I knew my project-based homework tasks had gone too far on the day I walked into my classroom to be confronted with 90 volcano cakes.
Earlier on in my teaching career, project-based learning had a certain allure.
The idea was that homework time should be used to help pupils become more independent learners. Homework should be set in a way that would mimic how they would work in the real world, it was said, where they would need to manage their own time to create something themselves or through collaboration with others.
We were encouraged to set projects that they would complete over a term and culminate in them putting together a piece of work – a display, role play, report or model – that they could bring in and share with the class.
This kind of work fitted the prevailing orthodoxy of the time, where it was thought that work should be highly individualised to meet the needs of each learner.
This included setting work that took into account a student’s preferred learning style so a homework project might include an option for the kinesthetic learners to make a model, the visual learners to create a poster and the auditory learners to… well, write a song about it usually (never a popular option it has to be said).
It was also supported by the notion that pupils would learn best by discovering things for themselves. We were encouraged to set work that wasn’t based on consolidating what they had done in class but on things they would learn for themselves either from researching online or based on their own experiences.
One example of this project-based homework occurred during a unit looking at tectonic hazards. Their homework was to produce something that contrasted different types of volcanoes and their associated hazards. They needed to research different eruptions and then use this to create a display, write a report or produce a model of the different volcanoes.
A few pieces of work were very good. Some pupils produced detailed reports that showed a lot of understanding of how hazards vary in different eruptions using a range of case studies.
These, however, were a minority. Most pieces of work relied heavily on information being copied from various websites and being badly applied as they hadn’t understood what they’d read well enough.
Out of control
Then The Great British Bake Off happened and class after class decided to take the option of making model volcanoes from cake. Some were low splats of chocolate, apparently showing shield volcanoes, and others attempted to show more of a conical shape for composite volcanoes, but this is about as far as the geography went.
My room quickly filled up with vaguely volcanic looking cakes and a smell of cocoa that lingered for weeks. Project-based homework went away that day.
The problem was that they simply didn’t yet know enough about the subject to work independently. They didn’t understand enough about how geographers work and how they think about the world. All their work really showed me was which pupils had the greatest level of support at home, whether financial or parental, to help them produce their work.
It also meant that some pupils spent hours and hours on their projects, desperately trying to meet a brief that was beyond them, whereas others left it to the last minute and produced the minimum to avoid a consequence.
So now we don’t use project-based homework. Instead, pupils use their time to reflect on what they have learnt and produce smaller and more focused pieces of work based on things they have actually been taught. This has led to happier, more knowledgeable, pupils and a classroom that is no longer decorated in cake crumbs.