Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Arts-Infused Project-Based Learning: Crafting Beautiful Work

Learn how to bring cross-curricular, arts-infused project-based learning into your classroom.

September 15, 2016


School 21 infuses the arts into a project-based learning model, emphasizing personalized learning and redrafting multiple revisions in the process of iteration. This London-based public school teaches students from Reception through Year 11 (approximately pre-K to 11th grade), and will ultimately serve through Year 13.

At the secondary level (Years 7 through 11), each PBL unit is co-taught by a core academic subject teacher and an arts teacher. School 21 believes that integrating the arts and PBL is a natural fit.

"I would argue that the arts is project-based learning," says Emily Crowhurst, a music teacher. "In every music lesson, whether it's a project lesson or what you might deem a typical lesson, there are project-based learning techniques going on naturally in the way that students are constantly critiquing and rehearsing what they're creating; and they're always working towards an end project that will have an authentic audience."

"My PBL process is one that mirrors the art form," adds Ahmet Ahmet, a drama teacher. "For me, project-based learning is putting on a performance."

Every student takes one co-curricular, arts-infused PBL course per 12- to 15-week term. "When we were doing immersive theatre," recalls Matilda, a Year 9 student, "it gave me a chance to put myself in the shoes of the people at the time and to experience history through their eyes. The history livens up the drama, and the drama livens up the history."

How It's Done

When Planning Your Project, Ask for Feedback

At School 21, teachers plan their project in the term prior to teaching it. For feedback, they put their proposal through the tuning protocol -- a group critique among staff -- multiple times. "The first tuning is an ideas tuning -- from an early, nascent form, getting feedback on initial ideas and overall design," says Jess Hughes, an English teacher. "Later tunings are on the detailed plan and are used to interrogate practicalities, iron out concerns, and ensure academic rigour."

In the planning stages, her Romeo and Juliet project went through three tunings, taking a total of 80 minutes. In her post "Tuning Protocol: A Framework for Personalized Professional Development," she explains how to set up your tuning protocol norms and the six steps of the protocol itself. You can also follow School 21's Project Planning Structure guide (PDF) to plan your project from the first to last tuning.

Use a PBL Project Planning Checklist

Joe Pardoe, a history teacher, and Ahmet, a drama teacher, were paired to create an arts-infused PBL project. Together, they planned how they could teach about both immersive theater and the French and Russian Revolutions. Below is School 21's PBL project planning checklist detailing these teachers' plans.

1. Essential Question: What question or problem will drive the project? How do we use immersive theater -- where the audience becomes part of the play -- to tell a story within the French or Russian Revolution?

2. Authentic Audience and Exhibition of Beautiful Work: What is the vision? Who is it for? Why are they learning it? Students will perform their play to a public audience, including the local history association, immersive theater actors and producers, and 200 other community members.

3. End product: What is being created? The end products will be a three- to five-minute immersive theater performance and an essay.

4. Significant content: Is curriculum content properly covered? Students will focus on weaknesses within the leadership, emerging ideas during that time, and an issue -- economic, political, or social -- that led to the revolution. They'll also have to incorporate specific drama techniques, and focus on a particular event, like the storming of the Bastille.

5. Rigorous assessment (including the opportunities for 1:1s with all students): How will you ensure the children have learned and made progress? Students will be assessed with non-graded multiple choice tests at the beginning of most lessons, one-on-one and small group conversations each lesson, weekly essay workshops and play critiques by their peers, and their final performance. Students will also be assessed by theater professionals and a historian who will watch their play and spend about 15 to 20 minutes with them in a question-and-answer session.

6. Timelines and transparency: Has the flow of the project been considered? How will you share this with students? The immersive play and essay will be broken down into smaller deliverables with weekly critiques and deadlines. On day one, students will get a design brief outlining their final product, their authentic audience, the content they need to cover, and their deadlines throughout the process.

7. Student choice: What aspects of the project will allow students to express themselves creatively? Students will choose which revolution they will focus on -- either the French or Russian Revolution. They'll also choose who they'll group with for their play, how their play unfolds (and what they need to learn to create an accurate and strong script and performance), and the focus of their essay -- as long as it's related to either revolution.

8. Grounding text: What will students read in order to develop their understanding? Over the holidays, students will watch a documentary, read at least part of a textbook, and read a scene from a play. They'll have their textbook to work with throughout the course of the term, and they'll also watch speeches, documentaries, and listen to immersive theater experts speak in class.

Give Your Students a Design Brief

Students meet three times a week for 100-minute class periods. On day one, both teachers launch the project with a design brief -- outlining what the final product will be, what they need to include in it, all of the deadlines from start to finish, and who their audience will be at exhibit night.

"From day one, we say, 'This is your end product. It is going to happen -- the exhibition -- on this date and time.' We give our students the complete brief so they know from day one what they should be doing," explains Pardoe. This allows students to take ownership and direction over their own learning, and plan how to meet deadlines at their own pace.

Choose Your Teaching Style

How the content and class are taught varies with the teaching style of those collaborating. Some teachers choose to co-teach every class, while others split the students in two groups, teach the subjects separately, and bring everyone back together for key co-taught classes. In either case, teachers integrate elements of their own discipline with their co-teacher's, with their students' end products ultimately reflecting both content areas.

Crowhurst and Heather Birtwistle (music and science) split their class into two and rotate them. During one week, students will go twice to music and once to science. The following week, they'll have two science classes and one music class. Throughout the term, they also have periods where all students come together to receive the design brief, for whole-class critiques or rehearsals, and during flexible sessions where students work on their products and ask for specific support. This combined class is creating multiple end products: dance music tracks, a Cymatics music video (showing the physicality of sound), and short videos explaining the learning behind their products.

"We've got certain lessons that are fixed," says Birtwistle. "In science, they absolutely need to know the laws of reflection. So we'd go to the science lab and we would have a standard science lesson, and next time, we'd have a standard lesson about refraction, but then the next lesson would be a more flexible period spending time creating their dance track, editing their music video, or filming themselves explaining their learning."

Meanwhile, Pardoe and Ahmet co-teach each history and drama class. "For me, a true fusion is two practitioners with a large group, doing it together. That's my style," says Ahmet. "Students might write an essay for 20 minutes, have a critique session, write some of their script, and then the last ten minutes they'll do a run-through. It's one big project, rather than separate lessons."

Foster Student-Directed Learning

When making their product, students learn to see their own gaps in knowledge and are able to go to either teacher, letting them know what learning they need to improve their product throughout the term.

Instead of whole-class lessons, Pardoe is able to personalize his students' learning by their interests and needs. When students come to him asking to learn more about a topic, he'll pull about 12 students together and facilitate Harkness debates -- student-led discussions at an oval table where everyone can see each other and participate. He'll give them something to read beforehand so that they'll come to the debate prepared to speak.

"Students have a chance to spend 20 minutes discussing a problem or discussing some content in depth," says Pardoe. "At the end of the session, I feedback how they performed and also clarify any misconceptions that I heard. It's a way of developing knowledge in students, but it also allows them to talk about and think through their ideas."

Assess Your Students While They're Making Their Product

Birtwistle and Crowhurst use the flexible time while students are working on their products to assess and deepen student learning. "For the music and science link," says Birtwistle, "we've been looking at how you can show vibrations and how different styles of different frequencies and amplitudes might affect those vibrations."

While their students work on their dance tracks or edit their Cymatics video, Birtwistle and Crowhurst will observe them and ask questions to assess their understanding, such as:

  • Explain why this happens.
  • Explain why you've done this.
  • What is this showing about the science?
  • Tell me what would happen if you had done X rather than Z.

"By doing that, you can start analyzing how much have the students understood," says Birtwistle. "You can say, 'I know I need to speak to this student. I need to work with them because they still haven't understood what the difference between amplitude and frequency is.'"

Provide Targeted Support

If there's a gap in a student's knowledge, Pardoe will pull students into smaller groups -- even in groups of two -- and teach them content in a more traditional way.

"What’s brilliant about this process, and working with two teachers," explains Birtwistle, "is that you can start to target individual students who you know aren’t quite there yet. It provides the opportunity for students to work independently, but also provides pivot points in which you can start doing interventions with students quite intensely and within a lesson."

Foster a Culture of Redrafting

"One of the big messages of this school is to do things in greater depth," says Peter Hyman, a co-founder and executive head teacher at School 21. They achieve this through their redrafting process. "What I want to see is not just how good the third draft is, but what is the journey that you've gone on?" adds Hyman.

"It's the drafting and critiquing process that really drives the project," explains Pardoe. In his project with Ahmet, their students will bring in a plan for their essay and get it critiqued, then an introduction which is also critiqued, then a whole first draft focused on grammar, spelling, and punctuation -- and they'll continue to bring in drafts for critiques diving deeper into the concepts behind the essay. They show off their final essay on exhibit night -- either displayed in a book or on a wall.

Their students go through the same critique and redrafting process with working on their immersive play. "They make, they redraft, and they are critiqued," says Ahmet. "We do something called an audience response -- a peer critique. I don't want a top-down structure. I want them to make it for themselves. I want them to own what they do."

Seven teenage boys are standing together at the bottom of a school stairway, looking up, wearing white masks covering their eyes. A girl without a mask is standing across from them, looking toward them.
© Edutopia

Students participate in a weekly audience response, giving feedback about what their peers might keep, add to, or take away from their play. "It points them to the direction of what needs to be improved, what's not clear, and where they need to add more knowledge," says Ahmet. "Our students are buying into this idea of a process. It's OK to not know enough. It's OK to have an idea and then find that actually that idea is completely irrelevant by week 10. What the play looks like in week one will have no resemblance by week 12."

You can adapt Ahmet's eight-step audience response protocol and read about his three tips for implementing it in his post, "The Power of Critique and Redrafting."

When a student spends a term redrafting one essay -- or a three- to five-minute play -- it allows him or her to cover a topic in depth. This process also creates a constant discussion among School 21 teachers: How can we teach a topic in depth, while still covering all the content on the exams?

Their solution: going deep into topics that bridge into other topics. "By spending more time on a gateway topic, we've gained a greater understanding that can be used for the other topics that we can cover in less depth," says Hyman. "We're finding our way towards the right mix. We haven't got all the answers yet, but that is the discussion that's going on here."

Redrafting also makes students aware of how far they've come in their learning. "When they’re getting that feedback, acting on that feedback, and changing things," says Birtwistle, "they can actually see that they can do something that’s really worthwhile and beautiful for them."

"Once you’ve crafted something beautiful for the first time," adds Hyman, "you never look back because you know the heights you can now reach."

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Arts Integration
  • Integrated Studies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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