Project-based learning model lifts engagement

Issue: Volume 101, Number 16

Posted: 7 December 2022
Reference #: 1HAYUW

Community guest speakers, a bespoke timetable, and a focus on authenticity helps bring project-based integrated curriculum to life at Mt Hobson Academy.

Students are encouraged to find out more about the world they live in with projects.

Students are encouraged to find out more about the world they live in with projects.

Mt Hobson Academy (formerly Mt Hobson Middle School) opened in 2003, and Alwyn Poole, now of Innovative Education Consultants, was the teaching principal for the first 18 years. He had developed a project-based curriculum in 2002 prior to working at Mt Hobson.

Alwyn wanted to find a way to capture the interests of students and have them develop a love of learning. He researched different methods across the world and came up with a model that he thought would work well in
New Zealand.

As part of the model, students have eight projects during the year, which is one every five weeks. During the project, teaching is directed towards equipping students with the skills and knowledge to complete their project.

For example, one of the projects for Year 10 students explores ‘Law and Culture’. One of the project tasks for science is to explain the role of forensic science in law and to describe how chemicals are used to test for the presence of blood, fingerprints, gunshots, and so on.

Top: A field trip to Parliament as part of the law and culture project. Bottom: A camp in the bush for the forestry project.

Top: A field trip to Parliament as part of the law and culture project. Bottom: A camp in the bush for the forestry project.

At Mt Hobson, the division between classroom teaching and project time is split between four hours of unbroken teaching time in the morning. Alwyn says that having the unbroken time gives students certainty about their day.

This is complemented by the Arts and Activities afternoons which include community learning, community service, art, music, sport and physical education.

Applying learning to real-life contexts

“The debate which has been going on for a while is about, ‘Is education about teaching students how to learn or is it about gaining knowledge?’ I think we hit the pendulum right in the middle with our approach,” says Alwyn.

He appreciates that not all schools may be able to take this approach but says it could also be accomplished with four weeks of teaching directed to a project, and then having one week of solid project time.

The projects allow students to work on authentic tasks and show them how knowledge works within a real-life context.

They also have the ability to make the projects personal, which can help to increase student engagement.

“Children will come to us and tell us what they want to learn.

“Students must decode the tasks, which sounds complicated, but it’s really learning to answer key questions. Initially, students will go, ‘What do I do about that? I will go and ask a teacher or I will ask at home’. When they’re a little more developed, it’s more, ‘What could I do with this task? I understand what I’m supposed to do, but is there something that I can put on top of it?’”

Involving the community

To help students with their projects, the school will look to different ways they can engage with realistic situations and sources.

“They get a chance to research authentically. They can speak to adults because in the afternoon we have community learning every week where we have guest speakers and field trips,” says Alwyn.

 Alwyn enjoys helping students engage.

Alwyn enjoys helping students engage.

Over the years, Mt Hobson Academy has had 97 percent of graduates progress to Year 11 and achieve Level 1 NCEA. For a good portion of those students, this wasn’t the trajectory when they first arrived at the school (for a range of reasons).

The projects can integrate the learning within a year, but the model is also designed to work across the school so that all years have a combined focus.

Alwyn sees one of the ways in which this helps students is to provide milestones and opportunities to build on progress with the start of each project, rather than an overall year evaluation.

At the end of each project, students and their families are involved in the progress evaluation.

“This approach enables high quality teaching and learning with that nice balance between skill sets and knowledge, which is crucial; you can’t learn without a context.” 

Feedback on project-based learning

“I have loved the projects this year as it has allowed the students to explore their own interests and get thoroughly immersed in a particular area at a time. My Year 7–8 class examined the Native Forest project and it is that knowledge that they have applied to calculate that the current carbon tax on our farmers is illogical. One of our students worked out then that a moderately grown field of grass can process more carbon than a fully grown tree.” Marija Naumovska, Academic Manager Mt Hobson Academy

“The project-based learning Mt Hobson offers has been great for my daughter learning from home; not only does it give her the chance to learn what she’s feeling passionate about for the day and interested to engage in it gives her the control to be independent with her learning.” Parent of Year 10 student

“Both our girls really love the project work and are progressing very well academically. They can see the ‘real world relevance’ of the various subjects as they work through each project.” Parent of 6-year-old and 9-year-old girls.

“On Monday, in our period 3 English class, we had Justin Kleinbaum log onto the meeting. As a class, we prepared questions related to law beforehand to ask. He shared his information and experiences about being a lawyer with the class. He talked about the differences between common and civil law, as well as cases he has worked on and what made them memorable. This interview tied in well with our project 7 task.” Year 10 student.

A camp in the bush for the forestry project.

A camp in the bush for the forestry project. 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 1:29 pm, 7 December 2022

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