I'm a great believer in the educational value of spending time simply talking about ideas with students. Whether it's a discussion about the nature of time in a physics class, or a debate in the design studio about the ethics of performance art, any conversation that raises deeper questions about a subject acts as a potent catalyst, stimulating thought and enriching learning. Education comes alive at times like these, ceasing to be a pedestrian plod through learning outcomes or soulless spoon-feeding and teaching to the test.
It was the feeling we needed to allow more scope for such rich, exciting learning that led me and my colleagues to look for ways of providing curriculum space for questioning and discussion, in the hope that it would lead to genuinely independent learning. Could there be a course in which these questions became, in effect, not distractions from the syllabus but the syllabus itself?
The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) was the result of this quest. Originally piloted by Edexcel, the board I work for, and AQA, the EPQ was designed to give students time to ask those deeper questions and learn how to use them as a starting point for research, development and reflection.
The central insight behind this now widely used approach is a simple one: students are likely to work better if they are interested in what they are doing and feel they have ownership of the aims and trajectory of the learning journey.
In concrete terms, the EPQ is equivalent to half an A-level. Students are expected to make personal choices about the objectives of their project. In the case of written work, this usually involves selecting a research question or hypothesis, and in the case of artefacts or performances, it involves settling on a design brief or commission and working out how to respond to it. Sample questions include: "Should we allow direct-to-consumer genetic testing?", "Should sharia be incorporated into the British justice system?" and "Is global warming a lot of hot air?"
Work on the project takes between 70 and 90 hours. Support for students generally includes teaching them research, development and project management skills, meeting to review progress and having ongoing tutorial discussions. The process typically ends with an oral presentation.
For most sixth-form students, the EPQ is the single biggest piece of work they are likely to undertake. The most common problems and difficulties tend to arise out of the size of the project. In the first place, asking students to take significant responsibility for managing the process poses a real challenge. They may not be used to planning further ahead than their next essay deadline.
Inevitably, with time pressures come issues with motivation: a familiar cycle of failing to meet targets, slowing down, becoming demotivated and wondering whether it is really worth continuing can ensue.
The scope of the project can also create challenges when students set out with aspirations that are far too grand. Almost without exception, their first thoughts about what they want to achieve will need to be honed, refined and made more precise.
So how do you support students and ensure the EPQ is the fantastic vehicle for independent learning that it should be? Here are eight points to remember:
1 Think first, act later
Deciding on the aims and objectives of the project is a crucial process, so students are advised not to rush in. Remind them that they don't need to choose the objectives on the very first day of the course. It does no harm at all to spend a few weeks reflecting on possible topics, undertaking preliminary research and discussing the various avenues before making any firm decisions.
2 Track progress
Once the project is under way, the golden rule for students is to write as they go. It is always tempting to spend a little more time reading, researching and reflecting. But without a written record of progress, it is easy to run into time management problems as deadlines start to loom.
3 Find a suitable focus
The vast majority of students begin with ideas that are simply too broad or too ambitious to be manageable within the scope of a sixth-form project. But don't be dismissive of their initial thoughts, however unrealistic. Instead, invite them to do some research to see what aspects of their topic are being discussed by other people. What are the key issues? What is being debated? What might be achievable in practical terms with the resources and time available?
4 Set regular deadlines
Given the size of the EPQ, it can be enormously helpful to agree a series of milestones for the different sections of the project - set deadlines for these as a way of dividing what can be a daunting task into manageable sub-tasks. You might also choose to set course-wide deadlines so that all EPQ students march in step. This can make it easier to monitor progress across the cohort.
5 Encourage wide research
There is no excuse for not making use of high-quality open-access journals, such as those provided through websites like OpenDOAR (opendoar.org) and Core (core.ac.uk) or, if your budget will stretch to it, subscription services such as Jstor (jstor.org). Other labour-saving devices that many students won't know about include the functions on most word processing programs that automatically create citations, contents pages and bibliographies.
6 Locate the debate
There is nothing like a controversial issue to stimulate creative, critical thinking. It is when the evidence is ambiguous, or more than one practical solution presents itself, that real thought about the relative strength of different approaches is called for. The best projects usually involve a dialectical process in which points are put forward with supporting arguments, followed by counter-arguments and responses to those counter-arguments. It isn't a matter of simply reviewing what other people have to say - students need to join the debate for themselves.
7 Keep talking
Ongoing conversation is the lifeblood of successful project work, whether it is between student and supervisor or in the form of peer-to-peer interaction. It can be particularly beneficial when the project is in danger of losing its way. A peer interview is a great tool for helping students to decide what they really want to say. Presenting at work-in-progress seminars can give students the opportunity to clarify their ideas as well as providing valuable practice prior to the final presentation.
8 Applaud expertise
The final presentation is one of the most rewarding aspects of the course for EPQ supervisors. When the process has worked as it should, the student will be in the proud position of having become a "mini-expert" in their field of research. To give students the best chance, it is worth reminding them of one of the ground rules of oral presentations: less is more. They will have to be ruthlessly selective if they are going to distil their project's findings into a few minutes. Rehearsing in front of their peers can help to iron out glitches and calm nerves. And make sure they don't forget to smile.
Dr John Taylor is a chief examiner for the EPQ for Edexcel and head of philosophy at Rugby School. His most recent book, 100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: teaching philosophy and ethics, is published by Bloomsbury
Read this handy teachers' guide to the EPQ from Edexcel.
Tell students all about the EPQ with this introductory assembly.
Get organised with an EPQ plan, including ideas for how to organise the taught element.
An example first lesson should get your students started.