How our school is getting results with project-based learning [Interview]

Andy Carpenter

Andy Carpenter is deputy headteacher at PSCA, and is responsible for performance and pedagogy at the school. He is extremely passionate about how children learn, looking at strategies and ideas to enthuse, motivate and support students to be the best they can be. Andy is a keen cyclist, and is always look to bring the real world into the studio and learning.

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Image credit: Plymouth School of Creative Arts. Image credit: Plymouth School of Creative Arts.

Innovate My School sat down with Andy Carpenter, deputy head of pedagogy and performance at Plymouth School of Creative Arts (aka The Red House), to discuss where the school is going this year.

How are you tackling teaching and learning here at the school?

I suppose I'm some ways, some of our approaches are very traditional. They're based on using very basic ideas that are based on working alongside kids, having conversations with them and then using those conversations to move their progress forwards. One of of the things we’re doing at the moment is checking for understanding as a team. What that means is we’re trying to really have in-depth conversations with pupils on an individual level to examine what their next steps are. You’ve got to establish their boundaries, and our school places great emphasis on conversation-led learning.

We have a range of systems that allows us to establish each pupil’s boundaries. For example, in Maths a kid could do 12+7 but can’t do 12+9, and it’s about finding that this child can’t grasp place value. It’s about not just looking at subject content, but how a pupil might learn through dual enquiry. We tackle learning on a very individual level, allowing teachers to drill up, seeing who else might have a similar issue and taking from there .

What we’re trying to do is have a system that allows us to identify each pupil’s strengths and weaknesses so that we can think about what differences we need to make. Now, it could be behaviour, it could be attendance, it could be a range of different worksheets or a case where one pupil learns best by making pottery. It’s trying to find where kids can engage, and making sure that we can find out what that difference would be.

And where does technology come into play here?

Our curriculum is primarily based on project-based learning (PBL), with more traditional areas looking at teaching skills and knowledge. For this we use a platform called the HERO Learning System, which supports the implementation of PBL at levels, being used by students, teachers, SLT and parents, across all subjects.

With HERO, we can flip a classroom around. It gives us all the information we need to combine different subject areas, different content areas and different standards that you need to work towards in a really collaborative way. It’s really accessible for all staff, so we can all work to see where each kid is, progress-wise - there’s a golden thread that holds things together. Often progress gets lost in between classrooms. With a sustained enquiry, you can put community qualities into learning.

HERO is amazing for this because it’s pedagogically intuitive. It’s designed by teachers as opposed to a software company. Now, we launched this platform with three teachers to begin with, and after a few weeks the results had the rest of the staff wanting to take part. This has got all the information that you need for PBL, it’s got all the standards that you need. Kids can access it, parents can access it. It’s incredibly flexible and intuitive. We don’t want our teachers to be talking to students for twenty minutes at the start of a lesson; with HERO, we’ve got kids coming into lessons and working on their projects immediately, and they’re learning at their own post.

How does this emphasis on PBL impact on lessons here at the school?

Our pupils get involved with great projects. Year 4 and 5 kids, for example, were making scaffold wrap to create replicas of local buildings. Local artists came into the school to discuss how kids could create models that illustrated the history of Plymouth. They talked about the history amongst themselves, and did lots of research. It was a project that brought about real immersion and helped introduce new skillsets. With PBL there’s a product, there’s content knowledge, but there’s also the skill of working as part of a team, how you’re going to research, how you’re going to create something to a brief. You can bring the whole community together, both within the school and beyond.

It’s often the case that a school will have project-oriented learning where they make kids architects or project managers. The difference there is the kids don’t really know what that is, so it’s not that authentic. But if you bring actual architects or project managers in, who actually show pupils how it all works, it leads to a real understanding.

What we’re trying to do is that you have that whole field of trying to work through a process where you start something and think about what that hook is. What’s that golden thread that’s holding it all together? What do I need? What’s that immersive, tangible element we can add? What do I need to KNOW? Then I can start to think about how can I make meaning of my learning. It’s not just immersive learning - by bringing in tangible elements, they’re also learning how to learn.

Once you’ve learnt something something through this method of project-based learning, especially something practical, then you own it. It’s different when you say to pupils “Here’s a hook, do this project now”.

How is pupil progress sustained through this method?

We want pupils to look at their work in progress and say “Well that’s okay, but how can I get to good?” So then they look at the different ways in which they can develop their own understanding of the project. “I can talk to this person, I can look at this other project.” After working on the project a while longer, they’ll think “That’s good now - how can I get to great?” And then it’s about understanding the purpose of the project. Maybe you hold an art exhibition, or have parents in, or invite people from the local council to the school. It’s about having that clear idea of audience and purpose. Kids who are just settling for their ‘okay’ all the time never get to their ‘great’. That’s what we’re getting to here - kids get that feeling, they’re getting really passionate about doing something great.

In a nutshell, it’s really about having conversations with the kids about their next steps, working alongside them and their parents, giving them the means to be the best they can be. If you think about Senninger's Learning Zone Model - where there’s a comfort zone, a learning zone and a panic zone - what we’re we’re trying to do is out of their comfort zone and give them the confidence to be more independent learners. It’s about the ability to work with others and also ask for help when needed.

We encourage pupils to get things wrong a lot so that they can learn how to get things right. If you’re a scientist, or a designer, then you’re going to go through a lot of drafts to get to your goal. But you need help to get there, you need to talk with others to see how you can make your product better.

There was a lovely bit of work that we’ve done with the Year 1s and 2s where they were drawing flowers. They did their first version, and the work wasn’t too good. Then they went to some little masterclasses, and their reaction was “Oh wow, it got better!” You can see that progression. The other thing to get over is that assessment sometimes happens without parents and students. It’s teachers going away, marking 30 books, coming back and saying “Here you are”. There’s no ownership there. I think what we’re doing is ensuring that the whole process is a conversation so that kids really own their assessment. You mark things, but then you say “Well here’s where you need to go next.”

And that’s where the creativity helps.

Absolutely, we’re trying to get kids to create their own futures. We really believe in making, and that could be anything; a poem, a scientific formula, a model. It’s about being the mathematician, being the architect. We want our pupils to have a go, figure things out. Creativity should be a regular part of their learning. It’s all about that courage to fail. We tell pupils that life begins outside of your comfort zone, and we find that their comfort zones get bigger without even realising. It’s so great to say to a pupil, “A year ago this was your progress - look at you now!”

When it comes to the pupils with difficulties in certain areas, how do you address their needs?

It’s about making sure you’re really looking at the reason for bad behaviour. You’ll never get a good result by just presenting a pupil with the consequences. At 08:30 in the morning, we don’t have any technology on - we sit down and talk with our kids, see how they are, we build up strong relationships with the parents. We want to find out about anything that might be wrong before it becomes a real issue.

By bringing parents in without having the answer to the problem, we can work together to discuss their kid’s issues. You’ll find a lot of parents working alongside their kids here. We do have exclusions, but that’s a last resort really. We care about every kid, we want them to do well, and we don’t want to give up on them. Thankfully, we’ve never had a child permanently excluded.

What can we expect to see from The Red House in the next few years?

Given that communication and collaboration are so important here, we want to network with schools, both nationally and internationally, with the purpose of transforming the education system to better reflect the needs of our students, collaborating to sharpen up teaching processes. That’s our next big goal.

If you want to collaborate with Andy and the team at Plymouth School of Creative Arts, visit or contact / 01752 221927 to discuss further or organise a visit.

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