students on the sofa

Project-Based Learning: A Journey of Discovery and Creativity

Weaving it’s way through the core of the Atelier 21 methodology, the Project Based Learning approach is clear to see. As the pupils become immersed in and shape the direction of the class project, the skilful teachers adapt their lesson plans dynamically to seamlessly incorporate the core curriculum subjects you would expect to see in any school. Language, literature, maths, science, cultural studies and more entwine with the project providing endless opportunities for curiosity, creativity and applied learning, to meet in an engaging way that goes far beyond traditional didactic models of teaching.

In March 2024, Atelier 21 hosted a day long, multi-school meeting of the Next Big 10 Schools – a collective of schools dedicated to developing innovative education practices with like minded schools. Following an enlightening tour and and inspiring introduction to the philosophy of the school by the Founder Hayley, Jess, the passionate Year 3 teacher, explained the pioneering project-based learning approach to the delegates.

Introducing the methodology using the Year 2 and 3 project as a case study, Jess explained how she and Kelly, the year 2 teacher, have been redefining education through immersive, engaging projects that spark curiosity and foster critical thinking amongst their pupils.

The story began in September when Jess and Kelly discussed how to begin a project that would support the development of the pupils language and literature skills. With the focus of autumn term to begin with, little did they know that the project would evolve to encompass their curriculum delivery for the whole year.

Starting with Provocations and Wonderings

Each project begins with a deliberate provocation, something that gets pupils thinking and allows teachers to listen to and observe where their interests and curiosities lie. The provocation is deliberately designed to ignite awe and wonder in their pupils.

One day in early September, the pupils unexpectedly stumbled upon a giant nest in nearby Tilgate park where they regularly go for Wild Fridays. Amazed by what they were seeing, the pupils were invited to imagine, wonder and get curious about what it was and where it came from. Deciding that it was indeed a nest created by some unknown creature the pupils began to form their wonderings … things they were curious about and wanted to investigate further.

It is the pupil’s wonderings and hypotheses that drive the project forward. Jess and Kelly gathered the initial thoughts, hosting a big reflection session to group and dig into the deeper meanings behind the pupils’ ideas. This approach ensures that learning is always student-centred, tapping into and developing their natural curiosity and love for learning.

Knowing that part of their job as teachers is to ensure the pupils explore all subjects within the curriculum they skilfully map progress in action against the age and stage development criteria for the year groups.

Kelly and Jess capitalised on an invaluable collaboration opportunity with an Author who had visited the school to come up with a mechanism for the pupils to remain fully immersed in the world they were creating whilst also injecting necessary prompts to explore different avenues and gently shape the project directions to cover the learning for the year. Collaborating with the Author and each other, a government agency was born and agents began sending letters to the school asking the 6-9 year old pupils to investigate the creature, it’s origin and it’s properties further so they could report their findings back to the agency.

As the year and project progressed the creations turned from drawings to wall sized art pieces, from sentences to stories, from collections of collaborative work to an entrepreneurial venture – a book soon to be published in time for the end of year school business fair and later to a wider audience.

Cross-Curricular Learning: A Holistic Approach

Jess’s focus on cross-curricular learning is evident in the seamless integration of various subjects. For example, a simple art lesson on life cycles evolves into a comprehensive study involving science, art, and even geography. The children start by drawing a creature, then step aside for a “skills slam” – a focused lesson on a specific skill, like understanding life cycles – before returning to their project with new insights.

One project saw the creation of a mythical creature sanctuary, blending geography, art, and maths. The children learned about colour schemes and complementary colours, designed maps with mythical creatures, and explored real-life maths through measurements. Moving into the realm of religious and cultural studies the pupils were fully immersed, transforming their learning space into a mystical temple. “This setup isn’t just for show” Jess explained; “it’s a strategic immersion to stimulate the children’s imagination and inquiry.” This holistic approach ensures that learning is deeply interconnected, relevant, meaningful and joyful for all.

Skill Slams and Assessments

During the project, teachers identify and recognise areas in which the pupils need additional or specific knowledge. Breaking out of the project immersion they introduce specific focused teaching and mini applied learning opportunities called Skills Slams. “Skill slams are discrete lessons that isolate and practice specific skills, similar to how athletes train” Jess explains. These discrete lessons, along with continuous assessments through exit cards and skill trackers, help teachers gauge each pupil’s progress. The emphasis is on developing competencies and dispositions, ensuring that pupils not only acquire knowledge but also the skills to apply it.

Student-Centred Learning: Voices and Choices

A key element of the school’s approach is the democratic process. Pupils of all ages are encouraged to express their ideas and have a say in their learning journey. This often leads to new provocations and hypotheses emerging, driven by the pupils themselves. For example, when a pupil suggested what the creature might look like from their story, the entire class brainstormed how to bring it to life, integrating a variety subjects and skills.

Teachers navigate this process by ensuring every child’s voice is heard, even within the constraints of a single pupil’s line of inquiry. This teaches pupils about collaboration and the importance of contributing to a collective goal.

Embracing Challenges and Celebrating Successes

One of the challenges teachers face when working in this dynamic, emergent way, is balancing the freedom of project-based learning with the requirements of the national curriculum. By focusing on the skills rather than specific content, teachers ensure that they can track pupil progress alongside curriculum standards while encouraging each pupil to explore their interests fully. For instance, instead of sticking to predetermined topics expected for a particular point in a year group’s learning like volcanoes, they might delve into ancient Greek myths to explore the same skillset if that’s where the pupils’ curiosity leads them.

The process also involves moments of reflection and emotional learning. When pupils revisited their initial ideas about the creature and found discrepancies, they engaged in critical discussions, used peer feedback, and refined their projects. This iterative process, akin to Austin’s Butterfly technique, fosters resilience and growth within the individuals and the group as a whole.

A School of Researchers

Atelier 21 aims to develop pupils into researchers, not just passive learners. This philosophy extends beyond the classroom, creating an environment where learning is driven by curiosity and self-discovery. The perpetual question on every teacher’s mind at the school “is the learning relevant, meaningful and joyful”. The school’s intentional design respects and values the children, creating a third teacher through the environment itself. At the heart of learning is the wellbeing of the child … who they are is more important than what they know. Teach a child facts and they know a lot of information, teach a child skills and dispositions for life and imbue them with a love for learning and watch their capacity and potential become limitless.

Jess reflected on the importance of joy in learning. “The excitement and engagement come naturally from the pupils; the real challenge is structuring this joy into meaningful educational experiences” she shared. By creating blocks of learning that allow for deep dives into subjects, Jess and all Atelier 21 teachers ensure that pioneering education is both joyful and rigorous.

The Bigger Picture

Through project-based learning, Atelier 21 teachers are transforming education. By blending awe and wonder with rigorous skills development and student-centred inquiry, they create a dynamic and engaging learning experience.

This case study is part of a much larger vision for Atelier 21, where education is a collaborative, student-centred journey. The school strives to meet the needs of inspectors without being dictated by them, ensuring that learning remains innovative and relevant. It not only meets educational standards but, perhaps more importantly, prepares pupils to be curious, independent thinkers, ready to navigate and shape the world around them.

The model, with its focus on core skills and project-based learning, offers valuable insights that can and will be adopted and adapted for application in other schools. Atelier 21’s values-based environment is inclusive yet selective, ensuring that each child can succeed and flourish and so the school continues to lead in the development of a pioneering approach to education globally.