The power of projects

* Joe O'Callaghan teaches English at the International School of London

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What I learned from silent Zoom classrooms and how putting students in control of their learning can spark authentic interaction, engagement, and happiness, both on and offline

Unable to get back into China to return to Shanghai Qibao Dwight High School back in February, I wound up teaching online Zoom classes and running an English Department all from an iPad in Essex. I don’t know about you, but online lessons didn’t always go to plan. Occasionally, I found myself speaking far more than I usually would as students were sometimes reluctant to speak up or even show their faces on camera. Fortunately, many of the lessons were successful. Some were even an overwhelming success, with participation levels through the roof, grins on faces, and the light bulbs of conceptual understanding glowing brightly over the head of every student. But these lessons tended to be the ones where students were in control, and they had a clear goal to achieve, working collaboratively in breakout groups on Zoom.

The whole experience has reminded me of what’s important about a language acquisition course, specifically in the context of the IB.

  • Principally, language learning should be fun. This doesn’t just apply to teenagers, but it’s especially crucial for them given the pressures of the DP. It takes on extra significance when students find themselves homebound during regional or national lockdowns and online lessons become a chance to interact with friends and teachers. It should be our goal to “foster curiosity, creativity and a lifelong enjoyment of language learning”, as it states in the Language B subject guide.
  • Learning a language should also be relevant; students need to feel that the topics, content, skills, and concepts covered are useful for them in helping them communicate more effectively in English.
  • And finally, it is vital that students take more control of their own learning. When the experienced IB practitioner Lance King came to our school last year he proposed that the perfect class will be leading their own lessons by the time they leave the school. They should no longer need the teacher for input.

This whole online experience has highlighted for me the value of student-centred, inquiry-based learning, not just because the IB says it’s a good thing, but because if it’s done right, students enjoy it more than being spoon-fed. It’s led me to the belief that task-based and project-based learning (projects can be seen as a long-term form of task-based learning) encourage more authentic communication than standalone lessons and units.

** For more on task-based and project-based learning, see https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/tbl-pbl-two-learner-centred-approaches

Project-based teaching

Over the past few years I have developed a project-based course for English B that encourages independent learning and can provide both relevance, and enjoyment for even the most disinterested of students. Projects run for a whole term and can be divided into units at the teacher’s (and students’) discretion. Part of what makes this approach project-based is that there is a narrative that runs throughout, and a tangible final product that serves as evidence of the learning that has taken place. It’s something to work towards other than the exam has the goal developing both language skills and Approaches to Learning (ATLs).

One such project, Anglophone Explorers, focuses on producing personal text types. To establish context and set a long-term task for students to work towards, they are given this Paper 1-style prompt:

You are on a trip to 3 Anglophone countries: Australia, India, and Zambia (for example). Write a text in which you record your experiences, reflect on the customs, traditions, beliefs, and values in these different countries, and compare and contrast these cultures with your own.

(And here's a map showing where the various 'anglophone' countries are - click on the icon:

from Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_territorial_entities_where_English_is_an_official_language

The project is divided into units according to the different Anglophone cultures that the students choose to explore, and I source texts, including short stories, songs, and videos, from these cultures to guide the journey. Reading and listening skills are practised and students practise Paper 2 style questions, but there’s a greater purpose for reading and listening: to inquire and explore. As a class, we identify areas of inquiry such as progress vs. tradition in Zambia or relations with indigenous communities in Australia, but I also encourage groups and individuals to find their own topics to explore further. This could be in relation to their interests and other IB subjects such as Economics or Visual Arts. In finding, analysing, reflecting on, and responding to these texts, students take ownership of their learning.

In terms of Paper 1 and transferrable writing skills, students produce travel blogs, write emails to their family and friends, post on social media, and write diary entries about their experiences. These are then collected together in a scrapbook (another personal text type) that tells the story of their trip around the English-speaking world. This is the final, tangible product of the project that students add to throughout each unit, receiving feedback specifically on criterion B (Message) and C (Conceptual Understanding) of the Paper 1 assessment criteria. The aim of the feedback to further students’ awareness of audience, purpose, context, as well as register and tone, but also teach them how to produce a text that covers all the points in the prompt, a key Paper 1 exam skill.

When they write, students have the creative licence to insert themselves in the literature and other texts we use to explore, imagining they meet the characters and experience the customs, traditions, beliefs, and values first-hand. One great scrapbook entry from a student involved her imagining she’d met the lead singer of a Zambian rock band we’d listened to in class and getting advice about her own singing. In addition to getting students to immerse themselves in the culture, this creative writing also encourages them to think about the conventions of the personal text types. Comparisons and contrasts are then made to other text types that students write more frequently - essays and formal emails, for example. These transferrable writing skills are vital when explaining to students why they have to write a diary entry in an era in when such a text type isn’t exactly in vogue.

There are also plenty of opportunities to develop oral fluency. We do hot-seating with characters, video blogs, and role-play scenarios they might encounter when travelling. Other speaking activities focus on analysis of the issues in the texts.

You might notice there has been no mention of grammar, vocab, or pronunciation. You’ll be pleased to know these fundamentals of a language acquisition course haven’t been thrown out. Instead, the teacher can address them as emerging needs when they notice slips, gaps, and flaws in students’ productive language. Also, with many English B classes being made up of a range of abilities, there is also the scope to encourage more language practice outside of class through apps like Quizlet for vocabulary and David’s excellent grammar resources here on Inthinking.

The IB slant?

Looking at relevance from an IB pedagogical perspective, we can consider the Approaches to Teaching and Learning (ATLs) that students need to become more effective learners in all their subjects.

  • Communication skills are obviously developed through this project, especially in the consideration of the audience, purpose, and context of personal text types
  • Students are also encouraged to think critically about a range of cultural issues and compare and contrast these peoples and places with their own country. This also meets the IB requirements for courses to promote International Mindedness. It also helps students develop the capacity to reflect on both ideas they encounter and their language learning. We make sure to discuss this metacognition with students and encourage them to apply these skills in other contexts (transfer).
  • Research skills are honed as students use the Internet to explore their own personal interests about these cultures for their scrapbooks.
  • The independence students are given in the exploration of their own interests, as well as meeting deadlines, help to strengthen self-management skills.
  • By making text-to-self connections, students practise empathy, a vital element in the cultivation of social skills.

To conclude…

The terms relevant and fun mentioned earlier are, of course, highly subjective. But what gives this project a good chance of achieving these lofty goals is that so much of it is driven by the kids; they get out what they put in.

This project can be as rigid or loose as you want it to be. You have the freedom to select your own texts and assess as often or as little as you like. You can use texts and activities from your textbook and from the wide range of resources on this site. But giving the kids the option to choose their own adventure (remember those books?!) is a great way to put them in charge of their learning. Project-based learning can go even further than this, too. Why not try reaching out to people in these cultures and getting your students to engage in authentic dialogue with them? Why not consider how you can make a social impact in some of these places? And if you’re feeling really ambitious, why not organise a school trip?

If I could go back and do my online lessons all over again, I’d make sure I stayed true to these principles by giving students the freedom to explore, analyse and discuss what they find.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this approach and any suggestions you might have for how to improve it. Feel free to leave a comment below (classic blog convention!) or drop me an email at jocallaghan@isllondon.org. New school, I hear you ask? I never made it back to China, but I’m now embarking on my own new adventure at the International School of London where my project-based approach will continue to grow in both the MYP and DP.

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