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.
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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…

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Jess Hughes

English teacher and coach at School21 in Stratford, East London. Interested in authentic learning, CPD, literacy and culture. @jess_k_hughes

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