Authentic Audiences

Often we ask students to produce work which will only ever have one audience: the teacher. Sometimes work will be displayed and sometimes it will be peer assessed but the majority of schoolwork remains pretty much unseen.

bergerRon Berger, author of An Ethic of Excellence, is the expert in Project Based Learning, and one of his key beliefs is that students must work with a real audience in mind. In this video, students present to a real audience, having interviewed real people.

When there is an authentic audience for work, there is a transformative effect not just on the final product but, more importantly, the whole process.

Improving quality and redrafting

With authentic audiences, the work has to be good enough to present to that audience. If it isn’t, it has to be improved. It can be hard to impress upon students the power of redrafting when it is only for the teacher. Often, students will rewrite things with a few words changed and a few spelling errors fixed but they won’t achieve mastery. Having a real audience in mind helps students to focus on the minutiae of improvement but also makes them more receptive to critique.

Thinking like professionals

When you make a piece of work real, you change the role of students in the class. Students can legitimately label themselves in the professional terms of the subject. If, for example, students are producing a scientific report on the energy efficiency of the school building, then they actually are scientists. With this viewpoint, it is easy to say ‘what would a scientist do?’ if a student is struggling. You can even get in experts to speak to students or to act as regular ports of call.

While this approach is often a part of project based learning, it has its part to play in our more traditional lessons too. Here are 10 ways to ensure that students’ work has an authentic audience:

1) Display

Often, display can be used to showcase only the best work from students. This is not in itself a bad thing but look at the video below of High Tech High in San Diego, where every student’s work is displayed without exception.

2) National competitions

At any given time there are many competitions which can be a great motivator for students’ work. Our food technology students entered ‘Cook for the Queen’ last year. We have entered videos for ‘Lights Camera Parliament’ and entered a mock trial competition. I am sure there are more. For example, the Royal Mail have just launched this design a stamp competition for primary schools. STEM regularly organise competitions as do many other subject-based organisations.

3) Letters and emails

There are so many opportunities to send letters and emails. Write to local MPs, to authors, to newspapers, to local businesses. It isn’t hard to change a task so that the work will be sent to someone when it is finished.

4) Blogs

Because I am writing my thoughts down on this blog, I have to ensure that what I say is appropriate, meaningful and reasonably literate! The post takes many forms and goes through many drafts before I press ‘publish’. Then I wait for people to read it and comment. The thought that people read this is both rewarding and terrifying. Through the blog, I have also had helpful comments, constructive criticism and lots of feedback. It should be no different for students. Students can be given their own blogs or they can post on a central class blog. Either way, they are then able to share their work with a wider audience. These posts will get you started:

5) Skype

Skype education has a massive scope. You can search for students/ educators/ institutions offering lessons, you can sign up to deliver a lesson or you can forge links and just set up chats. For example, if a Spanish teacher wants students to speak about their hobbies, why not get them to speak to a school in Spain? Jon Tait explains how to use Skype in the video below:

6) Videos made by students for students

You can ask students to create videos for other students. This is a helpful activity because a) it allows students to summarise their learning b) it motivates them as they know it will be seen and c) the students who get to see the presentation learn from their peers. This could be particularly helpful in those subjects with carousels e.g. Science, Technology where students could summarise their learning in the form of a video to introduce the topic to the next class. Sixth form students can easily record videos for younger students. You could even build up a Youtube playlist over time like this one on Biology from CrashCourse. If this interests you, have a look at this blog from Mike Gunn:

7) Create for another subject

GlobeOur Construction students designed and built this version of the Globe Theatre for us to use in English. Music students could create for Dance lessons. Art students could create for Drama lessons.

8) Community

Every school exists in a unique community. There are always interesting historical and cultural stories but often people don’t see that the school exists in a particular context. There are so many members of the community who would be able to play a role in your lessons and so many potential audiences for students’ work. At our school we have worked with local primary schools, local O.A.P. groups, the local Victorian Baths, accountancy firms etc.

You can see some examples of student projects involving the community such as this project on San Diego Bay, this on the Charles River, or this on birdlife in Cramlington.

This is another fantastic project where a shop was used to exhibit student work.

Note: You can see many more examples of student work from Ron Berger’s Expeditionary Learning here:

9) Commissions

It needn’t just be about starting a piece of work you would normally do and then thinking about a relevant audience. Sometimes there are real projects that can be commissioned and which can act as the starting point for your work. For example, why not speak to your local council about surveys that they might like completing? Speak to charities about jobs they need doing. Speak to newspapers about articles they need writing. Do local businesses need advertising- a jingle?

10) School Events

Schools are abuzz with events. Visitors are forever in. There are parents’ evenings, performances, sports fixtures, staff meetings. There are so many opportunities. Even if this is just to capture the audience to display work.





Some thoughts on An Ethic of Excellence


I have just finished reading An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger and wanted to put down a few thoughts.

I have been looking forward to reading An Ethic of Excellence as it has come highly recommended from a number of sources.  It is one of those books that takes a while to read.  Not just because you have to stop every few seconds to highlight and write on post it notes but you also end up having to get started on work that it inspires. Berger’s passion is evident on every page and there is a real sense of the impact that his approach has had on the students he teaches.  The final paragraph about his former students is lovely.

Much of it chimes with some approaches to teaching that I have adopted this year e.g. involving real audiences and project based work.  However, it is clear that I was only playing at this and Berger proves that the potential is far greater.

He writes about ‘Making Work Public’.  Often, pupils’ work is put on display in classrooms and sometimes in public forums.  This is usually the best work or the prettiest and certainly isn’t something the students are generally bothered about as they do the work.   I am currently reading some homework completed by my year 8 class.  Most of the work is a joy to read, the result of hours of effort and real pride.  The remainder are good but there are a couple of pupils ‘phoning it in’, producing work that is good enough but not the best they can possibly do.  As it stands, I am the only person who will read the work.  They will get good quality feedback but as I mark each piece I can’t help thinking that I am missing a trick.  Would the work be even better if pupils knew that it would be published and visible to the world?  If every piece was to be framed and, say, placed in the Principal’s office, would the quality improve? Also, how much more would they have enjoyed it?  Berger ensures that the exhibition of work is central and the answer to the question ‘what’s the point of this?’ is obvious to the pupils.  Nobody hands in anything less than their very best work.

The approach of ‘critique’ is quite an eye-opener too.  I have seen peer assessment take place where it is frankly a waste of time.  All too often a piece of work is completed and it is ‘marked’ by another pupil.  However, without a structure and a clear understanding of how to effectively critique a piece of work the feedback is rarely very useful.  Also, without the opportunity to redraft, excellent feedback can be wasted.

I was also struck by Berger’s acknowledgement that he is lucky:

“I’m trusted in my job…I’m encouraged to innovate…I have support…lots of support.  I’m not working alone.  I’m part of a community of educators who work together, help and critique each other.”

I am looking forward this year to helping create opportunities for teachers in my school to collaborate and innovate and I have no doubt that Berger’s ideas will heavily influence a lot of what we do.