Unlocking learning through projects

The evidence from ASDAN's experience of offering project learning over 20 years shows that projects can broaden the curriculum for all young people and can be assessed through a range of alternative approaches.

Projects have always been at the heart of our learner-centred pedagogy at ASDAN. Small projects (or challenges) were the original building blocks of our Personal Development Programme.

The brainchild of a pioneering group of teachers in the south west of England, the original award scheme was designed to recognise and give learners confidence in their skills of communication and working with others.

This formed the basis of our regulated Certificate of Personal Effectiveness, which was quickly embraced by teachers and students across the UK as ‘CoPE’. Almost 20 years on, we continue to gather evidence with our extensive network of teachers about how project learning and a focus on personal development, can engage, elevate and empower young people.

We know that projects engage young people by giving them choice, unlocking motivation and building self-confidence. They elevate young people’s ambitions and self-belief by deliberately developing personal effectiveness, fostering a sense of individual accomplishment and expanding their horizons for action. And they empower young people to act by inviting them to lead their own learning, nurturing their passions, and helping them see how they can progress and make a positive difference in the world.

In one of our many inspirational learner stories 18-year-old Rory and Learning Support Practitioner, Andrew, told us about how the EPQ helps prepare learners for their future. They emphasised how accessible learning through projects can be, and how – for Rory – it led to a resoundingly positive outcome.

A project to be passionate about

“You never really get to do a big independent project at school – to pick any topic and choose how you want to present it,” said Rory. “The EPQ was fun because you get to choose something that you’re really passionate about."

Rory chose to explore a project that asked the challenging question, 'Are people born criminals and how does education, family and community enhance your likelihood of becoming a criminal?’

“I wanted to address this question because myself and a lot of other kids in this school fit the risk factors of becoming a criminal. A lot of kids in this school have ADHD, dyslexia, haven’t got all our GCSEs and we’ve been out of school. I spent a lot of my childhood in a really rough neighbourhood with a lot of crime.” said Rory.

A new way of working

“Our Sixth Form students have bespoke timetables and Rory decided that the EPQ was the path he’d like to follow,” said Andrew. “Rory felt that the EPQ was a completely new way of working. He had to use a lot of project management tools like Gantt charts, critical paths and timelines, which he was really good at. I’ve noticed that since doing the EPQ, he’s become so organised. The EPQ made Rory more disciplined with his time management. It’s very impressive.”

Rory initially decided to write a dissertation to share his findings for his project but found the format challenging. The flexibility of the EPQ allowed him to change his approach – creating an artefact to present his learning – which was a better fit for him.

“When I changed it into a 10-minute speech, it turned out a lot better because I could make it dramatic and make people think a bit more, rather than just giving facts”, says Rory. “I’m shy and so I pretended my project was a TED talk and that worked. I think when you get to read something out loud it makes your audience feel it more. I think you can emphasise things and stress the points you want to stress and put more emotion into it”, Rory added.

Developing confidence and skills for the future

ASDAN’s EPQ made me realise that you can actually study things you’re really interested in and it’s made me want to go to university to pursue the things I care about,” said Rory. “It’s definitely made me more excited about writing about social science.”

Rory’s hard work was rewarded with a B grade for his EPQ and boosted his confidence.

“I feel more confident in pursuing an independent project since the EPQ,” said Rory. "I work in a more logical way now. When I have a project to do, rather than just trying to do everything at once, I break it down into steps.”

“Making your thoughts coherent and fit a brief is something I’d not done before and I think it’s probably a good skill to have later in life.”

“I might eventually want to go into criminal law or human rights law. Through ASDAN’s EPQ, I’ve proved to myself that I can do those things just as well as other people my age. I liked doing ASDAN’s EPQ and think it’s improved my confidence.”

As Jen Osler from AQA wrote here recently, all EPQs are marked on a student’s ability to plan, manage, complete and review their project. They are general qualifications, designed with explicit content and implicit learning outcomes. The assessment objectives of EPQs focus on the extent to which students address the content of the qualification, ie learning project knowledge and skills, but as Rory’s story illustrates, sound pedagogy – in this case practised by Andrew – enables learners to combine the development of project and personal skills.

At ASDAN, we also integrate project learning with personal skills development in our regulated Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE). CoPE is based on six units:

  • planning and carrying out a piece of research;
  • working with others;
  • problem solving;
  • communication through discussion;
  • giving an oral presentation;
  • improving own learning and performance.

CoPE assessment criteria intentionally focus on the development and demonstration of learners’ personal effectiveness.

CoPE is distinctive in its design as a ‘CASLO-style’(1) vocational and technical qualification. As such, it contrasts with ‘general qualifications’ design, exemplified in GCSEs and project qualifications. Specifically, this means that CoPE is designed with implicit content and explicit learning outcomes and assessment criteria, all of which must be met for students to achieve the qualification. Once again, however, sound pedagogy enables the development of both personal and project knowledge and skills.

The evidence from our experience of offering project learning over 20 years shows us that projects can broaden the curriculum for young people and can be assessed through a range of alternative approaches. At ASDAN, we believe learner-centred pedagogy is the key to unlocking breadth and flexibility in both assessment and curriculum. Our work on this is on-going and we would love to hear from anyone interesting in exploring this further with us. Please get in touch at [email protected]

About ASDAN

ASDAN’s mission is to engage young people aged 11 to 25 years in greatest need to achieve meaningful learning outcomes, which elevate them to go on to further education, training or work, and empower them to take control of their lives.

(1) Qualifications that Confirm the Acquisition of Specified Learning Outcomes, see Ofqual report: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/how-caslo-qualifications-work

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