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OSI – Confidence comes from experiences

Monday 27 August 2018, by JMC

It’s been twenty minutes and already I’ve learnt six possible solutions to allow local shepherds and wolves to co-exist and how a drone is put together. Welcome to the ‘retransmission’, a weekly event where every Objectif Science International (OSI) group reports on what they’ve been up to during the week’s project.

We are sitting in the large dining room of the Grand Hotel Le Cervin, St Luc, Switzerland (altitude 1685m). It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m here to observe and report on the effectiveness of OSI’s project-based learning (PBL) approach as part of my Masters in Education. OSI is a charity affiliated to the UN which offers summer science camps for 7-18 year olds. In front of me, an audience of nearly seventy children, teachers and parents breaks into spontaneous applause as a ten-year old skillfully explains how they pieced together information about local small mammals by reconstructing and identifying skeletons rescued from owl pellets.

The purpose of the retransmission is to pass on the knowledge gained during the week to others. Like a school assembly, it showcases what the children have learnt as well as giving them an opportunity to practise speaking (and in some cases performing) in front of an audience. However what makes it unlike most school assemblies is the sheer confidence of the children, a confidence that is clearly there because in this room, they are the experts and their knowledge runs deep.

It becomes extraordinary when one considers that most of these children have only been here 5 full days, and each day has been jam-packed with activities, both scientific and social. In this short period every group has spent at least one night bivouacking at altitude, observed a lunar eclipse at 11pm and undertaken a 4am pre-dawn nature trail to better understand the mountain habitat.

It’s a wonder they aren’t all fast asleep, so how have they found the time to prepare for their presentations, let alone memorise the information they are effortlessly presenting? It’s compelling evidence for the power of project-based learning – a combination of ‘learning by doing’ (experience) and teacher-led guidance and instruction (education).

With traditional teaching, a learner first acquires a theoretical understanding of a topic. They are then asked to demonstrate their application of it, often through worked examples or a test. The result is often unengaging to learners as the learning is disconnected from reality and teacher-led.

By contrast, with PBL, the learner is immediately tasked with a complex real-life question or problem to solve. As they explore different avenues to try to answer it, they seek out, acquire and apply the knowledge and understanding necessary (with their teacher’s guidance and instruction). The effect is clear – with PBL, learners are engaged and want to deepen their knowledge because they are the ones who are posing the questions. More importantly still, that knowledge is retained more effectively because it’s been experienced.

For example, a ten year-old casually showing off an aquatic spider they have discovered in a mountain. As well as the fact that they observed it laying eggs, they explain, what’s interesting is that it cannot be identified and may well be a new species; they are waiting on confirmation from experts. She knows this because she’s spent several hours with books, online resources and her teacher eliminating possible species. She’s sure of the habitat because she collected the specimen from the alpine pond herself.

Another child explains how to measure the inclination of a slope, in degrees, and then map it onto a chart, including some of the pitfalls to avoid with this technique. He remembers these because he’s spent the week helping to accurately chart a hitherto unmapped local mine.

As a UK-based teacher with over 15 years of experience, including 5 as head-teacher, I believe OSI’s project-based learning approach provides an excellent example of the power of authentic, purposeful learning-by-doing, guided by expert teachers. Not only are learners passionate about their learning, but the retention and depth of skills and knowledge is at least as good as that in old-fashioned ‘industrial’ education.

PBL shows that there is a better, more powerful way for teachers to educate. Let’s encourage learners to start asking the questions again, not teachers.

© Joffy Conolly 2018. All rights reserved.