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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?”


Redesigning Schools: Masterchef III – Great Food

When cooking I tend to a bit of a manic “chef”.  Having chopped the onions for the curry and put them in the pan to fry I have less than ten minutes to chop the garlic, ginger, chilli, chicken pieces and sort out the spices.  Needless to say it all ends up a bit of a race against time, sometimes I win and sometimes its burnt onions.  My wife suggested I might want to prep all the ingredients before I start cooking – may seem obvious to you but it was a revelation to me.


However, this type of prepping won’t be enough for me to ever be successful on Masterchef.  My problem is I don’t have a grounding or understanding of the basic flavour combinations, techniques and processes used by real chefs and acquired by excellent amateurs.  As I’ve said before, I’m just a great recipe follower.  Whilst an appetising menu provides the framework in which great food can actually be delivered (see Masterchef II) it is the food that is actually put on the plate that is all important.

The curriculum delivered day in and day out by teachers may be differ in terms of the pedagogy used – a varied diet is good for learners – but whatever the pedagogy it must be of a consistently high quality.  It is because of the hugely challenging and complex decisions that are made in the planning, delivery and evaluation of lessons that we need the best people to come into teaching and they in turn deserve the best professional development we can offer.

Moving to Informed Autonomy, Distributed Accountability

During the late 1990s and into the early part of the 21st Century a process of “informed professional prescription”, largely delivered through a series of national strategies, was a key element of curriculum planning.  Whilst there was some strong elements to the national strategies there were also a number of poorly researched and implemented elements.  The danger was that the profession became one of “recipe followers” with key knowledge and understanding of curriculum and pedagogy being lost.  We knew what to do in the classroom but we may have lost an understanding of why we were doing it.  Using certain approaches and strategies without understanding how they all link to fundamental theories about learning undermines our professionalism and moves us into the role of recipe followers.  The challenge we face in the coming years is to move from recipe followers to great chefs, we are entering a period of “informed autonomy” for education.  This is arguably one of the defining elements of Redesigning Schools as we look to wrestle back our professionalism.  Redesigning Schools, as opposed to the work undertaken by the SSAT a number of years ago on System Redesign, is likely to be more focussed on redesigning classroom experiences.  This will require the hugely challenging and massively exciting task of redesigning teaching (and teachers’ thinking) and learning (and learners’ thinking).  No more can schools be places where young people go to watch old people learn.

If we get this right then a number of interrelated things may happen – first the quality of education across our schools will improve further and then politicians and wider society will have confidence in what we, as a profession, are doing.  This should lead to the politicians no longer, or at least less often, trying to deliver simplistic silver bullet solutions to address complex deep rooted issues.  In allowing the people who really understand and know about education – those of us involved in it on a daily basis – to lead on Redesigning Schools & Classrooms there needs to be a rigorous holding to account from within – within departments, faculties, schools, federations, clusters and localities.  We can’t duck this issue, its part of being professional in our approach.  My experiences tell me that where middle leaders – first line accountability – challenge and correct issues early on the outcome is more likely to be: reached quickly, positive for everyone and certainly more humane then if issues are missed or ignored only for them to be picked up in an inspection.  The more we hold ourselves to account the more irrelevant Ofsted become; now there’s a positive outcome.  In essence I think I am describing what the high achieving countries and states around the World do.

Moving Forward: Redesigning Classrooms at St. Mary’s

“It’s not simply about what, any more, it’s about why.”

The planned and delivered curriculum “breathes” our beliefs and values even if we don’t realise it.  What and how you teach says a lot about your educational values and what you value in education.  Are you a transmitter of knowledge, a constructor of understanding or a developer of the learner – or maybe all three?

It is important that we make expose the underlying beliefs, principles and structures on which our curriculum and pedagogy are built.  It is critical that leaders within schools can articulate and explain these underlying beliefs and put in place the structures if any policy is ever going to influence the daily lived experiences of our students.

The first thing in Redesigning Classrooms will be to redesign how we collectively see a teacher’s role, not just as a profession but as a society.  Teachers are a national asset and key professionals because they possess a unique understanding about curriculum, pedagogy and learning and the practical skills required to apply them in the classroom.  For this teachers must have:

  • A theoretical understanding underpinning their work in the classrooms – the theories of learning that influence me the most are Constructivism (social) and Cognitivism (structured).  This is not because I want to argue that they are correct or better than any other but rather because I find them useful.  I think learning should be structured, social and move from concrete to conceptual.  The SOLO Taxonomy really helped me apply this and has formed part of on-going CPD for staff over the past three/four years.
  • Knowledge of and ability to apply “Proven Strategies” – it may be more correct to say strategies that are “more probable” to have an impact rather than “proven” but the key is they have a clear research basis.  It’s important to be able to link these strategies back to the theory so as they’re applied in that classroom we understand the key components of what we are doing in terms of why we are using the approach rather than another one.  Hattie’s work is again really useful in identifying approaches to look at and consider.
  • The time and ability to reflect on their own experiences – reflective practitioners, teachers as researchers and developers and teachers as evaluators of own practice are terms that are all taking us in the same direction.  Can we make sense of the theories and strategies within our own context and what works in the classroom for our students?

The above suggests that universities, schools and coaches/mentors should all have a role to play in the development of current teachers and the next generation.  On the job training is vital to provide opportunities: to meet with and learn from other practitioners, to put theory into practice and develop the experiences needed to reflect on that practice but the theoretical framework about learning needs to be there at the core of our thinking.

Know It, Integrate It, Own It

I used the graphic below in some CPD with staff during the Autumn Term last year to explain the SOLO Taxonomy.  It hopefully will work quite well in expanding on the above.


In terms of your own knowledge and understanding of the curriculum, pedagogy & learning, would you liken it to a disorganised pile of clothes?  A neat stack with certain items grouped together?  Or a well organised set of clothes rails with key concepts linked together each one holding the necessary and important knowledge.

After far too many words I’ve got to the core of the blog.  If we are going to be a highly valued national, professional asset that has control over the curriculum, pedagogy and learning we need to have these interrelated areas and necessary knowledge organised in our minds as we walk into our classrooms.  Expert teachers do and those of us that aspire to be must combine the three elements above to develop our practice.

Redesigning schools just keeps going deeper; we are now entering the inner sanctum of the classroom.  This can not be just the classrooms of a few innovative, risk taking and willing colleagues but of the overwhelming majority of the profession if Redesigning Schools is really going to influence the education system.

First Hundred Days of Headship

A number of years ago I was asked to write a piece on my first hundred days of headship.  It was a great opportunity to reflect on my well meaning incompetence, in the early days of headship, as I attempted to learn my “trade”.  Learning as a headteacher can be a pretty exposed place.  I’ve resurrected the piece and summarised it below. Continue reading

Leadership: Being, Knowing, Doing (New Book)

Liminal Leadership


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