Integrating projects into teenage classes
The idea of using project-work with teenagers is not new and it seems it will be around for a while. This popularity did not come by accident; after all, projects have a number of benefits for the learning process and for the development of the teenager as a whole. Some of these advantages, as described by Bohlke (2014), are that projects:
Favour the Integration of skills in a natural way;
Encourage creativity and collaboration among learners;
Foster responsibility and discipline;
Encourage the development of research and information-gathering skills;
Are suitable for cross-curricular work.
Besides that, project-work can also be a powerful ally to encourage reflection and critical thinking, as well as, raise learners’ awareness of cultural diversity (Moraes, 2017). From my experience, I have also noticed that the completion of a project may foster learners’ sense of achievement, and its outcome represents concrete evidence of learning, which may help parents understand better the work done in the classroom.
We cannot neglect, however, that the implementation of project work may also be quite challenging for the teacher. As Bohlke (2014) describes, projects:
can be time-consuming;
depend on access to authentic material;
depend on receptiveness of participants;
demand planning and management skills from teachers.
Apart from that, since different schools and language institutes have different procedures, teaching beliefs and syllabus to be followed, the teaching context itself may raise different issues related to the successful implementation of projects.
Of course, these challenges do not mean we have to ditch the idea of working with projects. On the contrary, identifying potential problems is the first step to deal with them. You will find below some ideas to deal with these challenges and use the flexibility of projects to overcome them.
Guide learners in the process
Project work is an invaluable opportunity to go beyond language learning and foster the development of 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, information literacy, social skills and collaboration (P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning, 2015). However, just putting teenagers in a situation where they would need this kind of skills may not be enough to actually develop them. Students need guidance. Therefore, although project work is essentially student-centered, teachers have a vital role in the background so as to help learners to:
find and select reliable information;
reflect critically about the content of their project;
interact with their peers in a collaborative way.
Teachers are essential to guide learners during the project, so that they benefit from it and learning can happen.
As obvious as it may seem, we cannot take planning for granted. This is key to the success of a project. If this is done thoroughly, many of the challenges mentioned above can be minimised. From my experience, here are some questions that can be helpful when planning for this kind of work:
Topic: How current and relevant is it for my learners? Is it engaging for their profile?
Outcome: What is going to be the final product of this project? What will be done with it after it is ready (e.g. exhibition, presentation to other groups/ classes, sent to parents)?
Model: Do I have a model of the outcome to show to my students? Will I show an example from a former student? Will I show them an authentic sample? Will I construct a model with them step by step?
Access: Do my students have access to the material and information they need to do this project? If not, can I provide them with this information/ material? How can I adapt the original idea so as to cater for my learners’ profile and access to information/ material?
Length: How many lessons will learners need to complete the project? How much time of each lesson will they need?
Interaction: Are students going to work in groups? Pairs? Individually? If it is in groups or pairs, how are these going to be defined? If the work is going to be individual, how will interaction among learners be encouraged?
When and where: When and where are learners going to do the research and production of the project? In class? In the computer lab during the lesson? As homework? A combination of these?
Language: What kind of language will my learners need? Will they need to revisit any aspect of the expected language? Will they need to learn anything new? How will I cater for emergent language needs?
Steps: How am I going to organise the project in steps? How am I going to communicate these steps to learners?
Assessment: How is the project going to be assessed? Is it going to be part of learners’ formal assessment? How are the assessment criteria going to be communicated to students? Decisions regarding assessment, however, can be quite complex, thus deserving to be looked into in a bit more detail.
Use projects as an assessment tool
As I mentioned above, how the project is going to be assessed is an important part of planning but this may be a multifaceted issue depending on the teaching context and beliefs regarding assessment.
To start with, grading projects may be a challenge itself. As Pinter (2006) explains “it is very difficult to assign grades to project work because of the need to acknowledge both individual work and group effort”. Other questions that may also arise when thinking of grading a project regards what exactly is going to be taken into account when assigning it a grade. The final outcome? The process as a whole? The quality of the research made? Only linguistic aspects? Students’ interaction?
Because of that, many times projects are used as a tool for informal formative assessment, helping teachers gather information about learners’ development and informing them of areas that would need more attention. In this case, the formal grade would come from other assessment tools, such as tests.
From my experience, however, teenage learners and their parents are usually concerned about grades and tend to expect to see the effort they put in their projects converted into a number. Many times, this happens because for students and parents see grading as a synonym of assessment. Thus, no grading means no assessment. What can we do then? We can either start working on raising their awareness of the fact that informal assessment can contribute to learning, or include projects into the grading system.
Grading or not grading seems to be the first big decision regarding the assessment of projects. Once this is made, it is important to define which elements are going to be considered during the assessment.
A practical idea that can help us assess and grade projects is to break it in smaller parts. After all, projects are complex activities which involve a series of steps (McKay, 2005). Thus, depending of the project and on the focus of the work, we can assess, for example:
Quality and breadth of the research
Selection of information
Oral production during the making of the project
Oral production during the final presentation
Creativity and originality
These may have different weights in the composition of the grade for the project depending on the teaching context and the established grading system.
As I mentioned before, the decisions regarding assessment are not that simple, but it is essential to make them at the beginning of the process. Besides, it is also important that learners are aware of the assessment criteria from start, even if you choose to assess the project informally not assigning it specific grades. This kind of communication is necessary to align expectations, thus contributing to students’ engagement and avoiding frustration.
Besides that, it is important to give learners clear feedback on their work so that they understand their current performance and their grade, or what they need to do in order to have a good result in the formal assessment.
Use the flexibility of projects in your favour
Projects can be dealt with in very different ways, which can favour their adaptation to a variety of teaching contexts. Thus, they can vary in terms of structure and their level of integration with the course. In this regard, as Stroller (2005) explains, we can classify projects as structured, semi-structured and unstructured.
Structured projects: in this kind of project, teachers define all the characteristics of the project. Thus, the topic, outcome and expected language are pre-defined and presented to learners. The result of the project is very similar among learners in terms of topic, outcome and language. The differences will lie mostly in the quality of the work done.
Semi-structured projects: here, although there are some elements that are pre-defined, students can decide how they are going to deal with some aspects of the project. They can, for example, choose the format of the outcome (poster, podcast, video, blog post, presentation, etc.). Similarly, the project may have a pre-defined objective and outcome, but students may have freedom to decide which topic they want to talk about. Thus, there is more variety in terms of the result of the project, as different students may focus on different topics, use different language, or come up with different formats for the outcome.
Unstructured projects: the project here is totally defined by learners, from its topic to its outcome and how it is going to be shared with the learning community. Besides, the language work done emerges totally from the choices made by learners.
It is possible to notice that structured projects are much more controlled and, consequently, easier to plan and manage. They may also be interesting in contexts where project work is a novelty, for example. Unstructured projects, on the other hand, are highly personalised and allow more room for addressing learners’ specific needs and interests, which may favour students’ engagement and lead to more meaningful learning.