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6th June 1997 at 01:00
John Halliday, Teri McCormack, Jane Milne and Rebecca Soden on ways of making project work more relevant

It is now commonplace for education programmes to include project work. This is thought to help learners become adaptable and autonomous people, able to engage in good thinking in practical contexts. Such learners are expected to be the most effective employees and citizens in times of rapid economic, social and technological changes.

Our purpose in this article is to report our efforts to help students to practise good thinking by doing and writing about real work which mattered to them and to the people whose lives it touched rather than doing a project based on imaginary events. Our efforts were focused on a project which is required for the award of the GSVQGNVQ in various occupational areas, a project called the "additional assessment" which students from various parts of the United Kingdom are presently completing.

In many colleges in Scotland which offer social care programmes students pass their "additional assessments" by planning imaginary provision for an imaginary client group and reflecting on their plan. Typically, for example, students write about arranging a residential experience for less abled people or about enhancing provision in a youth centre or extending accommodation for the homeless. In the workplace, care assistants are not usually asked to plan tasks of an imaginary nature - there are more than enough real tasks to be planned and carried out.

However, it might be argued that planning is a generic skill which can be practised just as well in an imaginary project as in a real one, that planning involves some sort of generic abilities which are commonly described as decision-making or problem-solving skills. One important difficulty with this argument is that it requires the assumption that there are significant similarities between skills involved in planning imaginary and real projects in social care or indeed in any other occupational area or that skills can be easily "transferred" from an academic to a practical context. There is no good evidence to support these assumptions.

Employers might well wonder why they are being offered evidence of students' competencies that requires such dubious assumptions when students could provide evidence of their competence to plan and carry out tasks which care assistants actually do in the course of their work.

It does also seem odd that a type of educational provision intended to prepare students for the workplace attempts to do this by asking them to engage in projects which are academic rather than real.

We found that students from previous cohorts who had done imaginary projects often completed impressive portfolios without being asked to consider what this material was supposed to show.

For example, portfolios often contained letters seeking substantial funding for the proposed project which the student did not intend to implement. Portfolios certainly did not include what seems to be crucial aspects of any social care project such as negotiating with clients about aims, preferred ways of achieving aims and about changes to aims and plans as events unfold. When the students become employed as care assistants such considerations will be paramount if they are to work at all effectively.

In the new project which was tried out at John Wheatley College in Glasgow as part both of Economic and Social Science Research Council-funded research into critical thinking and the new 199697 SCOTVEC arrangements for the "additional assessment", students were encouraged not only to plan but to carry our actual work with real people who wanted help with something which mattered to them.

At the first meeting with the students we discussed with them the arguments for this way of working and secured their agreement. In the next few meetings we helped students to understand what is involved in rational practice, to understand that part of the ability to think well involves questioning what might be taken for granted, to have some idea of how the questions one raises might be answered and to know about grounds on which they might justify their preferences. We did this through explanation, modelling, and discussion and by providing opportunities for the students to practice what had been demonstrated and discussed.

Modelling was done in the early meetings by asking the students to listen to a conversation between two of the tutors in which one questioned the other along the following lines about some voluntary work she might undertake: * What are the possibilities?

* How are you going to decide between these possibilities?

* What are the factors that will influence your decision?

* How do you decide which factors are important or, if they are all important, how do you decide how to rank their importance?

As planned, the tutor being questioned provided only weak answers to these questions and then invited the students to identify the weaknesses - an activity they greatly enjoyed.

This provided an opportunity for the tutors to explain and illustrate some grounds for preferring to do one thing rather than another and preferring to do it in certain ways rather than others. These grounds included: being more practically possible, more extrinsically beneficial, more intrinsically worthwhile. Students demonstrated their understanding by relating decisions that had been made recently to these grounds. For example, one student reported that she had been very tempted to retaliate when a less abled client had sunk her teeth in her arm and was able to work out she rejected retaliation on intrinsic grounds.

The original conversation between the two tutors was then re-run but this time the tutor being questioned related her justifications to the grounds which had been discussed. We asked the students to tell us what the point was of going through that series of questions and answers which we had modelled and then we asked them to engage in a similar conversation with a partner about ideas for their own projects.

Over several weeks the students gathered information about various groups in the community who might want their help and they practised this peer-critiquing in pairs in order to reach decisions about the sort of practical work they would attempt to meet the requirements of their "additional assessments". After these initial critiquing sessions the students were able to begin to write a draft of the first section of their project, outlining various types of practical work they had considered, saying why they had rejected some possibilities and why they preferred others.

Some of the students' actions at this stage were: participating in befriending training provided by the social work department in order to befriend teenagers in trouble; learning to run reminiscence therapy sessions for older people in residential settings and discussing with residents whether they would like to participate in such sessions; teaching adults with learning difficulties to run a snack bar; providing a support for the children of people undergoing treatment to reduce their dependency on drugs; teaching Primary 1 children games at break times.

One particularly ambitious project involved setting up and staffing an advice centre within a hostel for homeless people. As well as providing advice benefits, this student also organised the provision of advice on getting back to work.

The tutors also based their modelling on a piece of writing - the first section of a project, as a student might write it, but written by the tutors. We gave copies to the students and, as before, asked them to listen as one tutor questioned the other who was assumed to have written it (that is, peer critiquing). We asked the students to make notes on their copy of the piece of writing of how they would change it as the weaknesses became obvious to them through listening to the critiquing conversation between the two tutors.

We then provided copies of a second draft of this writing, a draft which incorporated improvements which the tutor would have been able to make as a result of the critiquing work. This exercise allowed us to model for the students how they could help each other to identify weaknesses in their writing by raising questions about each other's written drafts. We asked them to use this technique to improve each stage of the written drafts of their projects.

All this thinking was integrated with the students' on-going practical work with their chosen clients. Of course all sorts of difficulties arose which none of us could have anticipated, despite the best laid plans, which is usually the case. Students experienced frustration when their work with clients did not run in the way they had planned.

For example. one of our students was disappointed that the teenager she befriended seemed to value the outings they shared but not the relationship with her. This did not deter this student from persisting with different approaches to overcome difficulties.

Inducting students into the practice of social care means helping them to address the moral dimension as well as developing the more obvious attributes such as interpersonal and organisational skills. Helping students to deal with messy reality is much more difficult to manage than simply helping them to get some ideas on paper - as one student said - "doing a kid-on project".

Such difficulties seem worth addressing rather than avoiding by restricting project work to planning in the abstract.

It is always difficult to know whether one's perceptions of success constitute progress in a wider sense. Nevertheless it seems that some people's lives in Shettleston and Easterhouse do seem to have been improved through the efforts of the students. Some students have obtained references which we would be proud to own. As one of them put it on behalf of her classmates: "We all made a difference to somebody's life - that's got to be worth doing."

Teri McCormack and Jane Milne are senior lecturers at John Wheatley College, Glasgow. John Halliday and Rebecca Soden are senior lecturers at the faculty of education in the University of Strathclyde. Staff development workshops on project work in GSVQ GNVQ are offered by the writers.

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