Last month I wrote about the schools in the RSA’s Opening Minds Curriculum who dump school subjects – and the rigid timetabling that goes with them – and engage learners with as much real-world, project-, and enquiry-based learning as possible. The feedback in the Twitterverse was significant, but mostly of a “it would be nice if we could, but…” nature. And most of the “buts” have a direct requirement on leadership to lead, show direction, and help colleagues understand how they can put what they feel is right into working practice.
Cap Lee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (U.S.), believes that as a leadership strategy, out with subjects and in with something else is the “correct” direction we should be taking:
“Be it blending the subjects or dumping the subjects, the direction is
correct. We don’t go to work and just do one subject. We blend them.
Why wouldn’t we do the same in school if we wanted to make learning
real. And then proficiencies woul guide the students pathway to
“Nay sayers would say it’s about making school play time, in realty we
are making school real, for the first time ever.”
But even where such moves have happened, with some success, there is currently a lack of confidence by some in such project-based work adding value to learners’ lives. On the U.S. West Coast, some educators lament that their efforts to engage students are being pulled back by a desire to return to “the old ways” of learning and teaching:
“Frustrated to already be doing this, but hearing calls to backtrack…”
Meanwhile, over the Pond in the U.K., Nazia Kausar believes that it’s not just a case of beginning to better engage learners in secondary that’s a stake, but protecting and improving upon the often rocky period of transition from primary (elementary) into high school:
But it was a comment from colleagues in the North of England that pushed me to write a second post, over on my own blog, about how they have indeed achieved a project-based, enquiry-led environment:
At Cramlington Learning Village, near Newcastle in the UK, Mark Lovatt and his team have worked with the Learning Futures project to develop new curriculum, pedagogy, professional development and leadership capacity, and are seeing the “Brave New World” many leaders dream about as a reality in their school, every week:
A unique and undervalued research project based in the U.K., with
partners in the U.S. (including High Tech High), is discovering, analysing
and sharing those elements through its regular pamphlets, blog and,
above all, grounded practice across nearly 50 schools.
It’s our job to help scale this ambition to other schools around the world.
Learning Futures’ The Engaging School: principles and practices has some choice quotes amongst the practical steps school leaders might take to begin turning this apparent tide of disengagement. I’ve since written about what I picked out of the report as its top leadership points, research that can inform actions that will help leaders empower and support staff in the development of what feels for many, at the moment, an impossible pipe dream.
The irony, for commentators like Alfie Kohn, is that invariably, “when interest appears, achievement usually follows” (2000, p. 128).
It is almost as though we have accepted the inevitability of learning as a cold shower: you’re not expected to enjoy it, but it will do you good.
We have recently seen a large number of students becoming disengaged achievers, performing well academically, keeping out of trouble, but rejecting further and higher education.
A second problem with the traditional model of engagement stems from its
predominantly instrumental applications: engagement as a vehicle to
improve student performance or discipline within school. Inevitably,
such a mindset constrains success indicators within a compliance model.
Students are deemed to be engaged, for example, when/if they:
• attend regularly
• conform to behavioural norms
• complete work in the manner requested and on time
• are ‘on-task’
• respond to questioning
If we have greater aspirations for students—beyond compliance and toward
a commitment to lifelong learning—then the conventional concept of engagement is inadequate.
While project-based learning and activities that go beyond school can be
liberating for staff and students, it is important that activities
incorporate a sense of bounded freedom—that students
are given a clear set of guidelines, procedures or protocols within
which they can make choices. As one Year 9 student put it: “I’d like to
have a little bit more of a say, but…I think you need the teacher
there to sort of guide you.”
Students are absorbed in their activity: anyone witnessing a young person playing, say, on-line role playing games will know what this looks like. It is rare, however, to
see such depth of absorption in school-based work. Munns and colleagues
(2006) at the University of Western Sydney (2006) have quantified the difference as being in-task, not just on-task.
Other indicators of high absorption would be students wishing to
continue beyond the end of a lesson, or not even noticing the lesson had
ended—what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has described as being in ‘‘flow’’.