• Anita Demitroff

Wading into Project-Based Learning for 2030: Where Does Our Waste Water Go?

We all know we should give Project-Based Learning (PBL) a go and we all feel the pressing need to cover the 2030 agenda. Here is a practical example of both from a 3rd of Primary English class. The mini project was about waste water and where it ends up once we flush our toilets or use the shower and kitchen sink.

Project-based learning has been gaining ground in recent years. Just pop into any Pre-Primary class and we see the K-W-L chart (what we know, what we want to find out and what we have learnt) charts for anything from dinosaurs to penguins, to castles, and in the corridors of any Primary or Secondary school, we can also see the posters and other end products from the latest projects different classes are doing.

Online, PBL has a strong presence, too. Ron Morrain from Innovative Teachers of English, is a fierce advocate of PBL and websites like PBL Works provide countless resources and challenging guidelines.

However, as with any other methodology, we have to adapt these trends to make them work for us and our classes. Moreover, our colleagues at school have to be on board so that we can all train learners over time to do secondary research or work collaboratively or exercise their “voice and choice,” the basic pillars of PBL. As English teachers, we shouldn't try to make big changes single-handedly.

Here is how our mini-project took shape. Projects are often planned around a driving question. That is, a class feels motivated to do research around a topic that arouses their interest.

We started with a simple map, which started with a toilet the pupils drew. At home, they then worked with their families to help them complete the picture of where water went after it left the toilet. Most came back making an almost direct path from their toilets to the sea. Others drew pipes. Only one had a vague idea of a treatment plant. However, we could have also piqued interest in waste water by showing this picture of what looks like a random selection of objects. What do these items have in common? They had all been flushed down the toilet! What happens to things that go down the toilet?

As the next step, we watched a video (start at1':05'') without the sound, then simplified the process with props and a basic explanation: pictures of a sink, shower and toilet; toilet rolls with "pipes" written on them; Tupperware boxes to represent the three tanks: one with an arm to take off scum, the second with bacteria puppets and the third with a bottle marked "chloride" and a candle and matches to play the role of an incinerator for the toys, personal effects and mobiles that had gone down the toilet. Finally, a blue scarf was used as the sea.

At the same time, we explored other questions: how many of our families used wipes in the bathroom and could those wipes be flushed down the toilet, as indicated on the packet? Here primary research came into play; we carried out a simple experiment. We had three glass jars with water to see what happened when we added toilet paper to one, a wipe to another and tissue to the third. Only the toilet paper began to break up in the water. The wipe and tissue did not. It could therefore be concluded that it was not a good idea to flush these materials down the toilet.

The questions that led to inquiry about waste water were posed by the teacher. However, they inspired the pupils to raise their own doubts, giving them a voice. For example, Juan wanted to know why his body gas sometimes smelt like eggs, something that could have led to a cul-de-sac in many classrooms. Instead, it inspired us to look at what the two, body gas and eggs, had in common: sulphur. We smelt cooked and uncooked eggs to detect that chemical in the boiled shell and then sniffed and tasted volcanic salt, whose sulphur content gave it a savoury taste. Of course, we had ensured that no one was allergic to eggs beforehand.

Up to that point, we had taken the soft CLIL route by doing scientific activities in English. How could we incorporate language learning activities? Finding a picture book that complemented these themes wasn’t difficult. "The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit" is popular in our part of Spain and is available in Spanish, Galician and English. In the story, a mole gets pooed on as he leaves his hole and spends the rest of the day interrogating other animals to see if they were the culprits. This was a particularly masculine class, so even those who are normally reluctant to participate did the role play with gusto. And it was clear that a follow-up would be to have children identify animals by their droppings and, say, footprints.

According to PBL purists, the end result of a project should have learners informing their community about what they have learnt. If there had been more time, it would have been ideal for the pupils to make a poster or video about waste water or to repeat the experiment to their younger classmates. There would have been a choice of which end product they wanted to do. However, we missed out on these opportunities because of time limitations.

We had to move on to the next unit in the textbook, which was about a different topic! Nevertheless, we managed to engage everyone and to touch on the topic of waste water, something they will see again during their time at school. They may even visit a treatment plant. For this mini project, we involved the families, took part in inquiry and had a little laugh as well. We may not have ticked every box on the PBL list of must-do’s, but learning is always a series of approximations. We’d love to hear about your experiences with projects, from baby steps to big strides!

By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.