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Making PBL work at Loyola College

‘Take chances, make mistakes and get messy’ – how the Humanities team at Loyola College shifted their curriculum delivery towards deeper learning through PBL

Rachael Patrick - Head of Learning (Humanities Faculty) Loyola College

A crowded curriculum is universal problem in Australia. We’re trying to maximise the knowledge that students will leave our schools with so that they can be active and informed citizens with compassion and empathy. They will hopefully be the ones to make the changes we want to see in the world. As teachers, we naturally want them to flourish in life beyond our campus gates. However, when you take the crowded curriculum and then add in the complications of school activities like assemblies, house swimming, special excursions and the constraints of a timetable, you have a recipe for shallow learning and stressed teachers. In the Humanities Faculty at Loyola College in 2019, we have sought to address this by incorporating a Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit in our Junior Year Levels.


What was the impetus for change?

The Victorian Curriculum is quite robust, especially in Humanities. There are four distinct subjects which must be covered by all students under the study of Humanities: Civics and Citizenship, Business and Economics, Geography, and History. Each of these subjects include their own content stipulations and there are several cross-curriculum priorities and General Capabilities which must be taken into account where appropriate. In our context at Loyola College, we have approximately 80 hours of teaching time across the school year in Humanities-specific timetabling to ensure that all of these subjects and curriculum requirements are met for reporting purposes. It must be said though that it is a rarity all 80 of these hours will actually be available to us due to the necessary opportunities students should be provided with as we educate their whole person.


The timetabled 80 hours of Humanities a year at Loyola is deceptive. It seems both ample and yet not enough time to cover everything we’d like to. In the Humanities Faculty, we have always felt the traditional approach of discreetly taught topics or units allowed the students to compartmentalise their knowledge and skills despite the progressive nature of our subjects, especially History. The compartmentalising followed the relentless onslaught of new topic after new topic in order to hit the required achievement standards, which has meant that the teaching team often felt as though they ‘glossed over’ certain aspects of the way curriculum content could be applied to the world. This, we decided, was no way to teach and to learn richly. In 2019, we opted to take a new approach to our curriculum in order to promote the depth of knowledge we felt our students needed in order to become the active and informed citizens we need them to be. We resolved to use PBL as a vehicle to achieve this.

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How did we start our planning?

Like the great mad scientists of history and literature, we needed to change our approach and dare to try something that hadn’t been done before at the College. The radical re-think of our collective curriculum started at the top. We worked backwards from the ideals of the Jesuit Pupil Profile (Jesuitinstitute.org, 2019) which outline the key qualities a student formed in a Jesuit Tradition (or Ignatian Charism) School will have on their graduation and sought to track this back through our collective approach to pedagogy and curriculum content all the way through from Year 12 to Year 7. We constantly asked ourselves the questions ‘What kind of young people do we hope to produce?’ and ‘how can we enact this in our Humanities specific context given the six-year journey most of our students will make with us?’ So much for trying to start small!


Luckily for us, we learned quickly that the Humanities is a wonderful place to begin for all of these different aspects of learning at Loyola. It’s a collection of a wide variety of subjects which focusses on the world around us and the people in it. Where better than our classrooms to learn more deeply and flourish as good humans?! Having done a lot of preliminary curriculum mapping in the Faculty and brainstorming about our Catholic Identity, we took the planning plunge and jumped in feet first by addressing our Year 7 Humanities curriculum.


In an overview of the Year 7 curriculum at Loyola prior to 2019, the following was covered by all staff and all students:

· Three units of history (Ancient Australia, Ancient Rome and Ancient China)

· Two units of geography (Water in the World and Place & Liveability)

· One unit of Civics and Citizenship (Australian Parliament)

· One unit of Business and Economics (Producers and Consumers)


Conservatively, the above combination meant that there were approximately 20 hours to cover each subject on face value, some of which (like history) had multiple topics within them. It was no wonder we used a ‘shotgun approach’ and garnered breadth but not depth from students in their summative assessments. It was felt by the teaching team that the biggest improvement in terms of student achievement could be made across our History and Geography units where we acknowledged collectively it was vitally important to produce better depth of understanding in the curriculum content.

For more articles like this, from PBL practitioners for PBL practitioners, sign-up to the eduSTEM Review at https://www.edustem.com.au/edustemreview


How did we plan an interdisciplinary unit?

Relishing the role of chief mad scientist in the un-crowding experiment with the Loyola curriculum, Rachael Patrick, Head of Learning for Humanities, literally took to the Victorian Curriculum with a pair of scissors in order to change the view of the teaching team from a linear progression in the content elaborations to one which promoted deeper thinking. As a Geography and History method specialist, Rachael felt like she was in a unique position to understand the challenges of the curriculum from multiple subject perspectives. This proved invaluable in the planning stages prior to the implementation of a PBL unit at Year 7. The Year 7 Teaching team sat on the floor of the Faculty office one afternoon moving around the sliced-up print outs of the Geography and History curriculum, separating the elaborations from their unit titles and achievement standards so that each could be examined on its own merits. The team shuffled around small strips of paper for a couple of hours, discussing each as it caught their eye. What began to emerge quite quickly in the organic discussion was the inherently similar themes and concepts contained within the two subjects. The teaching team began grouping the elaborations together as they naturally fitted by idea rather than under the traditional content headings of ‘Ancient China’ and ‘Place and Liveability’. For example, the team felt that each of the content areas below across Level 7 for the Victorian History and Geography curriculums could be grouped together if we found the right issue to drive the study.

  • Ways that flows of water connect places as they move through the environment and the ways this affects places (VCGGK106)

  • Nature of water scarcity and the role of humans in creating and overcoming it, including studies drawn from Australia and West Asia and/or North Africa (VCGGK108)

  • Factors that influence the decisions people make about where to live and their perceptions of the liveability of places (VCGGK111)

  • The nature of sources of evidence about ancient Australia and what they reveal about Australia’s ancient past, such as the use of resources (VCHHK107)

  • How physical features influenced the development of the civilisation’ (VCHHK109)

This naturally lent itself to further exploration about where else these concept links were located and what would tie these ideas together.


Where does PBL fit in?

Once we considered the content of the Victorian Humanities curriculum in a new way, we could also use the opportunity to determine and test new pedagogical approaches in order to best deliver our less crowded, depth provoking concepts. Our chief considerations were:

· Our focus landed on the issue of water to tie together the History and Geography curriculums in a new way at Loyola College. ‘Water in the Ancient and Modern Worlds’ would allow us to cover both required history and geography content in better depth. In order to continue to help develop the incorporation of the General Capabilities of the Victorian Curriculum, we wanted to find a vehicle for the study that would help students cultivate critical and creative thinking skills within a Humanities context


  • We wanted a future-focused pedagogy and unit structure, which drew on lessons of the past to inform choices of the future so that we could assist in the nurturing/formation of men and women for others in the Ignatian tradition of the College

  • Maintaining student engagement with the subjects in Humanities was paramount. A re-think of traditional content delivery would mean we would become a little more flexible in our approaches to learning and what that looks like, but not at the expense of disengaging students who felt this was a less-rigorous approach and time to switch off

PBL fits the above requirements perfectly! It isn’t a new concept in education and industry has harnessed the power of design thinking for years. The challenges of the crowded curriculum, timetabling constraints, and the desired depth of student understanding could all be benefited from this approach. It would allow students to explore a genuine and authentic geographical and historical issue (water scarcity) in an engaging and sustained long-term project with their classmates. A PBL approach would include the honing of critical and creative thinking skills at its heart.


As a teaching team, we agreed that if we spent less time directly teaching content discreetly and independently in our classrooms via individual topics, we could un-crowd our Humanities curriculum somewhat. By allowing students to develop their own pathway through the specified curriculum content (with teacher guidance), we realised the more practical and experiential the learning would be, resulting in increased engagement as they grappled with a topic that will inevitably affect their own future.


With palpable excitement about how to enact our big ideas for the uncrowding of the curriculum, having settled on content and pedagogical targets, Loyola College engaged the expert team at eduSTEM to provide us with resources that would help us transition our ideas from the copious notes we wrote into a PBL unit of study and assessment. What resulted from the term-long project completed by Year 7s were some of the best and most creative summative assessments ever produced within the Faculty.


eduSTEM created a PBL packet for Loyola College students which was firmly rooted in the powerful potential of design thinking processes. Students were required to focus on finding a social solution for future of water security in Australia. Through their study in the ‘Water in the Ancient and Modern Worlds’ unit, the students’ assumptions about water availability in the past (and assumptions about the future) were challenged and while working in groups, students were encouraged to consider future solutions informed by the different practices of societies such as the Indigenous Australians, Ancient Egyptians and both the Ancient and modern Chinese approaches to the management of water. Thinking outside of the box and examining the past in order to inform their own futures meant that our Year 7 students instantly were able to move through and within the processes of design thinking, including empathising with people faced with water security issues; defining what we may need in Australia for the future in order to ensure our water security; ideating and then prototyping their proposed solutions. As a teaching team, we remained steadfast in reinforcing the concept that solutions to modern problems could be informed by past practices. This came through in the final presentations of students as they drew on the collective wisdom of the ages to explain how they might ensure their own future is water secure.


What did we learn?

In embarking on this journey of un-crowding our junior Humanities curriculum in 2019, we were unwittingly participating in our own PBL at Loyola College. Design thinking and Project Based Learning are inherently problem-solving approaches, crystallised in the fields of design and industry which combine both a user-centred perspective with rational and analytical research to achieve the goal of innovation. By critically assessing our needs as a College, through the questioning of traditional curriculum delivery and pedagogical approaches, and with a little faith as we stepped into the unknown, we identified an alternative strategy with which we could tackle the problems created by over-crowding in our busy timetable. By enacting these principles without realising, we modelled PBL to our colleagues and our students with great success. We are very much looking forward to refining the work we’ve already begun to un-crowd our Year 7 Humanities curriculum by innovating with PBL. For 2020, teaching teams are already looking at ways to incorporate design thinking and project-based learning more explicitly in other year levels across the whole spectrum of the Humanities subjects in the Victorian Curriculum and beyond.


My final advice if you’re looking to step into the world of PBL at your school? As educational rockstar and Magic School Bus operator Ms Frizzle always says, “Take chances, make mistakes and get messy”. Sit on the floor, slice up your curriculum documentation, and think outside the box to create innovating approaches to issues old and new. Try it.


For more articles like this, from PBL practitioners for PBL practitioners, sign-up to the eduSTEM Review at https://www.edustem.com.au/edustemreview

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