I don't read many educational books, I find it off-putting reading the dry thoughts of an academic who hasn't entered a classroom since 1987. For me most of these books are constructed in the châteaux and not the trenches of the modern class and so are simply coffee table books.
So it was with great scorn and derision that I accepted a copy of Ron Berger's Ethic of Excellence. The only reason I accepted it was because my friend who offered it read even less academic literature than me. I took it home and began to read, and 6 hours later I was still reading. I hate to say this, because it is over-dramatic, but the book smashed up the way I looked at teaching and learning in history. No, this is an understatement, it was more like the revelation at the end of the Usual Suspects: I felt elated, angry and inspired all at once.
Berger's book promotes project-based learning, a school of thought which sets extended projects encouraging pupils to take pride in their work through multiple drafts.
The crux for me was the idea of the authentic audience. Berger states that any project must have an audience whose opinion matters on the topic. In his book for tech projects he invited in designers and architects to pass judgement and offer advice to the students. This made perfect sense to me – why do we presume students are interested in our opinions on their work? I sometimes catch a look of myself in school and see an overweight history teacher in a cheap suit (my wife's words not mine, my suit is very nice). But placing an authentic audience at the heart of students' work can have a massive impact on their performance.
The first project I ran was a World War Two art project based on the images of Frank Cappa and art of Béatrice Coron. Students had to select significant events of the conflict, explain them and demonstrate them through art. To provide an authentic audience I arranged to have them showcased at a local art gallery and as part of the upcoming Northern Learning Festival. The inclusion of an authentic audience helped motivate students to take pride in their work and prepare, research and develop their historical skills more than before. My mantra throughout was 'Do you want your name and photo next to a bad piece of work?' or words to that effect!
The finished products were astounding! And we received a nice email from Béatrice Coron thanking us for using her ideas in the classroom.
For me project-based learning is the way forward. By setting a task and providing the students with the tools to complete it you can allow all to make progress and be empowered by their autonomy. The pace of work is set by the student and they measure their progress. Many schools are taking on board the power of project-based learning and fully incorporating it into their curriculum. If you look at the line up of most Teachmeets, some of the countries most progressive schools and teachers are advocating the merits of the system.
I do not hold project-based learning as a panacea for all the ills in the modern classroom; many children did not produce excellent work. However, these children were a minority, with the vast majority engaging fully in the spirit of the task. As for me, my classroom became a tip of card, medieval shields, battle plans and models of the Titanic, but every day I am excited to see what they produce and that fires me as a teacher, and that cannot be a bad thing.