The power of project based learning (guest post)

SEMH school leader, Graham Chatterley is a regular contributor to the Axcis blog, In this post, he discusses the power or project based learning.

I do a lot of outreach and much of the time I’m asked how we get the child back into class and re-engaged in the production line that is education.

The short-term answer is, we dont’! Not straight away, anyway. There’s no magic wand or ‘Supernanny’ strategy.

Usually, the child I have been asked to support is struggling in the school environment, and it can be for a range of reasons. It’s takes a lot of time and energy to get them where you want them, and even then they are unlikely to fit in the round hole (of school), because they are a square peg.

They may be a child whose early years have left them without the experience of boundaries and social skills needed to manage being thrust into an alien environment with 30 other children, lots of rules and turn taking.

Or they may be a child who has suffered trauma and has nothing but distrust and fear driving everything they do. Meaning they literally cannot think and cannot learn.

Or they may be a child with an additional need who is consistently working harder than anyone else in the class to maintain focus but still getting in trouble for not listening.

There are many different strategies I would recommend in terms of making the child feel safe, learn trust and find belonging. However I’m fairly consistent on how I advise getting the child re-engaged in learning.

Project based learning is nothing new but if it was used more and used well then there would be far less disengaged children in classes.

We get all excited when we do something cross curricular but what’s more cross curricular than doing maths, English, science etc whilst learning through history or geography? We have so many curriculum hoops to jump through that we simply can’t devote the time to do project based learning justice. Apparently, the latest piece of genius from Tom Bennett (the government’s new tsar on behaviour) is to bring back rote learning. If this happens, I’m going to be kept very busy!

The truth is that these projects don’t have to be planned and re-engagement is achieved through relationships. I’m going to use two very different examples of how projects can achieve ridiculous amounts;

Example 1: Worm

First one was whilst doing outreach, I went out to a school where a pupil was really struggling. I was told he was isolated due to assaults on staff and other children, he wasn’t engaging in class and didn’t want to learn.

Now – not wanting to and not being able to are very different and what I saw was a child desperate to learn but who struggled.

My visit was in the afternoon. That morning, he had found a worm in the yard and his TA had put it in a box with some leaves and soil. He was supposed to be doing some maths worksheets – the same as the rest of the class – but he wasn’t engaging and kept talking about his worm. He was consistently redirected without success and was getting really agitated. I was supposed to be observing but I didn’t like the direction it was going in and I couldn’t help myself. I asked to see the worm and he was instantly back to calm. We talked a bit about where he’d found him and what he was called and what does he eat? If we didn’t know the answer to a question, we Googled the answer.

I knew he was supposed to be doing maths so I asked how long did he think he was? We did some estimates and then measured him (I’m assuming gender we never Googled that bit). We had a laugh at how wriggly he was and it was a 2 person job. I agreed to hold Wilbur (his choice) still while my 100% engaged child measured him out (sounds a lot like teamwork and communication to me). 

If this worm was double the size how long would it be? If it grows a centimetre a week, how big will it be in a month? Now tell me that child doesn’t want to learn! And he was more than happy to write things down as well.

I could have been anyone and the anxiety of seeing me at the back of the room will have been real, but the interest in the worm gazumped the fear. Just like it would have gazumped the fear of working with others or following instructions, just like it would have helped tune out the other stimulus in the room.

My guidance went like this – in order to re-engage this child, it had to start 1 to 1 with a member of staff who has energy and enthusiasm to give. When that’s working, bring in another child to help on the project, then a small group, then a small group in class. No timescales – and expect it to be 2 steps forward and one step back but over time their own interests allow them to overcome the fear and allow the staff to build trust and belonging. Then, and only then does the classroom stop being such a scary place for a child like this.

Sadly, there are children who I work with where it’s too late to re-engage with mainstream. Often, due to life experiences beyond their control they believe that they are bad and worthless. They believe they can’t change and the world would be better off without them. They spend everyday trying to prove they are bad, often self harming and talking of suicide.

Every time you praise a child like this, it goes against what they believe and they will act out to prove you wrong. ‘It is better to live in the certainty of misery, than to face the misery of uncertainty’ Virginia Satir.

It becomes easier to avoid praise altogether but you have to challenge the belief and you have to prove it wrong. It doesn’t matter how you do it or how long it takes.

Example 2: Lamp

My second example was something that presented me with such a great opportunity a few weeks ago that I just had to go with it. No planning – I just followed a path and saw where I ended up!

I was called to our primary department because this child was being aggressive. When I got there, he had stolen some keys and unlocked a side gate and taken the padlock. By the time I got to him at the front of school he had thrown the padlock over the fence into some bushes. He was still in crisis and my intention was to distract him so I said that now I had to be a detective and go check CCTV to see if I could find where he’d thrown it.

I asked if he had ever seen the camera room? He hadn’t and the thought of it gazumped what was driving his behaviours. He gave back the keys and off we went. He asked me lots of questions about the cameras and we had a spy around school. Then I could see he was sorry and suggested finding the padlock. He helped me playback footage and we had an idea where it was. He helped me look but we couldn’t find it, but we did find something else. We found a dirty, battered old lamp buried in the undergrowth (I know it sounds like the start of Aladdin but it’s not that kind of lamp). He was fascinated by it so I suggested that to make up for the lost padlock, why don’t we clean it up and paint it and make it an art project.

So off we went to tell the art teacher our plan and she went overboard with excitement – as I’d hoped she would. We set to work cleaning it up, we got the mud off and the spiders out ready for sanding down. We had to arrange time slots to work on our project, usually at the end of the day to give him something to focus on but with it never being behaviour dependent – because it’s a project not a reward and we don’t need to add extra pressure. We had to go to different staff for advice and equipment but we got it ready to paint.

We painted it and someone suggested it would look great in the art garden with flowers in. So we painted some flowers on it and went to get some flowers to put in it.

All that remained was to varnish it and ask our site supervisor to put it up. He even let us use the drill. So from the mistake of taking the keys and trying to put it right we had created something great, made a reparation and built some relationships along the way.

Now every time that child makes a mistake, they know it can be repaired and every time they say they are useless and can’t do anything the lamp can be referred to as an example of what he can do. It was also carefully positioned to ensure that he would walk past it on the way into school every day.

What a wonderful metaphor for his own life – of something being broken, unwanted and worthless being turned it into something unique, beautiful and wanted.

And being reminded of it every damn day!

If you’re looking for a SEND teaching or support job in England or Wales, why not register with Axcis, the SEND recruitment specialists? Or perhaps you need to recruit staff for your school or provision? If so, why not take a look at the Axcis Website, or get in touch today to find out how we can help?

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