Life as a teacher in lockdown was testing to say the least. It was an ongoing mission to find ways to help students remain engaged with their learning, despite the difficult circumstances.
However, one approach that really resonated with my pupils was project-based learning (PBL): students work on an extended project based around solving a real-world problem or answering a complex question. At the end of the project, they create a product or presentation for an audience.
This allowed them to explore the science curriculum in a way that was hands-on, accessible, flexible, topical and, most importantly, didn’t depend on screens or textbooks, which not everyone has access to during lockdown.
Project-based learning: Why PBL works
It’s something I believe should be incorporated more into the curriculum, particularly as the threat of local lockdowns means that there is a chance we could all end up teaching remotely again at any given time.
Here’s why I am so sold on project-based learning.
1. Links to the ‘real world’
Engaging with PBL during lockdown provided my pupils with a new challenge and way of learning that enabled them to connect the dots between scientific concepts and their real-world impact.
For example, I used the British Science Association’s (BSA), "Stop the Spread" CREST Award activities (they have a whole library of free resources), which are based on preventing the spread of infectious diseases. I refocused the package to concentrate on airborne diseases, and used multidisciplinary approaches including poetry, drawing and design in the challenges that I set the children.
As the coronavirus lockdown was a clear example of a problem that required science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) to navigate it, and because it was an event dominating all of our lives, it seemed to be the perfect project.
2. Greater engagement
Helping pupils to understand the purpose of what they were being taught, and giving them the freedom to come up with all sorts of creative and innovative solutions really helped to drive engagement – especially for those who would normally be less enthused by Stem topics. They were able to get creative and integrate other subjects into the project, such as art and literature.
In my mind, there is no reason for subjects to be siloed, and this ability to be flexible in both the delivery and the subject matter is one of the key reasons why I believe PBL should be incorporated into more classrooms going forward.
While we are still unsure about whether there will be a second wave, or additional local lockdowns affecting classroom-based learning, PBL can take place any time, any place. It doesn’t depend on access to technology or expensive materials and can help to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality education, whatever their means or abilities. For me, this is a very important aspect of PBL.
Furthermore, the adaptability of PBL means that it’s perfectly suited to personalisation and can be flexible to changing focuses within subjects. For example, teaching climate change within science lessons, I can set my class a project on how climate change affects air pollution and its impact on our local communities. This allows me to make my lessons directly relevant to their lives, which not only helps to engage them but also exhibits why what they are learning is so important.
4. Diverse skills
Ultimately, PBL is a way to not just teach difficult concepts in your subject but to also focus on developing wider skills, such as independent learning, communication skills, self-management, self-reflection, and problem solving – all skills that are vital to helping pupils thrive both in and out of school.
Lots of my pupils have said that PBL was a favourite part of their lockdown learning, so if anything good is to come from this period of time, it’s that I will certainly be making lessons more active. The key was incorporating plenty of hands-on activities, and keeping projects relevant and creative. Children love a challenge they can sink their teeth into, and PBL is guaranteed to provide this, whether in the classroom or while working from home in lockdown.
Alicia Davies is a science teacher at Ysgol Nantgwyn school in South Wales