Learning on the job, experiences of developing PBL

From the beginning of our journey with Owning Education it was clear that we not only wanted to help spread the word about schooling in the 20th century but we also intended to lead by example through the creation of project based learning experiments within our own school.
As individual teachers we had already begun to bring in elements of PBL and experimental teaching in our own practice but bound by timetabling we had so far been limited to our own groups confined within our own subjects. Not to be deterred Pauric and I looked at where our opportunities for PBL best lay and decided on exploiting our extra curricular time as a way to hopefully bring together a variety of students with a common interest for learning and exploration. Inspired by videos on YouTube and a desire to combine our two areas of expertise, coding and photography, we decided to develop a project where students would attempt to build and code a camera that could be flown to the edge of space underneath a weather balloon.
With a small group of enthusiastic Y7 & Y8 students we began the project in September 2017 and so far have covered a range of activities tied into the overall vision of the project such as, learning about time-lapse photography, coding a Raspberry Pi camera for stills and video, researching and planning for project management and the building and testing of parachutes in a variety of sizes. Being at around the halfway point in the year, we sat down and reflected on how the project has been going so far and what our ideas were for moving it forward in the next term and a half.
There have been challenges with the project that perhaps with foresight and more planning could have been navigated at an earlier date but from the start we have always seen this as a great learning experience for us as well as the students. With the freedom and relative low risk (in terms of learning) that an extra curricular project affords, it does also bring challenges in different ways; consistency from students so far this year has been patchy, there are one or two regulars to the project who attend every week and have committed time to research on their own which is fantastic and beyond our expectations but then also a portion who are more sporadic in their attendance. The fantastic thing about our school is the great range of extra curricular activities on offer, students are in some ways spoilt for choice and find it hard to choose, understandably some of our group make compromises and attend different groups on a rotation basis, excellent for them and their enjoyment but unfortunately to the detriment of a group project that relies on teams pulling together such as ours. Advertising in school newsletters and promotion during assembly and class helps and occasionally adds to our numbers but it is a guaranteed commitment that is difficult to maintain when delivering PBL as an extra curricular activity.
It has been in breaking the project down into its separate elements where we have witnessed some of the best successes, when students have a much shorter task to undertake, often within the hour of the session, they can really engage with the process and work together to solve problems. Most recently our work with parachutes has delivered great results, students tested materials of different sizes and weights, learned how to stabilise the parachute and enjoyed launching their creations from a variety of stairwells in school. On the research based side of the project, two of our students have emailed the Civil Aviation Authority and the Royal Meteorological Society for advice on launching our balloon, the promt reply from the RMS was a great boost for the student involved and has directed him towards further research.
One of the main things highlighted in our mid year conversation is that perhaps we did not fully anticipate how much we would need to know about a much wider range of topics than expected. Indeed we knew that we would also be learning a lot along side the students throughout the process and would need assistance from other staff but have found it a challenge to fully commit to planning for and developing our own learning for an extra curricular activity so different from our own subjects at the same time as planning for classes. Moving forward it is going to be important for us to engage with other members of staff in school and draw on expertise where we may be lacking, the development of key links for the students will also be an important part of the process as we continue to encourage more autonomy in the project.
In summing up our experiences so far, our key message for people starting Project Based Learning at this point would be, just do it. Find like minded colleagues to help but don’t wait on that either, come up with an idea that interests you and do it. Be ambitious. Be unsure. Be honest. Don’t worry about time or planning, learn from your own mistakes and show students the real possibilities that are out there.
Jon Kime & Pauric McKeown are Heads of Art & Computer Science respectively at Fred Longworth High School in Wigan.

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