Blog 2 by Guest Blogger, Matthew Scott: Practical Magic

With school visits just around the corner, updates here should come thick and fast in the next month or so. To say I’m excited for these visits is something of an understatement; to see great PBL (Project Based Learning) practitioners up close and personal is, for the purposes of this project, very important, but more about later. For now, I’d like to say hello again – it’ been a while.

Not that I’ve been sat here these last few weeks idly watching summer become autumn – no – between this blog and the last I’ve mostly been in inquiry mode, working out what I need to know and how to go about getting to know it. I’ve been reading an awful lot (which, granted, did involve a lot of sitting down, not a small amount of lying down, and at least one wistful glance out of the window at the changing seasons), as well as chatting with people on both sides of the Atlantic about this project. It has been important time and it has led to a tentative formulation of my essential question. Drum roll please:

“Can PBL be successfully implemented in a traditional school setting?”

To me, this feels like the right and proper question to be asking. The reason for this is that for all the passion and idealism involved when tackling education and learning, I want to keep a certain pragmatic edge to my inquiries. Why? Let me explain.

The phrase ‘real world application’ often comes up in the literature and discussions about PBL and the first part of the that phrase, ‘real world’ is one that can often find itself lost in pedagogical debate. When I say ‘real world’ I do not mean that to be dismissive; the world of those practitioners who are already making a great success of PBL is just as real as mine and the freedoms they have fought for were not given to them – courage, conviction and vision played the greatest part in allowing for such innovation – but there is a wider reality, certainly where I am from, where the majority of teachers might not be able to see how genuine PBL is even a possibility under the system currently in place. Still, in my experience, new, exciting, innovative ways of reaching learners are the very thing most of these teachers would be extremely interested in doing, even in their real world.

The problem is the ‘how’ of the matter, not the ‘if’. Teachers when presented with something that is genuinely proven to work may not even consider the ‘if’ – great, it works, let’s do it – but what they do have to consider is the ‘how?’ How given my particular school’s culture do I achieve this? How can I find space for this when my prescribed curriculum is so content heavy I barely have the time to get through the two novels I am instructed to teach this term? How do I explain this to parents? How do I prove this is of value to my senior managers?

We do not want to fall into the trap of dismissing such issues as excuses for avoiding change. That’s not who we are. These are not excuses but genuine practicalities teachers working in traditional settings have to encounter – to be dismissive of these issues helps nobody and is more likely to lead to defensive attitudes. As teachers, we want to do these great things but we also want to know how? Working together we can find the answers but only if we take the practical as well as the ideological viewpoint. Therefore I will try to take the perspective of practitioners as much as possible in these blog posts.

So which ‘hows’ does a teacher need to know in order to embark upon PBL in their classroom? In my research so far I have managed to boil it down to the following Need To Knows. Of course, I’m sure others can think of many more and I’d be interested to hear them. For now though:

–       How can we create a PBL culture in school? From timetabling to having parents on board, how can we make it happen?

–       How do we ensure our learners (and teachers for that matter) have the skills necessary to make critique and advisories work?

–       How do we help learners generate ideas for their projects?

–       How do we take learners from a mindset where they are constantly looking for the correct answer to exploring an Essential Question that may not have a correct answer at all?

And, perhaps most pressing in that real world:

–       How do I prove to people this is working?

As I have said, in my reading, in conversations with colleagues, in research online, in blogs, video presentations and some social media to-and-fro, I have already begun to chew over some possible responses to these matters but, to come back to my thoughts from the beginning of this post, an essential part of my inquiry is to see PBL in situ.

That is why I am so looking forward to my upcoming visits; because to read about PBL, to listen to people, even to see edited highlights on film, there is a certain suspension of disbelief involved. This is not cynicism, but genuine: it all sounds incredible. That’s what is so exciting about it! But right now it feels a little like magic. One moment we are introducing PBL into our classrooms and the next minute we have these self-directed, engaged, critical thinking uberstudents in our midst. What happens in between? I have to see it in action. And if it does turn out to be genuine sorcery, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime however, this project is now taking a certain type of shape:

For the next few months I’ll be reporting back from school visits and will try to provide as full a picture as possible in the snapshot I’ll be seeing.

Once the visits are over I’ll be using all this experience to tackle each of those Need To Knows in discrete blog posts of their own, drawing on all of my research including the school visits.

And hopefully there’ll be a few answers to these ‘hows’.

Until then, take care. And if you’re on Twitter, maybe say hello. I’m @mattscottedu.



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