When nothing is concrete: planning for uncertainty

Maths teacher Jeremy Judge and I are currently 4 weeks into our new authentic learning project.  As mentioned in my previous post, our primary goal was to hit the ‘top’ of our authentic learning hierarchy and plan a project which is a real problem that students can meaningfully help to solve, making a difference to the world.

The problem? We have no problem!

Around June we set about looking for the perfect project opportunity but, acutely aware that we couldn’t force it, nothing quite right surfaced.  When Jeremy and I were about to  part ways for the summer holiday (him to South America and me pottering around the UK), we were both anxious about the looming reality that we might have set our sights too high. And then, on the Jubilee Line, somewhere between Stratford and Southwark, (with thanks to the Evening Standard) the ideal opportunity was right in front of me:


Problem solved?

Right on our doorstep, in the Olympic Park, the LLDC are proposing to build 3 concrete factories and one asphalt factory. Right now! Some light digging by Jeremy led us to a group of local residents fighting the plans, the Olympic Park Coalition for Responsible Development (OPCRD) and we contacted three of their team to see if there was anything we could do for them.

The meeting that followed was a brilliant mix of exciting and terrifying.  Here was a group of motivated people at the start of a live and very challenging fight. Here was a campaign reliant on knowledge that they didn’t yet have. Here was a vast problem yet to be solved. Here was a team with the very real question of how to stop the LLDC going ahead with the building of the concrete factories.

Their enthusiasm for commissioning the student group to work on part of this problem for them got things off the ground and we talked through the areas that they currently needed evidence for but didn’t have. The trio talked passionately about the very topical issue of air pollution and how this could be a significant factor in whether the plans get the go-ahead or not. This became our problem, and the OPCRD tasked us to produce a report as part of their pack of evidence that illustrates the impact of the proposed factories on air pollution in the area. We left that meeting with a wealth of enthusiasm and the guiding inquiry can our Maths help Stratford decide if concrete factories are too dirty?

Planning for uncertainty

The question that remains now, 4 weeks in, is how we plan for a problem that we as yet have no clear idea how to solve.  What do you do when a project is so authentic that you don’t know what the content of the outcome will be before you begin? You start with the things you do know: we know we need to write a report, and we know that at some point the LLDC will call a planning meeting where the report will be used; we know we need to find out how much impact the proposed factories will have on Stratford’s air and we know that we can use algebra to do this; we also know that our students can’t yet use algebra to mathematically model (a pre-requisite of the report) and have never written, or read, an environmental impact report.

This truly authentic project management schedule, with inflexible deadlines but no clear solutions (yet!) flies against the teacher’s reliance on being carefully planned in the short, medium and long term. The shifting goalposts of the LLDC’s moving meetings, and the prospect of dead ends in the problems solving are uncontrollable variables that we just have to work around. Our solution? Be completely up front about these threats with the students.  We are very much in this together – after all, sixteen minds are way better than two – and it is very much our project.

img_3150Back to this week, and we shared our progress so far in a client meeting with the OPCRD’s James Durrant. He spoke for 50 minutes and our students listened, engaged and focused, to every word.  They asked probing, thoughtful questions, and built a strong mental map of what we know and need to know. They were professional, inquisitive and serious.

They are driven, not demotivated, by the uncertainty ahead.  They know the risks, the threat of failure and the very real impact on their community and their lives that the factories could have.  But they also know that they could be a cog in the dissenting wheel against the LLDC’s might; they could change the face of Stratford forever.  Now we just need to work out how.

Not PBL, but authentic learning

When the EEF released their report on the Innovation Unit‘s PBL trials earlier this month, Twitter lit up with the loud anti-PBL brigade’s gleeful celebration of the ‘proof’ they have been waiting for. PBL doesn’t work.

As I sifted through hundreds of angry, righteous and indignant tweets, I felt sad. And as I sit here, trying to eloquently explain why I felt sad, on what basis I’d challenge the arguments, the research, the response and what I’d promote in their place, I realise that this is relatively irrelevant. For a load of reasons, that it would be relatively irrelevant to go into.

So instead, I’m going to blog about my current project: my next step in ‘PBL’, or as I’d rather call it ‘authentic learning’, and the developments in my craft as I take the biggest leap into the unknown of literacy education that I have attempted to date. This blog will reflect on our thinking, planning and processes as they happen. Here we go…

Chasing authenticity 

Over my past 3 years’ explorations with authentic learning and reflection, I’ve stumbled into the belief that authenticity is the key driving factor behind a great project. At School21, we rest on the phrase ‘today matters’ to summarise this; school shouldn’t be a holding pen for a child while they wait for the future. It is the now, the present, and it should be embraced and used accordingly. So why then shouldn’t a 13 year old be working on things that change the world around them, that leave a permanent mark and that alter the environment forever?

As an English teacher, I’ve become somewhat fixated in the past 4 years by the idea of using writing (in particular non-fiction writing) only for authentic purposes and investing time in pursuing genuine authentic needs for student writing to plan learning around. My early, clumsy-ish efforts at authentic learning led to a first draft of this idea – the ‘Words for Wildlife’ project which I created with science teacher Pippa Sadgrove and fourteen year 7s. Fast forward 9 months, and I met maths teacher Jeremy Judge, who was keen to co-create a project with one proviso; it has to solve a real world problem, using maths, authentically. Perfect.

We spent around 4 months scoping out problems waiting to be solved, talking to people from a variety of industries and having (sometimes slightly fraught) meetings bashing around ideas. We were stuck in a cycle of getting excited about an idea and then finding it being undermined by its lack of authenticity; either it had already been solved, it didn’t really need to be solved, or it didn’t need to be solved using maths/English. And then we came to a moment of clarity on our understanding of authenticity in learning whist talking to an app designer from Salesforce about a possible collaboration. Authenticity in schools it would seem broadly falls into 3 categories:

1) An artificial problem that experts in the field would not solve (example: using algebra to plan what you would buy in a supermarket).

2) A real problem, but one that experts have already solved well enough (example: using algebra to predict how well a product will sell in the future).

3) A real problem that students can meaningfully help to solve, making a difference to the world (example: using algebra to ???).

If we can hit the third of these categories, we can use our literacy, numeracy, oracy, collaboration, critique (the list goes on) for genuine, real world output. The drive generated by the risk for teachers and students pushes real grit and motivation, the genuine need to unite, both with each other and with external agencies and experts, drives collaboration and the spark required for flexible, mistake-guided genuine problem solving is huge. And above all, students genuinely need control of literacy and numeracy to be successful. Suddenly, the stakes are raised for learning these basics.

Suddenly, we have a project…