It is 7 am and I’m climbing a tree on the school campus with a bird feeder clenched between my teeth. It’s the final bit of preparation for the “Wild about Cramlington” project, part of a weeklong sustainability experience for our 400 Year 9 students.
Today, I want the 28 students I am working with to experience just enough failure to act and think in a way different from the normal school day. I know that this is a balancing act, and that they must see enough birdlife to stimulate their interest for the rest of the week. Above all I want the project to lead the learning, not me. Hence the bird feeder and my compromised position in a rather too thorny tree.
In class that morning we examine some professionally produced wildlife guides from local nature reserves, along with one I have prepared on Cramlington. These models help establish not only the content and expected quality of our final product, but also the direction of the project. Together, we watch video on how to “birdwatch,” giving invaluable tips on how to see and identify birds. This is tacit knowledge that the students will have to acquire through experience as they begin to apply it. So I’ve set up a little exercise that will allow them to fail in safety and not jeopardize the overall success of the project.
The 28 nascent birdwatchers, armed with field guides and shared binoculars, venture out to spot birds. Unsurprisingly, what I then witness are not skilled ornithologists, but a bunch of teenagers parading around the school campus. I gallop around the grounds, suppressing my frustration, asking what they have seen, and pointing out things of interest. On reconvening I ask how many types of birds each group has seen. “Four” one group cries. “Can anyone beat four?” I challenge. “Yes, we can,” says one group—“six!” It is becoming evident that they have not been successful.
I respond quietly, “I saw 19 different birds and two species of butterfly. How did I manage to do this?” After a brief silence they correctly identify that I knew what to look for, where to look, and then comes a revelation. “Sir, you followed those tips, didn’t you?” “Er, yes. Yes I did. Can you remember what they were?” Immediately, the students name every single one. After all, regurgitation is easy, but putting knowledge into practice is the difficult challenge. But now they know why the early guidance was important.
The next day we leave the campus and visit a local nature reserve. The difference in the students is palpable. The hushed conversations, the pointing to trees, the pauses and scanning of the horizon and most importantly the “What’s that sir?” questions, all indicate that the students have engaged with the project. On return each student has seen at least 20 different species of bird. One student saw six species of butterfly, and could not believe how much fun this was. She had taken lots of photographs and was distraught to find that they had not saved correctly. She determined to return that night to retake some pictures. And that night, she did so.
I have huge passion for birdwatching, stemming from my childhood and its current resurgence since the birth of my son. However, I am not an expert. From the very outset of this project I collaborated with two local birdwatchers to plan locations to visit and the role they could play during the week. Their knowledgeable input and genuine interest in the subject matter was invaluable, but their presence communicated a more important message: this is not a teacher led project; the project is important in itself; what you learn in school is important to the wider community; there are reasons you can be proud of your local town. There is no way I could even contemplate “teaching” these lessons.
At the end of each day the students recorded their observations and began to write species descriptions of the growing list of birds seen. We now had something we could critique and redraft, another new experience for us. This was to prove difficult, as we had only been together as group for a short time. We were not yet a community, and were therefore unable to share honest and critical feedback about our work. The feedback norms helped, but I had to remain resolute in the expectations that had been established by scrutinising the professionally produced guides. However, we did manage to construct a model for the species descriptions. At the time it felt like an overlong 30 minutes, but with hindsight it was a turning point of the project. Students now saw drafting as a way we could be successful in our project, and the model species description provided a valuable reference for their work. To help the students see their progress, I asked them to allow me to keep each draft.
It quickly became evident that the quality of photographs we needed was beyond this project, but a solution quickly appeared. Many students had naturally sketched the birds as they researched details on each species. The group decided that the guide would have artwork by the students to help readers identify local birds. It was this decision that led to the defining moment for me during our first foray into project-based learning.
One student showed me a picture she had drawn of a willow warbler. It was a pretty picture, reminding me of Victorian needlework, but it did not look much like a willow warbler. Together we came up with three improvements; the shape of the tail, its body shape and colouration of its plumage. She returned the next day with an improved version and the question, “What do you think?” Clearly the body shape and tail were much better, but the colouration and the head shape were not helpful to its identification. I gathered two other students and we critiqued again. Although I suspected disappointment in being asked to improve her work again, she never showed it. I guess (and hope) that she understood that we had changed the rules, and in doing so her best just got better. I’m sure she was nervous the next morning, when she approached me with her next draft. It was great. It looked like a willow warbler. I asked if it was okay to show the class her three drafts, to which she shyly assented. I proudly gathered the class not only to show a beautiful piece of work, but the progress between drafts and, most important, the paradigm shift taking place. The students were impressed and said so.
The final picture was great not because the student was a talented artist, but because she embraced the challenge, learned from criticism and was willing to make the effort needed to practice the skills necessary for success. Being able to show the end product and process at the same time gives learning a coherence and accessibility that is otherwise hard to communicate.
Over the final days students readily offered their work for critique, reworked drafts, switched groups to support large tasks, and offered honest, considered feedback. We even had conversations about the migration of the whitethroat. They were thrilled that a bird would travel so far to spend summer in their town. However, this was not a perfect group of students, nor was it a perfect project. They required frequent prompting, task setting and structuring and some timely behaviour management to keep all engaged and contributing. For much of the time I acted as a traditional teacher first and project manager second. We still have much to learn.
As deadline after deadline slipped through our fingers, I must confess to slightly neglecting the debriefing process, although not entirely. The students were asked to create a display to share the process used in the completion of their “Wild about Cramlington” project. This was an essential task not only for the development of the student learner attributes and skills, but also for my learning. In the midst of this project I often lost sight of these, being consumed by the day-to-day management of getting the job done. I had the feeling that the project had certainly led student learning, but I had managed the project and many of the individual students. I needed to see if the project had influenced how they approached work, in particular critiquing and drafting.
Many of the displays confirmed my suspicions that drafting could be frustrating, but I was thrilled to see the overwhelmingly positive view. Students could see the improvements, and they enjoyed making progress. Most significant was feeling that they were proud of their effort and of the final product. In an education system that is obsessed by covering a curriculum, the opportunity for young people to be proud of their learning is too rare.
I was also grateful for the annual exhibition day coming up at the weekend, and the reciprocity an audience brings. Having two thousand people visit to see your work says that school work matters, while the chance to show that you have learned something worthwhile adds purpose and value to your efforts. It is also a chance to show that you care about education and wider issues, and that you are part of community. It is education not done for you, nor done to you, but done with you and by you. My students express it well:
—We drafted our work [several] times so we could get a quality product we would be proud of!
—Having to redraft felt good as I always knew what I had to improve in next draft.
—[The guide] shows others our understanding and widens it.
—Living in a busy area we need to get away and see the wildlife we have in our community.
—We should take pride in what birds we have on our doorstep.
The author expresses his thanks for the kind contributions of Phil Allott and Cain Scrimegour, our bird experts.