Over the past few years, I have both completed an MA in Development Education and Global Learning and joined a school intent on teaching with a different approach. Both of these experiences encouraged me to make practical use of ‘flipped-classrooms’ and ‘Project-Based Learning (PBL)’. Though I was familiar with these techniques, the school used staff-wide CPD to support its implementation as part of a foundational approach. Having previously used PBL to introduce the student voice into my teaching, I recognised the potential of this decision to democratise and decolonise learning. Alongside this, with comprehensive support from the school, the positive impact on my workload and student outcomes has been undeniable.
I’ll never forget the rumours which went around the first school I used PBL. I had created a project for the students to ‘Become the Teacher’ and teach complete lessons, collectively delivering a Natural Hazards unit with the class as their real audience. My vision was to give the students ownership of the lessons. By teaching, they organically have the opportunity to include their voices regarding case studies and locations they were familiar with rather than the typical textbook case study. Thus giving students the opportunity to initiate their own explorations of a variety of geographical questions.
Our Head of Secondary approached me bemused, saying, ‘Shane has just told me that he is going to be the Geography teacher tomorrow and teach the class about Haiti. Did I hear that right?’.
He had heard it right and was surprised by my ecstatic response.
Shane was going to ensure that his childhood in Haiti would be included in our learning about communities impacted by natural disasters. Shane, a student who was not always engaged in his learning, was inspired to present the ‘real’ Haiti, not the Haiti from the textbook. He was excited about the project he was doing to the point where he was sharing it with others.
This is precisely the type of engagement that prevents the presentation of a single story. Learning that values the student as an engaged participant in the creation of knowledge subsequently empowers the students in a way that destabilises the norm.
What more could I want as a teacher?
Well, a lighter workload is one thing and now, at the school I work at in Germany, this secondary impact surprised me as I began using PBL more consistently.
The work-reducing concept that PBL starts with is to have the students take responsibility for learning content and skills. Engaging with the students as ‘student-teachers’ and myself as ‘teacher-student’ (as championed by Paulo Friere) to lower the lesson-by-lesson planning.
Less time teaching at Shane and the class and more time learning with them.
PBL is a front-loaded approach; with precise planning and vision at the start, the rest of the project and knowledge-creation are led by the students with little more than over-the-shoulder support. This approach allows PBL to approach learning constructively, building knowledge collectively rather than having one source or ‘correct’ answer given by the teacher.
PBL takes a lot of trust, but in hindsight, I realise that the trust I needed most was in my preparation and scaffolding skills. Ensuring that the students were prepared and supported to research effectively and have clear goals to ensure the quality of what they produce. Of course, this trust also required the patience to allow my students to make mistakes and learn how to engage with this approach effectively.
The dynamic learning opportunities presented to my students through this method shifted some of the workload while actively aligning with the OFSTED Education Inspection Framework and the requirements of many contemporary education boards and frameworks. The additional time allowed me to focus on student feedback and engagement in lessons, the core of sound pedagogy and the safety net for more challenging projects.
As a full-time secondary teacher, the value of minimising the lesson-by-lesson planning and marking slog cannot be overstated. With PBL, a key foundation is creating a clear marking rubric and success criteria to guide the student’s independent work. This success criteria replaces trying to become an expert in everything in order to desperately drive through content. Now, teachers are free to return to the part of teaching that drives them; engaging with and supporting the students as they direct their own learning through experience.
The more I can give ownership to my students and spend time guiding their discovery, away from the chalk-and-talk, the happier I am, and the more engaged my students are.
The students’ ownership through PBL decolonises the pedagogy by introducing more voices to knowledge creation. As my students gained confidence and recognised the trust that I had placed in them, they proactively began asking to teach topics, introduce ideas to the class, and ensure that things relevant to them are represented accurately. A manifestation of the confidence and comfort in the classroom generated by the trust I had demonstrated for my students.
My classroom is now a space where irrespective of what we are learning, I am confident to give time to a student who raises their hand and says, ‘My mother grew up there, and it wasn’t like that…’, ‘When I visited that country, it was actually like this…’, or ‘Why do they say this? When I speak to my friend, she says…’.
These opportunities develop critical skills such as challenging information and recognising the value of your knowledge and experiences. These skills require a foundation of trust developed through honouring the student's voice. A foundation built explicitly through PBL and passing the responsibility of knowledge creation; constructively building knowledge that acknowledges the input of diverse voices while engaging with what they say both equitably and critically. No, not everything my students introduce or challenge is accurate, but it represents a perspective or information that can enrich the learning that is taking place through critical engagement.
Supporting students in delivering a project, whether a lesson, short presentation or something more, brings their experiences and interests into the classroom as a valid source of learning. It is a wonderful starting point to decolonise their learning. As a benefit for the full-time teacher, their effort and input also replace your toiling to find worksheets and present information for them to memorise and subsequently mindlessly mark for hours.
The students’ knowledge and experiences of a country, community, or topic provide another narrative compared to what is presented in the textbook. Students see more value in their learning as owners of it and are less likely to feel marginalised by a minimalist presentation of complex topics that may be close to their hearts.
PBL helped me ensure that I approach diverse topics collectively and democratically while still meeting the requirements of the curriculum. PBL simultaneously helps me reduce my workload by loosening my grip on being responsible for all the learning in my classroom.
My pedagogy still has endless growth to experience though.
Decolonising your pedagogy and learning is an ongoing process and is by no means something that will be ‘finished’ one day or with a single change. I can happily say that over the years, my approach to teaching has continued to grow and adapt as I increase in experience and confidence, but also in response to each successive group of students I work with.
I hope more teachers will give these approaches a go to benefit their classes and their own experience.
If it may be of use to you, I have attached a basic template table with an example of how I plan my ‘Become the Teacher’ projects with my classes here.
Names of students used in examples are anonymised.
All constructive feedback is welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org or his @dsinclair17 Twitter handle. You can also find him on Medium @dsinclairwriting.
Daryl completed his PGCE at UCLIOE and has worked in both the private and public sectors in the UK, Europe, and Asia since 2011. He completed a further MA in Development Education and Global Learning, receiving a Merit and received the 2014 Jack Petchey Award for Outstanding Leader due to Outstanding Service To Young People.
As a member of the BAME community and ally to the decolonising education movements, Daryl has experiences with different realities and expressions of work cultures, bias, discrimination, and how they intersect with people’s interpretation of his ‘identity’. Daryl hopes to share his knowledge and insight to support other teachers wherever they are on their journey.