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Redesigning Classrooms, Redesigning Schools

Redesigning Classrooms: Project Based Learning Not PBL Lite

I have a lot of recent experience of redesigning classrooms and I mean that quite literally.  We are approaching the end of a BSF programme that has seen substantial new build and extensive remodelling of the whole school.  We moved into the completed first phase in April 2012.

View one of the new Learning Houses and the larger teaching/social space within it

A computerised graphic of the school can be found here, it’s amazingly true to life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYi5K-vp32I

Due to the hugely inclusive approach of the Blackpool Transforming Education Team we were involved in discussions about the design of the school and helped make key decisions about the new buildings.  This is in stark contrast to many colleagues I’ve chatted to across the country.  The whole experience was about transforming education and not just the buildings.  The process challenged us as a school and me as the headteacher to question why we did many of the things we did.  Our vision and the subsequent build was greatly influenced by the work of the SSAT System Redesign thinking, brilliantly led by Sue Williams and David Hargreaves, and the work of John Hattie.  If you’ve had a bit of time to look at the video (if not don’t worry) the school at first appearance looks very different from most schools but if you had the opportunity to visit it when we are working a lot of what you see would be very familiar.  The design is really clever as we are able to work in a very traditional way yet also quickly change the spaces to teach in a very different way.  This ability for staff and students to work in a way familiar to them yet experiment with new approaches led to us very successfully occupying the first phase of the new school in April 2012.  It was a great relief as I had lost more nights sleep worrying whether the whole thing would be a disaster or not.  I wonder whether Redesigning Schools will be similar with some familiar practices honed and sharpened until they become best practice with new and more experimental approaches helping to determine next practice.

Project Based Learning

Shakespeare Y9 PBL

Year 9 Shakespeare PBL

Part of our “transformation” of education was to look again at project based learning.  The ability of students to go deep into a subject area and explore different elements of it was one aspect of our new approach that we wanted to get right.  I bear the mental scars of too many projects that were “PBL Lite” – nothing like the real thing with the greatest amount of time given to colouring in a front cover for the topic that had been produced by a student without any real rigour or depth.  This is where the Redesigning Schools moves into the Redesigning of classrooms and students’ everyday lived experiences.  In setting up the projects we wanted to ensure there was real subject rigour, effective the development of the “habits of mind” from the particular subject area and on-going development of the learner – these are linked to our beliefs about what education should be about.

In designing the projects Monica worked with Jenna, a colleague in the English Department, to produce the Shakespeare projects and test them using two parallel Year 9 classes.  One followed the project the others were taught using the more traditional scheme of work.  There was a pre- and post-topic assessment and the PBL class way outperformed the class taught by traditional methods.  This may not stand up to randomised testing by academics but we were excited by the results.

My limited part in the “innovation work” was concerned with developing a structure that would deliver subject rigour, develop habits of mind and help further develop the learner.


For this we linked into teacher clarity which is 8th on Hattie’s list of interventions that have a positive impact on achievement.  Make sure you get the learning intentions and success criteria clear in your own mind and communicate them to the students.  The SOLO Taxonomy is a great tool here as it helps teachers build increasing cognitive complexity into their learning intentions:

SOLO Taxonomy

Below is a graphic taken from a paper by John Seeley Brown.  The merger of explicit knowledge (know what) with the tacit knowledge (know how) begins to produce the habits of mind that moves students from doing Physics to being a physicist or doing English to being a linguist or doing History to being a historian.  It’s not an either or as both are required.  Developing our skills and approaches within a subject works most effectively alongside the body of knowledge or at least part of it.  It’s about developing the habits of mind required within disciplines and subjects.

John Seeley Brown


Whenever we have a lucid moment in secondary schools we know that if we could develop highly effective learners (imagine a class full of the best learners you have ever taught) then it would make our life so much easier.  The difficulty is, in worrying about getting through the syllabus, we may take the ineffective approach of working harder and harder as teachers whilst allowing or making students more and more passive.  Metacognitive strategies can be found 13th in Hattie’s list and so getting students to plan, determine which tools to use in their learning and evaluating the impact are all critical elements of developing an effective learner.  In the examples below there are some good links with students using graphic organisers and concept mapping approaches which also appears on Hattie’s list of positive interventions.

PBL Exemplars for Sixth Form – January 2011

The link above is to a series of A-level projects that were developed – thanks to Jenny, Monica, Iain, Sylvia & Marc.  They were all prepared to take a calculated risk in how they approached a topic.  Not all were stunning success, though some where, but they added to each teacher’s pedagogical repertoire and they helped redesign their classrooms to places where students worked harder.  Final word from an A-level student, “Why didn’t we do this at GCSE I would have done miles better?”


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