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Using Project Based Learning to Bring Communities Together

Fey Cole helped her students set up a community cafe as part of their course. They had ups and downs but 2 years in, it’s a success.

Here, she encourages more to reach out to their community to fight social isolation.

It was two years ago when I introduced the concept of intergenerational learning to FE students. I wasn’t sure if it could be a sustainable project, but students bought into it immediately and because of that I could learn with them and grow the initial design from their suggestions. The project seemed simple enough. A monthly café where children from a local school and senior members of our community could come together over a range of activities and refreshments. Working with Early Years students, I planned to map their work to communication, health & safety and activity planning units. I ended up being able to cover a huge amount more. 

The logistics did prove a bit more complicated and we soon realized if we wanted to meet with the student’s objective of tackling social isolation, we needed to get out of the classroom and into our town. Developing our communication has been a big aspect to our work. The project has led to all of us out and about, getting to know new people we probably wouldn’t have raised a glance at prior to this. There was also the consideration of getting people to us. Many of the local senior programmes have had big cutbacks to transportation. It proved extremely useful that we could use the college bus for this with no charge to the centres. 

Students were given complete autonomy to overcome these barriers as a team. My role was not as a teacher but more of a mentor, providing them with a space for reflection and communication. This wasn’t easy and tested my teaching role immensely. There were many times I wanted to provide my own ideas or step in to ‘help’ but I needed to completely hand over the reins. This was the most rewarding experience. To have complete trust in the students empowered them and I saw a complete change in their approach. Throughout this project I’ve recorded their experiences to research the benefits of what we’ve done and I found myself surprised when feedback was given on how this had made a significant impact to promote positive mental health. They were in control, supported as needed and encouraged to think critically. Trust really was the most important element to our work on all sides. It has led to a wealth of new PBL activities being embedded into our curriculum and has challenged the way in which we plan for our lessons. 

Students gained the confidence to keep coming up with new ways to grow what we were doing and I needed to work out how to map it all back to their curriculum, ensuring I could meet with college and awarding bodies requirements. What was so positive in this, was that it proved it was what awarding bodies wanted to see and local employers provided feedback that they could see practical expertise developing and students being provided with the transferable skills necessary for employment. 
The café is now a key feature for us. So what benefits has intergenerational learning brought to our curriculum? This list is just the starting point but I hope you can start to gain some idea of its impact and consider if this is something you can provide in your own college or school:

  • The student’s voice is at the forefront of everything. They have gone to management meetings at the college and pitched their ideas with professionalism and a research informed approach. Their confidence in being creative and believing in their own ability has grown.
  • Our college has been utilised in the community in a new way. People now visit us who have never been before, some even signing up for part time courses. The school children see it as a place they can come to in the future. 
  • The diverse range of people has allowed me to explore with students our own values and principles and have conversations with others to learn and connect better with all in our community. 
  • We have seen huge benefits to not just the children’s learning, but to how they associate to their wider network. Friendships have been built and all of have gained so much from the conversations we have at the café. 
  • People are seeing others differently. There is no denying that we all can come with assumptions of others. We have had open discussions on disabilities, race, ability, age, culture and this has led to much more respect from all of the generations towards one another.

The key one for me is how much we have learnt from the senior attendees. It was quite heart breaking at the start to hear at how many of them had feelings of insignificance and didn’t see the value of themselves being there. We’ve had to slow time down at points. Students, children and staff have had to sit longer to listen properly. That listening has brought a wealth of friendship, an understanding of how our local community has developed and a collection of life experiences that can support us in our own lives and future. Life is all about connections. Get your class out in your community this year. Encourage them to lead the team and have confidence in their creativity. It has changed my classroom and practice for the better and given students a diverse range of opportunities. Not only that but the value that has been brought from this has allowed us the opportunity to gain a commended award in the @AoC Beacon Awards and progress onto the finals in this. Students have led change and committed to social action and I know they will continue to go onto great things. 

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Early Years Lecturer at South West College. Has a passion for play.

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