The last 6 years has been a developmental curriculum journey at Victoria Academies Trust. We progressed from creating a new and innovative approach to learning within a single academy, to using the developed approach to undertake school improvement for schools in special measures. Originally designed by a team of senior and middle leaders within Victoria Park, it is now utilised by 7 Primary schools in the Trust.
Real, immersive and purposeful learning
Our curriculum approach is underpinned by John Dewey’s philosophy of learning that is grounded in experience, driven by interest and challenge. Challenging the traditional view of the student as a passive recipient of knowledge, he argued for active experiences that prepare students for ongoing learning in a dynamic world. Project-Based Learning (PBL) can lead to positive learning outcomes in the areas of content knowledge, collaborative skills, engagement and motivation, and critical thinking and problem-solving skills, particularly when focusing on learning where:
- Challenges are central, not peripheral to the curriculum
- Challenges are focused on questions or problems that ‘drive’ learning
- Students are engaged in a constructive investigation
- Challenges are real – as in realistic, not school-like, and grounded in the world around us. (Thomas, 2000); (Stepien et al., 1993).
While research on PBL has shown that it has little impact on pupil outcomes (Education Endowment Foundation , 2016), we have found that it can be effective when used alongside quality teaching of core subjects. We designed the approach to centre around three key ideas; that learning should make a difference to the real world; that learning should be immersive and experiential, and that it should be purposeful in developing skills and knowledge that can be applied to different challenges.
Mick Waters reasons that in the most effective school curriculum ‘different dimensions of real life in the twenty-first century can be incorporated within curriculum planning. Fundamentally these are overarching themes that hold significance for individuals in society. They deal with things such as enterprise and entrepreneurship. They encourage young people to be active citizens, committed to take action at a local, national and global level’ (Waters, 2013). With each part of our curriculum divided into learning challenge packs (a termly unit of cross-curricular learning), teachers are able to plan lessons based on National curriculum subjects whilst encouraging children to be active citizens.
Children are set an open-ended and purposeful challenge at the very start of their learning journey. Each challenge connects to the real world:
‘How can we bring the countryside to our city school?’
‘How can we design a product that solves a problem?’
‘How can we celebrate our diverse community?
Children are asked to undertake the design of an outcome for a real audience, with a real purpose.
Immersion is about capturing children’s interests and finding the ‘zones of relevance’ in their imagination; finding the crossover between what teachers need to teach and what children want to learn about. A trip or visit at the start of the challenge allows students to gain first-hand knowledge, experience and understanding of content. An experience may also serve as a model for the kind of event, product or service that they might create, in order to help them see an example in the real world of what they are driving their learning towards. By giving children a sense of the world beyond school, we are finding different things that spark their interest and expand their realms of relevance. This stems into discussions that develop ideas that can be applied to their learning challenge outcome. Immersion is key, particularly for children who may have limited life experiences to draw upon. By immersing them in the world of their challenge, we are giving them experiences to stimulate learning.
Moreover, thisconnects to the real and purposeful aspects of the curriculum by stimulating planning and decision-making by children and teachers. What will they need to learn, know, and be able to do in order to achieve their learning challenge?
How can we ensure that children stay focused on purposeful tasks when working through their overall challenge? Belle Wallace’s TASC wheel is useful here (Wallace et al., 2012). By ‘Thinking Actively in a Social Context’ (TASC), children are able to undertake a self-explanatory, collaborative, idea-sharing and developmental approach to their learning. Wallace outlines her experiences in designing this approach, citing that, ‘when learners are truly involved in constructing knowledge for themselves, their motivation is high and both individual and group effort is sustained’ (Wallace et al., 2012). By using the TASC wheel to help children through their learning challenge, working as a facilitator, it allows pupils to focus on what they are trying to achieve within the challenge process. Although this helps drive the overall approach to learning, we do add an essential step to this – ‘what do we need to learn about / be able to do in order to achieve our challenge?’ Teachers work at this stage in a more traditional sense to plan the key knowledge and understanding that children need to learn, ensuring that there is clear subject based learning. Zoe Elder (Elder, 2012), concurs that, ‘when we know why we are doing something, we value it, connect it to other aspects of our lives and engage with it on an individual level. When we practice a skill, we need to know how it fits into the bigger picture of our lives. Learning opportunities must make these links explicit and be designed around real-life situations and / or linked to the bigger picture of why learning particular subject is important’.
So, does it work?
When visiting one of our schools, The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services... More stated that‘the rich and varied curriculum is key to the effectiveness of the whole school. School leaders have introduced an exciting curriculum designed to meet the needs of the pupils by ensuring activities are purposeful and based on their interests. Pupils understand not only what they are learning but why. Termly cross-curricular ‘challenges’ ensure coverage of the national curriculum but also recognise additional aspects of learning, such as enterprise skills and creativity… The quality of the curriculum has a positive impact on levels of pupil engagement, developing resilience, self-reflection and reasoning skills as well as raising the level of pupils’ outcomes.’
Originally, this approach was designed in an Outstanding setting. But we have found that it is a powerful tool for engaging learners even in more challenging circumstances. When making a difference through their learning challenges, we have found that children care more, try harder, and have more ownership. They talk about their learning with passion and purpose. They understand why they need to learn so that they can achieve their challenge, that they have co-created and this has come out resoundingly through all pupil voice and feedback conducted.