St Peter’s College – a co-educational independent school in Sandton, Johannesburg – decided five years ago to implement project-based learning. The school, which has a diverse student population drawn from over 25 different feeder schools, has no entrance examination.
We noticed that the basic skill of reading with comprehension posed a challenge to most of our students and that the number of children struggling with anxiety, stress and over-scheduling had increased. The idea of school as a place of discovery and joy seemed to fade away as students and parents had a laser focus on performance and marks. We figured that there had to be a better, kinder and more joyous way to learn.
We began looking for a strategy or programme that would address both the academic skills that we felt were lacking and the attitude to learning and assessment. We experimented with ‘Project Days’ and two learning programmes – STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics).
While these approaches had merit, the biggest drawback was that they were introduced for only a few days or for just one period per fortnight so there was no sustained intervention that allowed the students to develop and practise their skills.
Then we heard that the Project for the Establishment of Primary and Pre-Primary Schools (PEPPS) in Polokwane had embarked on implementing a separate project based learning (PBL) programme within the school day. We promptly invited ourselves for a visit to see for ourselves. It was a revelation to see how, with minimal resources and a bit of creativity, the teachers had expanded their offering to the students. We will be forever grateful for the help, and for the push we got from Annabel Roberts and PEPPS to consider PBL.
Project based learning comes to St Peter’s
The project-based approach makes use of a real-world problem or question that students tackle with teachers acting as facilitators through the process. The exposure to a ‘real world’ problem is thus used as the starting point. Students construct knowledge by creatively and critically solving the problem with which they have been presented. This process of construction and problem-solving is scaffolded.
Students are encouraged to learn through trial and error to reach a final product or solution. However, the finding of a solution is not the primary focus of PBL; it is the development along the way that is the most critical goal. PBL contrasts with teacher-directed projects, even those with open ended questions, where the end-product is assessed and the process followed to reach that endpoint remains largely hidden. This shift in understanding and approach was an important foundation for the implementation of the PBL programme.
The introduction of PBL has laid the foundation and the capacity to develop and introduce other innovative approaches.
Dealing with knock-on effects
We were excited that we had a well-documented approach. Having researched and tried out projects on a small scale we were ready to implement PBL in January 2018. This was no small adjustment. We had to be creative with the timetable, as we needed to create an additional one lesson per day, which had a knock-on effect when it came to planning all other lessons.
Our plan was that projects would last for approximately 14-16 days, facilitated by a subject specialist. Students could elect to work individually or in groups. After the 14-16-day cycle, they were free to choose new topics.
Most importantly, we separated the PBL programme from our normal assessment programme in the hope that we would create a risk-free environment. Instead, parents would receive feedback after each project in the form of an e-mailed comment.
The structure of the delivery was only a small component of the planning: we also needed to introduce the PBL teaching approach to our teachers. This was done as part of our ongoing professional development. The material developed by PBL Works and Suzie Boss and John Lamer was invaluable to this process. We brought in outside trainers to develop our facilitation skills.
Nobody was limited to their subject syllabus, and there were no constraints on the topics they could design. The teachers were provided with a design template and days were set aside during the examination period for each one to develop their project design. Although this was an extra demand on teachers at one of the busiest times of the year, the response and creativity of the teachers was phenomenal.
By the end of 2018, we had a bank of approximately 50 projects from which students could choose. The topics included puppetry, car magazine journalism, social activism, micro farming, coding, and cooking, to name just a few.
Learning as we went
Paralleled with this, we embarked on a process of informing our new and existing parents about PBL and the welldocumented advantages of the methodology, as well as the impact on our curriculum and timetabling structure. To our surprise the response was overwhelmingly positive.
At this stage, we were rearing to go and full of optimism for the process. However, there is always a chasm between an idea, even a brilliant one, and the implementation of that idea.
During our first year of full implementation in 2019, we were confronted with more failures than uplifting stories of success. These challenges overlapped and intertwined, since a disruption in one area will always have an impact on other unrelated areas of a school’s system, but we did not yet fully understand the gravity or complexity of this fact.
Managing the time and space to do the projects was tricky. In a busy school, where physical room and staffing are at a premium, finding teachers who had multiple ‘free’ periods on their timetables became a primary criterion. The average size of each pupil group meant that students were spread over multiple venues, which was difficult to manage effectively with the available staff, creating conflict with the school’s existing discipline structures.
The pressure on venue and teacher availability meant students did not always get the time and attention that they needed to progress properly, even if they were fully engaged with their project. This pressure on time and resources in the PBL class meant that teachers did not have the best environment in which to hone their facilitation skills. While they saw the value of this skill, they often opted to remain behind a desk and just let the students ‘get on with it’, usually quietly, which is contrary to the PBL approach.
Time to give students – and teachers – clear guidelines
We realised that we had to move to a more student focused approach, which meant that control of the choice of project and the direction a project took shifted to the student. On paper this sounds like a wonderful idea, but, to our astonishment, we found it difficult to initiate the concept with the students. While we had spent much time informing the parents about the thinking and research around PBL, we had not extended the same effort to informing our students.
We had incorrectly assumed that allowing students choice and some freedom in approach would be enough to excite them and get them on board with the process. Our students have been raised in a ‘traditional’ educational system so they are familiar with the rules and norms expected of them, even if they do not like them. With the new approach, what we experienced was insecurity and sometimes anxiety in our students, whereas the actual goal had been to give everyone a break from the stresses of a normal class!
Furthermore, it became apparent as the project unfolded that initially the students did not have skills – such as timemanagement, digital competency, project management, collaboration, and self-correction – to engage fully with the projects. In cases where the gap in skills was too wide to tackle a project, students quickly lost interest, feigned busyness and ‘played the system’.
In discussion it was clear that teachers understood the value of a different approach, since they had initially highlighted the problems of student’s comprehension skills, application of knowledge and anxiety, which had ultimately led to the adoption of the PBL programme. However, when it came to actually implementing the new teaching methodology, a new inherent threat announced itself. We had forgotten that when a new approach is introduced, it is often accompanied by the implication that the ‘old’ methodology is incorrect or faulty.
Teachers were rattled. Those who had built a career over decades thought they were expected to throw out all that they had learnt, or they felt a sense of reduced value because of this ‘new kid on the block’. This was true even of teachers who did not teach PBL. However, such discomfort can be considered a normal response to change. We had tried to reduce the impact of the change by separating PBL from the standard academic programme: for the PBL programme we focused on skills and attitudes that we felt were not adequately covered in our existing academic programme.
However, nothing in a school is ever isolated, and the proponents of PBL were exposed to extensive, ongoing criticism by colleagues which had a negative impact on staff cohesion. We realised, once we were midway through the PBL implementation, that we needed to extend training to teachers and management who were not directly involved in the facilitation of the PBL programme. We gave this group the opportunity to experience the process of a PBL project for themselves and to gain first-hand experience of the methodology. This helped clear up some of the misinformation about what was happening in the PBL programme.
This was a critical turning point in the delivery of PBL, and in retrospect should have happened in the pilot year when the teachers who were directly involved with the PBL programme were undergoing training.
One of our major challenges was the alternative method of evaluation. The traditional way, which generates a numerical value on a piece of work, is a highly efficient mechanism that is well-understood by students and teachers alike. While moving to a criteria-referenced evaluation of submitted work is not an absence of assessment, it is generally more demanding of teachers’ thought and time. The extra administrative load entailed in generating comments, occurred out of ‘sync’ with the normal term schedule of finalising term marks.
Despite creating comprehensive rubrics and comment banks, the task was difficult for teachers to manage within the usual time constraints Furthermore, the absence of a numerical assessment system removed both the ‘carrot’ and the ‘stick’ from our students. The usually academically stronger students, who were used to receiving validation in the form of marks, simply did not understand the value of the feedback. The students whose default setting was to do the minimum realised that there was no actual consequence other than a bad comment. To them, this did not carry the same weight as a poor test result.
Taking notice of the ‘quiet wins’
In the face of all the challenges experienced it would be easy to ask if it was worth continuing. Our structural failures were loud and visible to all. But there were also quiet wins. New opportunities opened up for some students who consistently failed, and who now got to experience success at school, a rare occurrence.
There were students, for example, who found they had a talent for developing websites who then went on to develop websites outside of school. A student who was fascinated by motors built one himself. In the process he discovered that friction and heat made building things much harder than he had imagined and that perpetual motion is an impossible ideal. Students got to build and create in ways they normally would not; they got to play a bit. A typical comment from senior students was along the lines of: ‘We miss PBL. It was nice just to have fun with things. Everything is so serious now.’
We observed over the course of the year that skills like time-management and working in groups improved. We even had students articulate that while they liked their friends, working with them was not necessarily the most productive experience. These are powerful insights for14- year-olds. There were gems of growth, excitement, laughter, questioning and insight. The following quotation by Karen Reis Medwed describes our situation perfectly:
We always want to be able to try something new [as educators], but we also have to be willing to fail at it, let it go, and move onto the next thing. Because innovation without the capacity of sustainability is just another experiment.
After running PBL for about a year, we decided that there were enough positives and evidence of growth to work on improving the systems of delivery of PBL and to weather the criticism. Then COVID-19 happened, and any improvements were shelved to handle the bigger crisis. Dismayed at first, we soon realised that the small disruption of PBL implementation had provided us with important experience when it came to coping with disruption.
When we returned to school after the first lockdown in 2020, we picked-up where we had left off. PBL had showed to some extent that students’ digital competencies were lacking, but the challenges of online learning highlighted the importance of these skills. We assumed that students already had these skills because they were so involved with the digital world, but we soon realised that while they knew how to when it came to skills like typing and using the computer as a work tool. It became evident that developing skills to plug these kinds of gaps meant that the PBL programme, instead of being reduced, was extended in scope.
Success the second time around
At the start of 2021 we made significant changes to the delivery and organisation of the PBL programme based on the lessons we had learnt from our initial implementation. First, we introduced a compulsory introductory project called ‘How to do a project’.
Through the process of building kites with Grade 8 students, we taught them the principles of PBL, described the attitudes and values we were expecting, and familiarised them with protocols.
Now students could deal with group discussions, read texts, plan, journal, and most importantly, give and receive feedback. Feedback is the most time-consuming part of facilitation, but we found when we gave students the skills and language with which to give feedback, they become thoughtful and insightful critics. Protocols like ‘I like’…, ‘I think’, and ‘I wonder’ or a ‘Gallery walk’ became a crucial part of the PBL project process. This has introduced assessment in another format.
Regular peer assessment has resulted in an improved quality of final products. Feedback to the parents has been streamlined and is focused on skills covered using a three-level tick-box. Where appropriate, teachers still have the option to add a personal comment, but it is usually one sentence and is not mandatory.
The revised PBL programme was divided into various components. The digital skills component focused on the applications and skills the teachers required the students to master. In this way, PBL became a valuable extension of the academic programme. Before this revised PBL approach, teachers had to spend time in class explaining how to use a particular computer application. Now learners are coming into class with an established baseline of skills.
A further assessment innovation is that within the digital skills component there are tasks that are allocated marks, which could be used by one or more subjects outside of PBL. Assessing for marks remained a very small part of the overall assessment. The flexibility created within the PBL programme was now able to be leveraged by other parts of the academic programme.
The addition of exposing students to sport skills, gave the sports department the opportunity to introduce sports not offered by the co-curricular programme. Additionally, it gave them the opportunity to see more students for longer periods of time and to encourage physical activity. COVID-19 highlighted the importance of physical activity for overall mental health.
This time period exposed students, who might not have opted to play a sport for the school, to a physical activity. The sports component has created space for students to learn new skills like lifesaving, grid training or basic first aid. The knock-on benefit of adding this aspect to the PBL programme has been to reduce the size of the group to one third and this has helped resolve some of the venue and staffing problems experienced in the initial stages.