Maintaining interest, engagement and motivation within a student cohort is a constant challenge for teachers nation-wide.
Indeed, one of the shortcomings of traditional education approaches is the sense of irrelevance expressed by students - that the subjects they are studying lack any real connection to the ‘real world’. "Yes, but where are we ever going to use this ..." has been a constant refrain since students moved beyond the basics of literacy and numeracy – the critical building blocks which they understood could help them find work and advance through the labor market.
This challenge is not confined to classrooms. Tech giants such as Google, Facebook and IBM are adopting a new approach to staff recruitment. While they are still encouraging young people to undertake a university degree, these companies are finding that other skills are often of more importance. Therefore, the opportunity to look beyond credentials and employ promising applicants who lack traditional qualifications is becoming a popular avenue of staffing. Evidently, skills in problem solving, initiative and team building are no longer being eclipsed by credentials and diplomas.
A few years ago, St Joseph's College in Geelong reviewed internal data and discovered that their existing approach to pedagogy was failing to maintain an acceptable level of student engagement.
Such a finding was consistent with the conclusions of a recent Grattan Institute study which found that as many as 40 per cent of Australian school students are falling behind due to disengagement from their classwork.
St Joseph’s searched for an alternative and discovered it in the form of Project Based Learning (PBL).
The theoretical benefits of Project Based Learning were apparent, but the school was initially unsure about how such a concept would work in practice, particularly in a Catholic secondary school setting. They found the answer at Marist College Parramatta, a school which has successfully integrated PBL into its curriculum.
A series of professional visits were undertaken as Geelong staff familiarised themselves with the practical aspects of the program and, with staff soon convinced that it could work successfully at Geelong, PBL was rolled out three years ago.
St Joseph’s describes PBL as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem or challenge. Students engage in rigorous projects within discreet disciplines and at times integrated with other subject areas.”
A combination of teacher directed and student directed learning, PBL is consistent with Victorian curriculum requirements and can be applied across a range of disciplines. The essential focus is on increasing student-directed learning – however, the teacher role remains crucial but different.
At Geelong, PBL was introduced into English, Humanities, Religious Education, Science and Health/Physical Education units at Year 8 and 9. It is now being rolled out at other levels and in other subject areas.
PBL aims to provide a real world setting for the areas being studied, so students can more easily recognise the value in their learning and appreciate the skills they are acquiring.
Student-based learning can see peers emerge as “experts” in the classroom, which fulfils the program’s desire for student-led discussion, skill acquisition and success.
This somewhat unconventional method of teaching and learning does not mean that traditional forms of assessment - such as essays in English and source analysis and short answers in History – are not still valuable. Rather, it is a reworking of the classroom process, with the learning being fostered by the students themselves.
So, three years on, how is PBL faring? No hard data has yet been collected, but teacher feedback has been positive. Particularly noted by teachers is the different types and styles of the individual ‘learner’ emerging across the student body.
By comparing current year 10s and year 11s, a clear difference between conventional and PBL educated students has been identified: the non-PBL student is significantly more reliant on the direction of teachers, the so-called ‘spoon feeding’ style of learning, while the PBL student demonstrates greater personal initiative, often leading to a better work ethic and a more wide-reaching application of skills and knowledge.
An experienced teacher new to St Joseph’s noted after just a few weeks at the school:
“My Year 11s (pre-PBL) … are happiest when they can sit and be fed information.
“My Year 10s (in their third year of PBL) are magnificent. They are proactive in their learning, they take responsibility for knowledge acquisition, they are driven in a desire to find out more, not just from me, but from what they can learn from each other, their own research, and me, their teacher. They let me facilitate their learning and do so beautifully, but essentially, it is their learning journey; they critique, analyse, process and apply - all very differently and to all levels of ability but, they have a crack!”
We thank Michelle Bishop and Erin Norman from St Joseph’s College for their assistance with this article.