Where projects go wrong
Many teachers will attempt projects with their classes but give up on them because of the students’ inability to work as a team, an over-reliance on the teacher: and often due to bad time management and conflict, a resulting poor product and a pervasive feeling of time wasted, which motivates no one to go through the process again.
In addition, with access to the internet even young children find it easy to merely cut and paste some information and visuals they find onto a sheet of paper and present this as a project. It is not. These so-called projects have little or no value and encourage laziness and ultimately an acceptance of plagiarism that will do students no good whatsoever when they enter higher education.
So, what defines a project and what gives it value in the learning of languages?
Projects are student-generated and led. They are topic-based e.g. food in my country; rock bands; the world in 2080. They involve research and lead to a final product. Students are encouraged to work as teams and make decisions for themselves, with the teacher acting as monitor and consultant. There is always a final tangible product, which is individual and can be surprising and extremely satisfying to students and teachers alike.
Products can include:
· posters and wall displays, which can be presented and/or exhibited to the entire school. They can also be presented to the class in a Power Point or similar format
· a book or magazine based on a topic that they are passionate about and designed to express their individuality and artistic talents. This could be printed or shared on an online platform
· a (recorded) radio programme, for example a current affairs programme with different segments on topics of interest, done seriously or with humour
· a video, which could be drama, documentary, interview or news. The video would have added layers to the radio as costumes, backgrounds and props would have to be sourced or created (there are many apps for making short videos e.g. iMovie, educreation and AdobeVoice)
· a song, poem or rap
· a web site or blog
· an advert or commercial created for the radio, TV, magazine or online
In fact, the product is anything that uses the medium of language and can include any artistic, creative, individualised content.
Because students are allowed to make their own choices and are free to employ thei talents and explore their interests, they are often the only way that our English language lessons can offer opportunities for students to use, what according to Bloom’ taxonomy are, the higher order thinking skills: analysis, evaluation and creativity. By engaging in the creation of projects students can prove to themselves that they can use English for a purpose and use and develop many other skills too.
What skills are applied when working on projects?
Engaging in projects allows students to practise not only language skills, but also intellectual skills, physical/motor skills, social and life skills
Life skills are a hot topic these days. According to the Cambridge University Press classification they are:
· Creativity and innovation
· Critical thinking and problem solving
· Computer literacy
· Learning to learn
· Emotional skills
· Social responsibilities
Projects allow for a free range of creativity and innovation, as students can chose the form and content of the final product, but importantly are motivated to play with language with a purpose. They need to mine their linguistic resources and find words and combinations of words that will fulfil the needs of the project.
Critical thinking and problem solving are employed to map out the project in terms of participants, time and resources and planning how they will achieve the objectives they set themselves.
Research is often done using computers and students may well use a digital medium to present their project.
As students face problems while creating their project, they may be helped by the teacher or their team mates to find solutions, thus engaging in the process of learning to learn.
Working well as a team demands good communication. If students are still at a lower English language level, the discussions they have can, of course, be in L1. That’s fine. They are still developing communication skills per se.
In an age when we are told that young people are becoming increasing more isolated and depend on social media and phones to communicate, collaboration is probably the most important skill, in my opinion, to focus on. Working closely, listening to others, accepting other view points, making concessions, finding compromises that everyone can be happy with – these are all crucial to facing an adult world.
Before embarking on project work, I think it’s vital to discuss with students why group work is important, how the group work is undertaken and agree norms and practices, such as, who does what, how much each student will do and what is fair. Sometimes doing some research may seem like an easy task to the student writing up a long text or creating a design, so it is good to clarify the value of each student’s contribution.
It could also be helpful to teach phrases like ‘Why don’t I do XX’, ‘Maybe you can do XX’, ‘I volunteer to XX’ and build on these, as collaborative work is increased in the classroom.
I don’t think collaboration comes very easily to us, especially when school environments stress working independently, often competitively, so it is worth spending time discussing its value in the world and how students can use it in class.
Understanding one’s own emotions and being sensitive to others are key skills and there will be ample opportunities during project work to practice these and well worth discussing this prior to starting.
Taking responsibility for the way we live and what we do, especially in light of the focus on the environment at the moment, is also a good topic to explore with students. I start with just stressing the importance of being responsible for all the material they have (no moaning, if parts of their project are lost because they leave it lying around in a classroom) and tidying away craft materials and rubbish at the end of a lesson. Also, being aware of how others are doing and suggesting ways of helping; being a supportive member of your team – this something else I discuss.
Focussing on all these life skills has great value in the greater education of students but also supports their language development.
Why else do projects?
Projects cater for the diverse range of students we may find in any class, as they can make different contributions according to their talents, building their confidence and motivation. So, the musical student can play background music in a drama, chose or write songs and then teach the team to sing them. There is potential for everyone to get involved and feel challenged and fulfilled.
I want to stress that in doing projects language is used communicatively and as a skill in order to achieve the aim of producing the final product. So, the process of creating the project is, in my mind, more important than what is the final product.
Projects encourage learner autonomy as students have to make their own make choices, take responsibility for their work and begin to develop research and study skills.
Stages of a project
I suggest presenting the stages to the students and talking through them, as well as establishing a time line for each stage, so that there isn’t a final panic towards the end or the project only being half-completed, which is such a disappointment for the whole class.
· Objective – what do they want to achieve e.g. find out more about X, use the language they have studied in the last 2 units
· Final product – what will they present to the class
· Resources – what do they need to achieve their goal
· Roles and tasks – who does what
· Phases and timings - deadlines
· Presentation – how and when will they present their project
2. SEARCH FOR INFORMATION
· This can be online or they may need to interview people, send out questionnaires etc
3. TAKE NOTES
· It is valuable to teach note taking skills, as these do not come naturally. Read through texts together (ideally projected on a board) with your class, pause at important parts and ask if the students think they are important and why, then highlight them
· Teach students how to rephrase, summarise
4. CREATE PROJECT
· With support from teacher
· Using the chosen medium
· Decide who (the students involved, the rest of the class, the teacher) and how the projects are evaluated
· Those involved may consider not just the product but also have a checklist of how well they practised life skills
Top tips for integrating projects in class
· Teach the skills needed
· Link projects to a topic in the course book or a topic the students are particularly interested in e.g. a major local sporting event / festival
· Do them at the end of term/year after exams as consolidation or relaxation or regularly after each unit of the book
· Guide your students gently and initially set some of the parameters
· Monitor students, offer help and keep them on track
· Ensure learners understand their value
This article was also published in the HUPE (Croatian Teachers of English) newsletter.