Leadership programme

Learning From a Radical Project Curriculum

Moving beyond the Zoom lesson

Harry Marson

Head of Secondary Projects

What are the experiences we are giving pupils through virtual learning? Well it is certainly a different context from the normal school day where pupils move between spaces designed for learning, with others their age, and use a variety of learning tools over their academic day.

In School 21 we were always going to respond to the pandemic by doing more than setting work; we had an infrastructure in place that enabled us to maintain an interaction with our learners, albeit through a screen. However Zoom lessons alone are not a rich curriculum. Will the experiences we created blend into, or stand out from, the homogenous blur that can come from learning at home? At the beginning of April 2020  we set out to create a curriculum of rich experiences that offer as much texture to pupils’ days as possible.

During the summer of virtual learning at School 21 we collapsed our year 9 curriculum completely and replaced it with a project based curriculum with pupil experience and choice at the heart. We offered a choice of 29 electives for pupils along with reading and maths mastery sessions. Some electives were planned by or with partner organisations; allowing pupils to work with mental health charities, explore media bias with a researcher from the Institute of Physics or discover about the history of print with University College London. Others gave an in-depth look at aspects of subjects with familiar teachers and many were planned across subject boundaries like so many professions do.

Why opt for a different curriculum?

When school moved home, for pupils and staff, flexibility became important. For pupils, equity took a step back as home learning environments varied. Availability of internet, devices and space made learning challenging. For staff, caring responsibilities changed and bandwidth may not allow for two or three Zoom calls at once. The rigidness and loading of a normal timetable would be hard for anyone to follow. With our approach, flexibility can be built in. In most lessons there are tasks to do collaboratively and those which focus on personal craft. A simple move is to allow any independent work to be done at flexible times and have shorter lessons with focus on collaboration and connecting with others. This was a core design principle for our elective curriculum.

Go a step further and allow staff to choose when their live sessions are scheduled in a now less packed timetable. Pupils sharing a device could even pick which sessions they can go to. Class numbers can be more flexible in the online domain. If you can’t make the morning Y9 English lesson because your sibling is always using the shared device, join the afternoon one instead. As staff we can guide pupils to make the best choices for them. As we have established and learned from this approach, we recognise  there is potential to go a step further, allowing for more cross phase lessons.

Balancing work done collaboratively with classmates and independent work, enabled teachers to plan activities with reduced screen time for pupils compared with 100%  live lessons. Pupils could undertake to interview a family member or create a piece of art or complete a simple science experiment. They share their results, get feedback or summarise what they have done independently with  their peers during the next session.

Learning from home inflates many pre-existing issues which already exist in the classroom. Distractions occur outside the teacher’s sight, and with this, the story of each subject is diminished. The choice of pedagogical tool for this new curriculum was Project Based Learning which when adopted can begin to address such issues through engagement and personal responsibility for process and outcomes.

Every Elective in our PBL curriculum was planned incorporating these 8 features.

  1. An inquiry question
  2. An authentic audience or client and exhibition
  3. A single crafted outcome
  4. Multiple drafts (including an early first draft)
  5. Critique points
  6. A transparent timeline with clear milestones and deadlines
  7. A grounding text and significant content
  8. Rigorous assessment

Why a PBL curriculum?

Make it meaningful. We all navigate a domestic landscape full of distractions; for pupils this is often amplified by the presence of technology offering computer games, other family members or simply the environment they are in. When learning has to compete with these distractions it must have meaning to the pupils for it to come out on top. When designing a curriculum you must give it meaning – the outcome should be more than knowledge and a set of notes. It should be something with meaning in the world, and thus link the school as a part of their current lives and their futures. Whether that is a relationship with an elderly person or a recipe book, it should culminate in something which the pupils will look back on with pride.  Furthermore, a project situated in the real world, helps integrate school and life, above a socially prescribed compulsory experience that has a visible root through examinations to further and higher education, and a lower relevance if these are not your aspirations or family experience

Make it relevant. Giving pupils choice over what they learn can be another tool to win the battle of the screens. Pupils not only chose between tailored versions of familiar subjects, for example either the science of cooking, corona virus or experiment, they could choose electives geared at their interests. A real success on this front was the Games 21 elective where pupils took on the role of video game journalists. Some of our hardest to reach pupils have a passion for gaming, The design of this elective got pupils critically engaging with the impact of their favourite activity whilst also developing their literacy. It’s easy for us to try and block pupils from this activity:  this tactful and tactical approach looks to acknowledge their interests and engage pupils in another way of looking at it and learning about it.

Make it ‘mine’  Pupils have had a push into the deep end of independent learning. PBL has always been somewhere they experience this. Learning how to give feedback and critique is a skill practiced in projects regularly.  Good project teaching will deliberately develop this in pupils. In becoming experts at critique they can turn this eye to their own work, going back and analysing before redrafting. Clear timelines help pupils develop independence, acting as a map to the finish line.

Make it memorable. In an average week of learning, pupils may have 25 different lessons, each part of a bigger subject  story. It’s possible to see why they may forget a concept or idea between lessons. A powerful tool from PBL is to situate learning within a tangible greater context for the pupils. Perhaps they act as historians researching their family history or as a novelist writing their first thriller. The role they play, the increased ownership and responsibility for  the outcomes make the work memorable. At a difficult time for us all, this approach is resilience building: here’s another way of doing things when we are not able to do as we normally would. These pupils will not only be able to describe what they learned during the summer but have a valued piece of work to illustrate it.

Make it real. Lockdown has blurred the lines between work and home and home and school. Whether or not this is good or bad, it has a big benefit for education. PBL practice will often look to situate learning in the real world. Raising the accountability of pupils often brings out their best work. It changes isolation to independence, a given curriculum to an open and contextualised learning experience. In this context which has challenged us all, there has not been a better time to get a professional to give the pupils feedback or an audience to watch a performance. A strong validation of their efforts and achievements. Distances and travel times are completely removed with Zoom. Whatever the right way of exhibiting pupils’ work, an online audience can be as real as any and bring out those standout performances from pupils.

For example of work completed during the 2020 summer lockdown check out our Virtual Exhibition.


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