Project-based learning for purpose

Joe Pardoe

After graduating university (Politics and History), my first taste of education was through the JET (Japanese Exchange of Teachers) Programme. Working on a small island off the coast of Nagasaki, I worked with the local board of education to deliver a language and culture curriculum to 40 elementary and junior high schools. I realised that I wanted to work in education, so to develop my understanding further, I then worked in schools in Shanghai, China as an English teacher. I returned to the UK and joined the Teach First programme in 2011, teaching History in a school in Hull. I am currently head of Humanities and Project Based Learning at School 21, Newham, London.

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Images courtesy of author. Images courtesy of author.

Introduction: Why get out of bed in the morning?

I do not think there is such thing as a ‘motivated person’ or a ‘lazy person’ - we are just motivated by different things. Motivation is not linear. I was, and remain, motivated by learning. I love reading widely and learning more about the world in which I live. I am really not motivated by team sports, singing or marking books. There are some things that I really want to do (and see value in) but have to be persuaded to do; I want to be good at the piano and I want to run half marathons in a vaguely respectable time. I REALLY want to do these things. I have all of the equipment needed. I have peers who will practice with me and I have access to people who will give me expert feedback and teach me.

However, after working all day, despite my want to practice, if I walk past the pub on my way home and see some of my colleagues, I am far more likely to go in and socialise rather than go home and practice. I am motivated to do some things, I am not motivated to do some things, and I need a kick up the backside to do other things. I find this complex but interesting. As I find with most things, theory and research helps to cast a light on the mysterious.

The original theories of motivation were based around reward and punishment. McGregor put forward his xy theory which essentially held the principle that humans are inherently lazy and would do very little if it were not for the rewards of doing something or the punishments of not doing something. Most of the education system is based around this principle: students are seen as not wanting to learn or to behave well and therefore we offer rewards for conformity and punishments for anyone who fails to follow the rules. This theory has largely been disproved, and many businesses have moved away from this way of motivating employees - most schools have not.

Daniel Pink, in his work Drive, re-evaluated motivation and broke it down into three categories: mastery, autonomy and purpose. He argues that to be motivated to do something, there has "I need a kick up the backside to do some things."to be an element of mastery - challenge and a feeling that you are improving. In education, we focus a lot on this. Good teachers will assess to ensure progress of students and provide expert feedback at regular intervals. There has been a trend to move towards ‘mastery curriculums’ based on bad translations of the East Asian education system. I am in favour of this trend, however Pink argues that this alone is not sufficient to ensure motivation. While some people will be motivated to get better at something just for the sake of getting better, most will not.

Any organisation ignoring short term purpose will need to fall back on the McGregor approach of reward and punishment to ensure conformity. For example, if we want students to master the basics of literacy and numeracy, which I am assuming we all do, the way schools often do this is to tell students it is important, say they will need it for an exam (maybe in five years time!) and then tell them if they don’t do it, they will get a detention. Would this motivate you? I have no idea where I will be in five years time (I barely know what I am doing next week!) so telling me I will need to practise something for something I will need ‘in the future’, is unlikely to get me to do it. Take the piano or half marathon example, the reason I sign up to play at recitals or to run organised half marathons is to give me something, short term, to work towards. I am much more likely to walk past the pub and go to the gym if I have a half marathon approaching.

So, how do we move away from forcing students to do something and get them to want to do it? How can we put purpose into our curriculums?

Purpose and Project Based Learning at School 21.

When we started the GCSE course in History, one of the units we were required to study was ‘The Transformation of British Society, 1959-1979’. The reason I chose this unit was simple - I had taught it before. In my previous school, I taught it something like this:

  Topic Activity Assessment
1 Economics in the 1950s Watch a video and read sources Imagine you are in the 50s talk about your life
2 Immigration in the 1950s Look at a range of sources and put into categories Exam question
3 Society in the 1950s Inference from sources Write a diary about what it would be like to be a child in the 50s
4 The Education System Read sources about what it was like in a secondary modern / grammar school Create a table of ‘memories’ of school
5 Leisure in the 50s Read the book / watch some clips Answer some questions about the topic
6 Key Topic 1 Exam Revision and exam Past Paper

This covered all of the content required for the course, and I used the ‘assessment activities’ as a proxy of learning - this is how I was able to check the students’ understanding. However, after working at School 21 and experimenting with a different way of structuring the curriculum, I reflected that:

  • Everyone was doing the same activity - differentiated a number of times and at huge cost to my work life balance!
  • Everyone stopping and starting at the same time - the cause of almost all of my ‘low level behaviour’ issues.
  • Surface level understanding of the topic - one lesson, then on to the next.
  • Lack of authentic history.
  • Books marked sporadically and feedback given next lesson.
  • No re-drafting of work.
  • Me often at the front of class / motivating / managing - burn out. I was genuinely ready to leave the profession.

In addition, using Pink’s theory as a reflection tool, I had definitely included (to some degree at least) ‘mastery’, but this way of teaching allowed for no (or very little) student autonomy and the purpose was the GCSE exam.

This is how, alongside my excellent colleague Rosie Goodhart, we delivered the same unit, using a PBL approach:

This included students having to put on a coffee morning for local residents and interview them about their lives during the period of our study:

We also took students out into local community spaces to carry out interviews:

And we arranged for a BBC documentary maker to come in and teach the students about documentary making. He also came into school a number of times during the project to critique and helped assess their final products:

This structure meant that we sacrificed nothing (in fact, if anything, enhanced) the content (mastery) but added purpose. To test this, in a lesson, ask a student why they are doing the current activity. If they respond ‘because the teacher told me’ or ‘for an exam’, the chances are you will need to resort to reward and punishment to get the students to complete the work. If you get a response such as ‘I am doing this to help the people of Newham attract more hedgehogs to their garden’ (this was genuinely a response I recently heard in an English lesson with Y7!) then you have managed to get students to see that what they are mastering, has a purpose beyond schools and exams.


We all want students to leave school with a sound understanding of the basics of literacy and numeracy and a ‘canon’ of subject specific knowledge. We want this so that students can do well in exams but also so they can understand, succeed in and improve the world. What "We want students to understand, succeed in and improve the world."I believe PBL can do, is to provide a short term and meaningful reason to learn this knowledge. If not, we will keep the current system of some students learning because they love a particular subject (or due to their background and circumstances) and the rest feeling like they are being forced to learn and without any concrete understand of why they are learning. While it is laudable for teachers to aspire to instil a love of learning for their subject in students, the fact is, this is not always going to happen - we need a plan B. That plan B can be purpose rather than just reward and punishment.

Further Reading

There are a range of great resources which give much more detail about how to build purpose (and autonomy) into school curricula. As well as my own Twitter page and blog, here are a good selection of resources:

  • Buck Institute ‘Work that Matters’ (PDF available online - Google it!)
  • Berger, Ron, Ethic of Excellence (available in school)
  • Berger, Ron, Leaders Of Their Own Learning (available in school)

Do you motivate through PBL? Let us know below.

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