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  • Naike Gorr

Projecto Scholé: Education for the 21st century

Are you interested in innovative education and what the future of education might hold? Then this blogpost is for you! In it I seek to summarize and reflect on the insights I obtained during a five-week internship at Scholé, an innovative school in Porto implementing Project-Based Learning (PBL). If you decide to continue reading you will be introduced to the general idea, the requirements, and the execution of a PBL curriculum.

I would like to start this blogpost with a quote by John Dewey who nicely summarized our education crisis by stating that ‘if we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow’. I believe the majority of people reading this post are familiar with the fact that contemporary education does not properly prepare the current generations for the future, a future that is unknown but most likely does not require learning and reproducing facts that can be easily looked up online.


However, what will be of relevance is the student’s ability to think critically, adapt to new environments, and work in teams. These skills partially compose what educators are referring to as 21st century competencies, a set of skills expected to be crucial for succeeding in this century (Voogt & Roblin, 2012).


While education itself is slow to adapt there is an increasing number of schools and educational stakeholders trying to respond to the changing circumstances by implementing alternative educational approaches. One frequently implemented approach is moving towards project-based learning (i.e., PBL) students learn traditional subjects (math, science, humanities) through projects instead of textbooks and tests. While searching for schools implementing PBL, I came across a school in Porto, Portugal which decided to take initiative and provide students with an education that will actually prepare them for their future.


The present blogpost comprises a summary and reflection of the insights I obtained while completing a 5-week internship at this school. By sharing these insights, I am hoping to inspire and spark your interest for opening up and moving towards PBL.


Projecto Scholé

Firstly, Projecto Scholé, is the only school in Portugal implementing a PBL curriculum. Scholé is an accredited private school that comprises preschool as well as primary school education. Children attending this school are not allocated to age-based classes but instead to groups based on their level of development. Consequently, instead of a second grade filled with 7/8-year-olds, group 2 comprises a greater age range of children that depict similar development levels. However, their group-system is not the only aspect differing from other traditional schools. In fact, there are not many similarities between schools as we know them and Scholé.

It already starts with the building as the school has a modern open concept with glass walls, thereby enabling one to look into the classrooms while still standing outside the building. Additionally, instead of at tables, the students and teachers are predominantly working in circles on the floor as the children expressed this preference. Please follow this link for pictures of the school building.


Prior to going into a typical school day, I would like to note that the school went through a rough journey to become accredited, having to fight several attempts from the Ministry of Education to shut them down. While now accredited, the relationship between Scholé and the Ministry remains tense as the ruling left party not only discourages inaccessible private schools but also innovative learning approaches that are not in accordance with their strict model. While Scholé holds the wish to become an accredited public school, the criteria as introduced by the Ministry make this step impossible. Hence, the finances are currently covered by tuition as well as by participating in EU-funded projects sending teachers to various workshops all over Europe.


The School Day

While the school is open from 7.30 to 19.30 providing working parents the opportunity to have their children in additional day care, the actual school schedule starts at 9.30 and ends around 16.30. Please see the schedule below to obtain an idea of the childrens' week.

As you can see, the majority of the schedule is dedicated to the ongoing project where the children engage in various activities and experiments. In addition, the children benefit from music, arts, English, and sports classes that take place several afternoons a week. Two special components comprise the weekly psychology and deep dive classes with the former focusing on social-emotional and fine-motor learning while the latter inculcates those aspects that are difficult to teach through projects (e.g., grammar, calculus). Finally, the children have the opportunity and are even encouraged to provide feedback at the end of each week.


Sitting in on various classes taught me that it is important to have a good balance between routine and new aspects. for example, the routine component was comprised of a round of morning check-ins followed by group meditation or games as well as the collective activity of defining the intentions, agenda, and roles of the day. The children’s adaptability is facilitated through the countless project-related activities which range greatly.


Finally, it is important to note the lack of homework which also applies to work that was not finished during class. Instead of completing the work at home, the children either have the chance to complete their work during the next day (if several children did not finish) or during their break.


Project-Based Learning

As already mentioned, the children’s schedule is predominantly filled with time dedicated to the ongoing project. Generally, the projects last around five weeks and cover various themes which are chosen collectively while considering the skills and knowledge areas as introduced by the national curriculum. To ensure that the children reach the mandatory knowledge goals, the teachers predefine the skills, knowledge, and objectives prior to the beginning of each project. However, in addition to considering the national curriculum, the school also considers the 21st century competencies as well as other skills they deem of relevance.


While the project I got to observe was focusing on the various ocean layers, other on-going projects included exploration of the human body, money, and fashion. These topics can be thought of as themes to which all activities and experiments adhere to while the children acquire an in-depth knowledge within these domains. In contrast to the traditional teacher-centered approach, the teachers take on a supportive role compared to the traditional teacher as lecturer. Teachers support students by asking questions and guiding discussions, thereby helping the children to obtain a greater understanding of a matter. Moreover, there is a high proportion of group work, thereby establishing the foundation for peer learning and other group-based competencies.

However, there are a several fields which are difficult to cover through this learning approach, namely grammar and calculus. Here, the school decided to implement so-called ‘deep dive’-lessons where these aspects are addressed to compensate for this lack of knowledge.


Assessment

In contrast to other schools, Scholé does not adhere to traditional assessment methods. Instead of testing, the children’s development is captured in qualitative reports which are written up by the teachers and are simply based on classroom observations.

There are two types of reports, firstly the qualitative reports for the parents and secondly a more detailed report for the teachers. The former type is sent to the parents twice a year and comprises information regarding the child’s social-emotional skills and their performance on the various subjects as defined by the Ministry of Education (e.g., math, English, etc.). The report for the teachers covers the child’s overall development throughout the projects and years. This datasheet is far more detailed comprising the extent to which the child reached the defined objectives and milestones.


To do so, the teachers predefine the objectives, aims, and competencies for each exercise completed during class. While the children are then working on these exercises the teacher observes their progress and captures it on a corresponding observation sheet. This assessment however requires a non-teacher-centered approach as the teacher must have the time and opportunity to step away and observe the class.


Moreover, while the teacher captures the progress of each child, Scholé does not follow an individualized learning approach but a group-based learning approach by formulating one learning plan per group. These learning plans are based on the knowledge and competencies as introduced by the Ministry, the 21st century competencies, as well as other skills that the teacher deems relevant. The decision of group-based learning plans was justified with the children’s similar development levels and the teachers lack of time and resources.


Overall, this assessment approach aligns with Einstein who stated that ‘not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts’. Scholé realized this and decided to distant itself from the contemporary testing culture. One consequence of such is the subsequent increase of joyful learning. Throughout my weeks at the school, I observed children who truly enjoyed school and learning with their peers. In fact, the children often used their breaks to continue working on exercises or started teaching one another on similar topics. This represents a great contrast to other schools where children disengage from their learning. Taking away the pressure that is nowadays caused by the testing culture and providing the children with agency to take lead of their learning which led to a school environment filled with joy and excitement.


The Teacher Body

Generally, the implemented teaching approach can be described as child-centered where the teachers take on the role of supportive coaches. Due to the difference in teaching and learning, there are consequently other requirements and sought-after qualities of the teacher body. While having had the opportunity of observing each teacher in their classroom, I identified several similarities among them. Firstly, the teachers are overly patient and approachable, always replying to the children’s questions. Secondly, all of them are comfortable with stepping away from the teacher-centered approach to establish a child-centered learning environment. Thirdly, instead of depicting a narrow expertise, the teachers have an extensive world-knowledge and find great joy in continuous learning. Fourthly, similar to rephrasing the children's mistakes as growth-moments, the teachers also saw their personal failures as opportunities of growth. Acknowledging personal limitations is of importance as it shifted the children’s perspective by encouraging them to open up and grow. Finally, the relationship between the teachers and the students was warm and caring.

While these shared qualities are visible in the teacher body at Scholé a conversation with the director revealed that these qualities are difficult to find among the contemporary teacher education (TE) graduates. Finding suitable teachers represents one of the main challenges of Scholé as contemporary TE brings forward teachers that lack overall world-knowledge, openness towards innovative education, and a good command of English. The identified discrepancy between the sought-after teachers and the quality of the TE graduates was further highlighted by the teachers themselves who all agreed on the notion that TE did not prepare them for working at Scholé.

The final aspect also represents one of the main encountered difficulties of Scholé, namely the preparation of the material. All teachers agreed on the notion that while they do believe in the potential of PBL, it requires far more work than traditional teaching. This is due to the fact, that instead of following a textbook, the teachers need to prepare and design all the materials themselves which is very time consuming. To support the teachers, their schedule includes dedicated preparation time in the afternoons which is often not enough to cover all the required preparations.


Encountered Difficulties

As already noted, following a PBL approach does not come without any difficulties and hence it is of importance to also consider and tackle the encountered challenges. There are a total of seven challenges that I identified in the case of Scholé.

1. First of all, compared to traditional teaching, PBL requires a significantly greater amount of energy and resources due to the design and preparation of the materials.

2. Secondly, while requiring greater resources, it at the same time pays a lower salary and provides less benefits as accredited private schools generally pay a lower salary as compared to the public sector.

3. The third challenge comprises the high turnover rate among teachers. This challenge is critical due to the necessity of a stable teacher body since this teaching approach requires additional training as well as a close relationship with the children. However, due to reasons such as the high workload, relatively low salary, or a general lack of fit between the school’s culture/values and the teacher’s values, the turnover rate is high.

4. Fourthly, there is the discrepancy between the sought-after teacher qualities and poor qualities and preparation of the TE graduates. This challenge is the most pressing one as it translates into a teacher shortage at the school as well as higher spending for teacher trainings.

5. Fifth, is the lack of financial and political support from the Ministry of Education due to which the school has faced and still faces great obstacles including the necessity of needing to finance their growth by their own means, when taking out loans, and finding suitable venues.

6. The sixth challenge comprises the clash between the school and parent body, as some parents disagree with or practice a different pedagogical approach than the school. Additionally, there have been conflicts between both parties due to the parents’ perfectionist expectations towards their children which are not met by the school.

7. Finally, there is the challenge of the international student body and the forthgoing aim of moving towards an international school. While the former comprises language difficulties thereby hindering the children from reaching their full potential, the latter concerns the need of bilingual staff, thereby introducing an extra burden during the hiring process.


Conclusion

Why should we aim for an education that requires an even greater workload than the contemporary approach? Well, the answer is simple: We cannot continue educating the current generation with techniques from yesterday for an unknown tomorrow. However, of course we should ask whether this approach actually leads to a greater preparedness of the student body. The answer is yes, it does. Those students that completed their education at Scholé and thereafter attended forthcoming education are according to their new teachers significantly better prepared and further developed than their peers. This applies to most subjects and competencies that are being assessed, with grammar and calculus depicting room for improvement. Here, the implementation of deep dive should counteract the later shortcomings.

Additionally, observing an increase in joyful learning when having children work in groups on relevant and contemporary projects highlights the notion of learning being enhanced through this approach. Here, reducing the stress of testing by removing tests all together and expanding the childrens’ agency for their learning further establishes a suitable learning environment.

Finally, I would like to argue for the utmost importance of implementing and moving towards PBL as the upcoming generations will face a fast-changing future filled with machine intelligence and unforeseen challenges. Since contemporary education still focuses on learning and reproducing facts that can be easily looked up online we are running the danger of not being properly prepared for the future, a future that requires broad-based competencies currently not included in education. Moreover, it is not only our lack of preparedness but also the focus on low-level tasks and activities that can be easily replicated by machine intelligence that should be a source of concern.


So, what should we do? I personally believe that we first need to adapt our TE programs to properly prepare teachers to work in and establish innovative learning environments. This step comprises a greater practical pedagogy component, a focus on world instead of subject knowledge, and other important measures. Thereafter, we need to educate the stakeholders within the educational domain concerning the advantages and challenges of innovative educational approaches such as PBL to increase the implementation and support for these learning approaches.

Note: Motto of Scholé


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Materials and Sources


Bibliography:

Voogt, J., & Roblin, N. (2012). A comparative analysis of international frameworks for 21st century

competences: Implications for national curriculum policies. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44(3), 299-321.

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Hey there! My name is Naike Gorr and with an academic background in psychology I am currently studying the Changing Education Master’s program. Additionally, I am the event manager of One Step Ahead (OSA)ry, the international student association of the master’s program in Changing Education at the University of Helsinki. While my research interest covers a wide variety of topics, I am most passionate about improving education to prepare the current generations for the upcoming challenges by taking an educational policy perspective. Key words:Project-Based Learning (PBL), Innovative education, 21st Century Competencies, Projecto Scholé ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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