From education to employment

Raising aspirations with project-based learning

As we move into a more positive business market, employers are considering wider aspects of job roles and the ‘softer’ skills that are required for every job specification. As educators, we need to focus on developing work-ready young people with the right attitude and the right skills. At Reading College we are moving more towards a Project-Based Learning approach to help students acquire the skills now needed for the work place.

The college’s mission is to help students ‘go further’. To do this students need to develop the skills that will give them an advantage when heading into the job market. This has meant that we are increasingly adapting the way we teach, structure the curriculum and create lessons for students. For example, I no longer see myself as just a ‘teacher’. Instead, I consider myself more of a facilitator, coach and mentor. Today in the age of the internet, information and data is ubiquitous – it can be found anytime, anywhere. My role in the learning process is to leverage and support the research students undertake helping them to synthesise that information and understand how to apply knowledge in a meaningful way.

Project-Based Learning is considered an alternative to the traditional paper-based, memorisation, teacher-led classroom. Gone are the days of chalk and talk – Project-Based Learning integrates knowing, doing and creating. While students learn elements of the core curriculum, they also apply what they know to solve specific problems to produce sustainable results.

We started using this approach at the college about 18 months ago. In the process we remodelled our Business Curriculum courses which comprise many elements. One such example may be three main units – business accounting, marketing and product promotion. As part of the Project-Based Learning curriculum, students now have to start their own business. For example, in the accounting unit learners set up and submit business plans and reports through forecasting. In the marketing unit they undertake market research to try to identify niche markets, and in the product promotion unit for example they may simulate a pop-up shop experience. These are all key skills that don’t just satisfy the curriculum, they extend to translate directly into the work environment and entrepreneurial learning. We also focus on helping students to develop the softer skills that businesses need today including presentation skills, communications skills, negotiation skills and salesmanship.

Another example of how we use Project-Based Learning is by establishing links with local businesses. Supply Chains and specifically distribution are growth areas on the ‘M4 corridor’. For our supply chain and distribution units we developed relationships and worked very closely with Harrods, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s distribution centres and utilised subject specialists to assist in delivering some of our core curriculum. This gives students a taste of real-life work experiences.

Engineering is a particularly exciting area where we are going for an entire Project-Based Learning approach. We have some great plans in place to develop our own electric powered car for the IET Green Power Formula 24+, modelled on Formula E, the electric measure for Formula 1. Imagine how great it would be if Reading College learners were to work towards a goal of joining a Formula E team?

All of the above examples have been assisted by our use of innovative technologies. We pride ourselves in delivering an unrivalled curriculum. Having technology to support such creativity and innovation is just another example of how our learners Go Further in such a competitive marketplace for young people. Their technological enhancement as part of our Project-Based Learning approach has been fantastic.
Fundamentally, Project-Based Learning is about preparing students for life and the real work world. In my opinion this is the direction that education needs to go. As teachers we should move away from the traditional learning environment where teachers lecture and expect to have everyone’s unquestioning attention. Instead, we need to prepare students for a world that now needs so much more than just academic skills.

I recently presented, sharing best practice, at Reading College’s Teaching and Learning Conference and posed the question ‘Where would you go to study elephants?’ The most creative individuals answered that they would go to the zoo. For me, Project-Based learning is all about moving from the zoo to the jungle. Today it is imperative that we prepare our students for the ‘real-life jungle’ environment that they will find when they leave college – not an artificial environment like a zoo.

Alex Warner is head of learning for business, IT and engineering at Reading College

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