Project-based learning provides a playful learning environment

When 4th industrial revolution (4IR) discussions began mid-2017, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) started re-evaluating the school curriculum to ensure that learners would be prepared for the future. What they found is that the content of the current curriculum is not the problem; rather it is the way it is implemented. E3, a non-profit organisation with a permanent unit seconded to the DBE, has played a critical role in helping the DBE to adapt the school curriculum to a changing world.

E3 was originally a small research group piloting and testing new pedagogies or methodologies for activating 21st century competencies in learners. Their mandate now is to deliver a blueprint for a tested pedagogy that the Department can roll out at scale. By 2024, they want to have reached 24 000 schools.

‘Of course, our real goal is to lower youth unemployment, which is now over 60%,’ says Margaret Worthington-Smith, Executive Programme Director. ‘After 13 years of schooling, learners should be prepared for life after school and not a life of unemployment. Unfortunately this is not happening at the moment.

‘We often hear that entrepreneurship is the solution to solve our unemployment crisis, but we also know from various reports that we are not really an entrepreneurial nation and that small businesses tend to fail.

‘So we shifted the positioning of our mandate to a far broader outcome, which is all about the three Es in E3: Entrepreneurship, Employability and Education.

Worthington-Smith says education has to be far more about the entrepreneurial mindset; it has to develop not just skills but also the attitudes that enable young people to enjoy a challenge and to seek solutions to every problem.

As with so many forward thinkers in education, the E3 team believe in project-based learning, which is a clear departure from subject-based learning. Rather than dividing the school day into subjects, each conveyed through rules, principles and  theories, and each taught in compete isolation from the others, the project-based approach gets children working on a variety of exciting projects that ideally cross the boundaries of several disciplines. Project work brings play into learning, and play, as any child development expert will tell you, is an essential element for learning in the young child – and not only the very young.  

Play involves exploration, discovery and imagination, all qualities required when working on an interesting project. Projects connect learners in school with real-life situations and mirror the sorts of challenges that learners will encounter as they enter the world.

E3 would like to see learners working on projects that bring in ‘multiliteracies’, such as maths, geography and literacy, but for now, Worthington-Smith says that would not be practical. South African teachers have too little experience in creating these sorts of projects. The  immediate goal for  E3, therefore, is to see project-based learning implemented in each individual subject.

‘Project-based learning should provide a playful learning environment that involves various competencies like problem-solving and social interaction skills. By the end of 13 years of schooling, children should have developed a whole range of competencies that we have divided into three main ‘buckets’: thinking, connecting and character.

‘We want learners to think critically, connect by communicating and collaborating, and have strong characters. Even more important, we want them to develop a sense of agency. We don’t really live in a country that activates agency. We are very much controlled by others like teachers, parents, ministers and governors, who tell us what to do and to some extent what to think. But we really want to build a sense of agency and autonomy in young people, so they have a sense of power over their own individual lives.’

Project-based learning is not the only change to the curriculum that DBE is looking at.  Over the last three years, they have been working in a very dedicated and strategic way to support learners in career pathing, based on the individual’s abilities and interests. A one-approach-fits-all, where everyone follows an academic path, is simply not working. People are wired differently, and flourish in different settings.  

This year the DBE is piloting the three streams model in selected schools and by 2024 it will be fully implemented. The three streams are the academic stream, the occupational stream, and the vocationally orientated stream.

What will happen is by the end of Grade 9, learners will receive an exit certificate known as the General Education Certificate. This does not mean that the learner’s education stops at Grade 9, but that they have completed competencies to be able to move into one of their streams of interest and capabilities. Formative assessment will be used to evaluate learners’ achievements, with formative assessments having a higher weighting than summative assessments. Project-based learning pedagogy will be used to give learners the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and skills.

The occupational subjects stream will offer 26 subjects that will help learners develop job skills and make them employable after school. Some of these subjects will focus on agricultural or technical careers like mechanical or civil technology. At the end of four years of study, learners taking this route should be able to enter the world of work with the skills they have acquired, or follow apprenticeship programmes to further hone their skills.

The vocational stream will include a variety of subjects like ancillary health care, beauty and nail technology, hospitality studies, plumbing and welding, and many more.

The DBE is also introducing coding and robotics from Grade 1 to Grade 9 – an essential area of knowledge that will be needed increasingly in the future.

‘At the moment, school has very little meaning for learners who cannot keep up or who don’t have the capabilities to complete an academic career. By catering to a broader range of learners who will excel in other areas, and by having all learners become expert problem finders and solution seekers, we are determined to reach our goal of eradicating unemployment by 90% by 2035.’

Corporate Social Responsibility News (CSRNEWS) is South Africa’s leading Corporate Social Responsibility news, media and publishing firm. We create content on social responsibility, helping government, corporates, consultants, NPOs and NGOs to reach their target markets through appropriate, targeted development news.

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