture will look like in 5 years, let alone 10 or 15.   This is the world we bequeath to the children, and I am determined to try my absolute best to get them ready for it.  This means a focus on the skills and attitudes that will certainly be necessary and highly valued in whatever future we find ourselves in.  Creativity, flexibility, adaptability.  Self-motivation, self-organisation, management of time and resources.  Ability to work alone, ability to work as part of a team.  Critical thinking, evaluation, a willingness to engage with any task without fear of making mistakes.   Alongside academic and technical knowledge, these are the skills that we can and must try to teach the students.

PBL is a methodology that emphasizes these skills by giving students a meaningful role in their own education.  We aim to follow the ‘Gold Standard’ which means:

  • Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success Skills – The project is focused on student learning goals, including standards-based content and skills such as critical thinking/problem solving, collaboration, and self-management.
  • Challenging Problem or Question– The project is framed by a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer, at the appropriate level of challenge.
  • Sustained Inquiry– Students engage in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, finding resources, and applying information.
  • Authenticity– The project features real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact – or speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests, and issues in their lives.
  • Student Voice & Choice– Students make some decisions about the project, including how they work and what they create.
  • Reflection – Students and teachers reflect on learning, the effectiveness of their inquiry and project activities, the quality of student work, obstacles and how to overcome them.
  •  Critique & Revision– Students give, receive, and use feedback to improve their process and products.
  • Public Product Students make their project work public by explaining, displaying and/or presenting it to people beyond the classroom.

In the coming academic year the English team in Gimnaziu will be implementing PBL for about half of the curriculum, with the other half being more ‘traditional’, text-book-based English language classes following the excellent Cambridge syllabus and exam system.

Of course there will be bumps along the road – the students will make mistakes, we will make mistakes, sometimes maybe both at the same time.  But this is how we will (all) learn, together.  A saying from my island nation:  “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor” seems particularly appropriate.  We try, we fail, we learn, we try again, and eventually we succeed.

So please watch this space for exciting projects over the coming academic year !

Article written by John Riley, English Teacher.

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