CREDIT: This story was first seen in the Guardian
‘New core curriculum for basic education emphasises the joy of learning,’ reads a recent headline on a government education website. This new, more joyful curriculum, it says, is based on “positive emotional experiences, collaborative working and creative activity”, the Guardian reports.
It is, of course, the Finnish Board of Education’s website. Finland has given its schools a new curriculum with a reduced subject content and is encouraging them to teach to “competences” through project-based learning. In England, the Department for Education’s initiatives on standards tend to focus on league tables and school structures – such as more grammar schools.
For years Finland came top of international tables in literacy and numeracy, but it has been slipping in recent years. A comparative study published in December showed Finland 12th in the international league for maths, behind the Netherlands and Canada, among others.
The response, in a country that has long had a reputation for training high-status teachers and then trusting them to provide high-quality child-centred learning, has been to encourage a more radical, more multidisciplinary approach.
Could it happen in the UK? The short answer, of course, is no. The very notion of project-based learning tends to enrage the political right – Finland’s reforms have been characterised in Britain as the ditching of traditional subjects. And a recent small-scale study that struggled to find positive results from the method led to a minor Twitter-storm, with the schools minister, Nick Gibb, and other senior Conservatives weighing in to highlight the news.
And yet, quietly, dozens of schools in England are implementing a system that has many similarities to the one being introduced in Finland. Joy seems to be a major element.
Take the XP school in Doncaster, South Yorkshire. Set on an industrial estate next to a Tesco distribution centre and behind a forbidding security fence, this three-year-old free school doesn’t look like a place designed to focus on positive emotional experiences. But its co-founder and CEO, Gwyn ap Harri, confesses to having regular wobbly moments.
“We cry a lot,” he says. “And we aren’t hippies – we’re punks! We’re from Yorkshire. But we see stuff that…stuff we haven’t seen before. When you see kids leading a prospective parents’ evening after six weeks, with no teachers, and they talk so eloquently about the school and how it works…it’s just incredible. Parents come in saying: ‘I can’t believe what’s happening to my kids – they’re growing up in front of my eyes’.”
The school was inspired by visits to High Tech High in San Diego, California, which has been working on a similar system for many years, and has elements of a programme called “expeditionary learning”. It’s very different from most UK schools. They don’t like to use the terms “traditional” or “progressive” here, but there are no uniforms; we count four pupils in Superman shirts.
Although all the main subjects are covered, only Spanish is taught as a separate lesson. Everything else is taught through “expeditions”, or projects, always with some external involvement. This term pupils will be working on a design brief from English Heritage to make posters for its education room at the nearby Conisbrough Castle.
In a year 7 classroom today, Jack and Emilly are working together on a book based partly on interviews with former miners, a project on Doncaster’s mining heritage. It’s opened up personal, as well as educational, journeys. “Especially with my grandad being a miner,” Jack says. “Until we started doing this expedition he’s never said much about it, but now I’ve asked him questions. I didn’t know about the strike.”
Emotion seems key to what’s happening here – asked to talk about their school, Jack and Emilly are effusive: “If I went to a school that was normal, I would get the feeling when I walked in that it was like a school … but here I don’t get the feeling it’s a school,” says Emilly. “I think it’s like a house,” Jack adds. Emilly nods: “The students and teachers are really close – like our second family.”
The school hasn’t had a full Ofsted inspection yet but it has had five HMI visits and is expecting one any day. The indications are that it will do well – everything the children do here is mapped against national curriculum goals and progress is carefully charted against national norms.
But it isn’t easy, Ap Harri confesses. “People ask: ‘Why isn’t everybody doing it?” he says. “I say it’s obvious. It’s really hard, it’s complex, it’s scary. You’ve got to put your professional life on the line. But we’re prepared to do that.”
At XP, they say they’ve had to work harder than others just to convince officialdom that their approach is sufficiently rigorous to justify funding: “In order to talk about our post-16 provision, I produced a 155-page document for the DfE,” Ap Harri says. “You have to do more than other people.”
Those who support the development of project-based learning on a national level say there are major problems with its implementation in a system that focuses on standardised assessments and inspections.
Gwyn ap Harri, the school’s CEO, keeps careful records to demonstrate that pupils are making progress despite the unconventional curriculum. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/i-images
David Price, a senior associate with the Innovation Unit, a social enterprise working with schools to encourage different styles, says many UK schools struggle with project-based approaches.
However, Ofsted does not have a view on project-based learning and has rated another project-based school, School 21 in London, as outstanding. But Price believes when the pressure is on, heads tend to retreat to traditional structures. “Innovation is being driven out of the system by fear of what it might mean when it comes to Ofsted,” he says.
The trial that recently excited negative comment suffered because a large number of participant schools dropped out during the process, he says. “What’s coming from schools is they think when they are being pressured by Ofsted and have to get exam results up, they do spend huge proportions of time concentrating on literacy and numeracy.”
In English government circles there is deep scepticism. Sam Freedman, executive director of programmes at Teach First and a former senior adviser to Michael Gove, says the evidence for project-based learning is weak, particularly for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. “This is not to say it can’t work, or that some schools aren’t using it effectively,” he says. “But I would advise any school considering building a curriculum around project-based learning to tread cautiously and read the available studies.”
Despite queasiness in some quarters about a possible retreat into 1960s liberalism, Ap Harri has no doubts: “You show me a school that plans its curriculum in a more rigorous way,” he says. “I won’t believe you until I see it. There’s a lot of stuff in education saying you can have an engaging curriculum or you can have a rigorous curriculum. You can do both.”