As a trained teacher, I have always been very interested in effective teaching techniques and pedagogies. We all know that different people learn in different ways. There is never a “one-size-fits-all” method and what works for one student may be a disaster for another.
For young people following a vocational pathway, the emphasis is on practical learning. Even within this arena, there are many different ways to teach – but I believe that there is a no more effective way for developing skills than that of project-based learning (PBL).
The official definition of PBL is that it has “a publicly exhibited output and the students receive a simple brief to achieve this”.
After losing a bit of popularity in the 1970s, when it was seen by many in teaching as being unstructured and lacking rigour, PBL is now coming back into favour. The rise of digital technology has made it easier for students to research and create high-quality products – all of which make the PBL process exciting, not to mention relevant to the real world.
To operate effectively in a knowledge-based economy, young people need to have a wider range of skills than may have traditionally been required. Interestingly, I have come to realise that my teacher training did not reference anything beyond individual learning. We were not given any way to prepare our students for the team approach, which most of us experience in the workplace and which is so clearly crucial.
The skills you learn as part of PBL include problem-solving, working as part of a team, the ability to research and analyse information, planning, critical thinking skills, interpersonal skills, decision-making…the list goes on. Being able to use technology well is also key.
PBL ensures that students develop all these skills, while also managing their own learning process under the guidance and mentorship of their teacher. It also encourages applied learning – with more natural skill development, which is required for the world of work.
A project-based approach lends itself to collaborative projects, not only within a cohort of students, but potentially across groups and whole institutions.
Crucially though, using projects is a vehicle for learning, rather than assessment. While many schools and colleges think they do it, in reality, they are simply setting projects as part of their assessment toolkit.
I feel that there is not enough emphasis on true PBL in our education system. Part of the problem is that many tutors or teachers believe (and will argue) they are delivering it effectively when, in fact, they are offering project-orientated learning.
This is quite different, as it involves all the information being delivered beforehand by teachers, with students needing to meet a set criteria. PBL requires much more student input, innovation and creativity.
‘Too much focus on exams’
Interesting research carried out last year showed that young people are not happy with the main focus of the education system being passing exams. Learners told us that they want more of a balance and more support to prepare them for work and life. And PBL is a great way of doing this – it is essentially what a project-based approach provides.
This is exactly why the Career Colleges Trust puts PBL at our core – and we are seeing some very positive results so far, illustrated in particular by one example. Bromley’s Hospitality, Food and Enterprise Career College set a brief for its 14-16 students to visit a local farm, pick strawberries, make jam and produce scones to sell alongside this jam. It was key that students knew their costs and profit margins. This activity went down very well with students, who found that they were fully motivated. One such student could be heard saying: “We only have to sell one more plate of scones and jam to break even and we’ve got more to sell, so we’re going to make a profit!”
I have no doubt that the young people who are exposed to this way of learning will immediately be more employable. Should they choose, however, to delay their entry into the workplace, the PBL skills will also stand them in good stead for university and other higher education routes.
A vital component is, of course, effective employer engagement. Industry needs to be involved, ensuring that all projects and the associated learning are all relevant. It is ultimately to an employer’s advantage to encourage the development of young people’s employability skills.
PBL is about learning real skills, which can then be used effectively in the real world. It is something I’d urge all colleges and schools to consider for their students.
Ruth Gilbert is chief executive of the Career Colleges Trust @RuthGilbertCEO