Project Based Learning (PBL) is increasingly seen by schools as a way to equip students with the skills they will need as adults. Its introduction into the school curriculum timetable can be a serious challenge, however: classes need to be longer, and team teaching is desirable as are team planning sessions. It quickly becomes complicated to retain a traditional approach for some subjects while meeting the requirements of PBL for others.
Scheduling can be easy for schools which embrace PBL entirely. For example High Tech High schools in California, USA have a simple timetable consisting of three 100 minute sessions and one 75 minute session. Maths, Science and Technology are taught together as are English and Humanities. It is left to the teachers to decide how to manage these blocks of time in terms of student groupings and content delivery. By contrast, in the UK there is a requirement to deliver an extensive National Curriculum, including subjects like Physical Education (PE) and Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE), combined with the GSCE examination system which measures ability in discrete subjects. This means that many schools restrict the number of subjects taught thematically through PBL and limit delivery to specific year groups. Often this is Humanities, Art, Design and Science, only in Key Stage 3.
Ideas for scheduling
For the past year we have been observing and working with schools in England that have introduced PBL into their curriculum. Here are some of the problems we have encountered and their solutions :
Many schools choose to establish a thematic framework for PBL, grouping subjects from different departments. Wapping High School combines Humanities, Art and Design. School21 has found that Science, Art and Drama have produced interesting results. To achieve this teachers from the different departments are scheduled at the same time with the same group, usually, all or half a year group. It is then up to the PBL team to decide how to structure their session in terms of time, student grouping and team teaching.
Physical space can be a barrier to this approach. Teachers who are restricted to working in classrooms for 30 students may find it hard think about and plan for a larger group. Creative use of space and collaborative planning time can both help overcome these barriers. They are discussed further below.
Tight teaching teams
Homewood School and Sixth Form experimented with team teaching, and grouping subjects, but found they got a better result by applying the PBL approach to individual subjects. For any module all departments follow the same theme helping to establish links between the different subjects. To be successful Homewood have recognised the need for tight teaching teams in which students see as few different teachers as possible, enabling the teachers to really get to know their students and be able to collaborate effectively together. We’ve been working with Homewood to minimise the number of different teachers working with each form group or set. It has also been useful to band the form groups and minimise the allocation of different teachers within each band.
How many hours per week
Most schools follow government guidelines in determining the number of teaching hours allocated for each subject. For example Maths and English usually occupy 3 - 4 hours per week whereas Music might only be given 1 hour. When scheduling PBL schools generally pool the allocations from the participating subjects. Some schools, like Wapping High School, found that they needed to give additional time to ensure that there was sufficient opportunity for students to become immersed in their projects. This was achieved through that school’s extended day. Sometimes schools decide to incorporate a subject within PBL sessions which is also being taught separately. Art is a good example of this, as the final product of many PBL projects has a visual component. Schools may find that once PBL is embedded students get sufficient opportunity to study a wider range of subjects than initially planned. It might then be possible to reduce the number of standalone classes.
Core subjects such as English, Maths and Science are generally allocated several hours per week. This provides the flexibility to reallocate some of their hours to a PBL session. For example one hour each of Maths and Science could be combined with Art and Design to give a STEAM PBL block.
In order to successfully respond to an investigation into a complex question, problem, or challenge, a specific set of skills and knowledge will be required, e.g. technical writing, data analysis or scientific interpretation. Traditionally, these skills have been taught within discrete subjects areas such as English, Maths and Science. When designing the curriculum model it may be desirable to designate certain sessions for specific skills acquisition, linked to the current PBL activity. These sessions might be directed to the whole group or a subset with a particular need. Sessions like these provide an opportunity to deliver content in a variety of different ways from didactic teaching, group workshops, seminars or even guest lectures.
Whole school participation
Many schools are reluctant to continue PBL into KS4 given the need to prepare for GCSEs. To enable the whole school to benefit from PBL schools such as Wapping High School and Causeway School run REAL project weeks, supported by The Innovation Unit. For one week, once or twice per year, the usual timetable is set aside and students from across the year groups spend the whole week working on a project, culminating in an exhibition for parents and community.
As with any project run by any industry, collaborative planning time is crucial to ensure that everyone remains on target and working toward the same goal. This is no different for a teaching environment and is particularly important where team-teaching is taking place. Timetablers need to facilitate weekly Planning, Preparation and Assessment (PPA) time for the PBL team as a whole.
PBL works best when students are actively directing their own learning. The activities students participate in might be as diverse as individually working on a piece of written research, to preparing an art installation in a team. Separating up the group into classes of 30 all in different classrooms will limit the interactivity and collaboration of the group as a whole and restrict access to the range of teaching expertise potentially available. When timetabling for PBL it is important to think about the types of different spaces which might be useful, big and small. Although teaching traditionally takes place in classrooms there is no reason why learning can’t happen anywhere, from corridors and dining halls to the playground - making good use of otherwise dormant space.
(Note about referenced schools: We are currently engaged in consultancy work with Homewood School but the information about all of the other schools mentioned comes from their websites or public sources.)
Out goal is to help schools who are seeking to implement more creative and flexible curriculum models for personalised and self-directed learning. If your school would like to be involved, or needs support please contact us.