by Lindsay Wesner, Louis Pienaar and Leigh Morris
Teachers at Parklands College PreK-12 School, Capetown, South Africa
Three teachers across the departments of English, Social Sciences (History and Geography), and Life Orientation at Parklands College in Cape Town, South Africa came together in 2015 and decided to pilot a project that would shake up the idea of learning, subject differentiation, and teaching. We questioned the traditional approach to education and designed a curriculum which would challenge the fragmented nature of our students’ education by engaging them in solving a real world problem. We knew this approach to learning would not only equip students with the required content knowledge but also facilitate the development of invaluable skills that would benefit them in the long term, and not just prepare them to pass the final exam.
Our project’s name was Avoiding the Path to Panem was inspired by Educurious’s project by the same name. It asked learners to use evidence from their study of Nazi Germany to infer what events, or series of events, might have led to Katniss’s world of Panem in The Hunger Games and, in turn, how our society in South Africa could avoid going down the same path. The culminating task of the unit was for the students to present a 3-5 minute presentation explaining how they, as Grade 9 students, would answer the driving question, “What can we do to stop South Africa from ever becoming like Panem or Nazi Germany?” This six-week unit allowed us to cover the term’s curriculum standards for English, History, and Life Orientation.
Being the first project of this nature launched at our school, we encountered many speed bumps and roadblocks. We had to accept that it would not be perfect the first time around, but as a team of educators and students together, through the errors we made and obstacles we faced, we learnt, adapted, and grew immensely. What follows are some of the problems we faced and the lessons we learnt through handling them.
Lesson 1: Scaffold the learning.
During this project, our Grade 9s blossomed beyond any of our expectations, however we learnt an extremely valuable lesson through this: scaffolding is everything. As teachers, we carefully crafted each learning activity to build on the students’ understanding piece by piece. Rather than adopting the traditional teaching approach where the teacher conveys all the information, we adopted the “flipped classroom” approach. Once our students understood how the flipped classroom worked and that they were, in fact, learning, even though the teacher was not standing in front of the classroom demonstrating the work, they began to take charge of their own learning and were eager to engage with activities. This cultivated a hunger for knowledge in our students where they happily investigated the next “piece of the puzzle” as they began to put together the holistic understanding required to answer the project’s driving question.
Lesson 2: Scaffold the environment.
Our advice to other teachers implementing a project like this would be to not only scaffold the learning but also to scaffold the change. Because Project Based Learning works best in a student-centred environment, this is something that teachers have to consciously work towards. We made the error of removing the safety nets of learning, such as clearly defined timetables, teacher-centred learning, and homework deadlines from the very beginning – which induced panic and insecurities amongst many students. If we repeat this project, we would gently introduce the change and slowly remove the traditional style of teacher-centred learning. Autonomy of learning is a skill and needs to be demonstrated before it is mastered by the students. Once the students were comfortable in their new environment, they started taking ownership of their learning.
Lesson 3: Communication is key.
Three teachers working and teaching classes together is a complicated, stressful but inspiring learning curve. Because of different subjects being combined and teacher collaboration being key, weekly meetings and daily chats between teachers are extremely necessary.
It is also essential to communicate with the students at all stages of the process. We initially explained the idea of Project Based Learning and the flipped classroom, then kept channels of communication open and requested constant feedback in the way of Google Forms. We also ensured that students were communicating with one another in their groups, and assisted in making sure that they attempted to solve their own problems before engaging with the teacher. Since a project is a constantly evolving piece of work, this communication between the teachers, and students and teachers is probably one of the most important components of PBL.
It is also valuable to communicate with parents so that they can understand the rationale behind the implementation of this form of pedagogy and have an understanding that it is not “distance learning.” We found that once the parents understood the project and our goals, they were extremely supportive.
Lesson 4: Expect more.
Traditional teachers are seen as the all-knowing person at the front of the classroom who has all of the information a child will ever need. This means that many teachers do not give students the opportunity to demonstrate what they are capable of achieving on their own. We realised that if we were to continue to teach in the traditional manner, it would be impossible to create an environment where the students can construct their own knowledge by engaging with meaningful problems. We found that as our expectations of the students increased, their motivation and performance improved. By directing them to be disciplined, prepare their own work schedules, and incorporate a mature work ethic into their own lessons, the students became autonomous investigators instead of passive recipients. Our classroom environment was enriched by students sharing the insights they gained at every point of the learning process.
The experience of launching a cross-curricula project has been one of the most challenging yet inspiring periods of our teaching careers, and this experience has led to us continuing to collaborate well beyond this project. We urge other schools to explore this idea of cross-curricula Project Based Learning as the results that we have seen, and continue to see, demonstrate that this is the future of education.
The authors can be found on Twitter:
Leigh Morris, English/History: @MsMorrisTeach
Lindsay Wesner, Life Orientation: @LadyWesner
Louis Pienaar, English/Life Orientation/History: @MrLouisPienaar
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