How the applied transdisciplinary learning at Aspirations Academy Trust develops young people’s skills and encourages deep real world learning.
“I’ve devoted more than two decades to teaching. During this time I’ve been lucky to work across primary and secondary schools. This has given me unique insights into how children’s dispositions change as they progress on their learning journey. Primary age children are so independent, confident and keen to explore. However, once they arrive at secondary school, the focus shifts towards passing exams, changing the way they view their lessons – they become a means to an end.
This is where Applied Transdisciplinary Learning (ATL) and the No Limits Curriculum – offered to pupils at all 16 schools run by the Aspirations Academies Trust – have proved to be game-changing.
As ATL lead for the trust, my responsibilities include supporting development of ATL in our secondary schools and leading ATL for Year 7 and 8 students at Rivers Academy West London. The work being done in our classrooms is transformational.
These lessons focus on teamwork, project development, collaboration and creative thinking – skills to help students thrive in the 21st century. Often, the English education system falls short. While project-based learning isn’t a new idea, what sets the trust apart is that we run Government-funded schools. Rather than overturning our conventional curriculum, we’ve instead adapted it to incorporate ATL.
ATL, part of our No Limits Curriculum, has helped smooth that awkward transition between primary and secondary, ensuring students feel valued and supported. At primary, students are accustomed to one or two teachers with whom they build a rapport and bond. In secondary school it’s normal to have up to ten teachers. This can lead to a lack of belonging and prevents good student/teacher relationships. Year 7 should be an exciting year in a new school but in reality most students don’t progress as much as they should. We therefore mostly teach our ATL and No Limits sessions in the same groups with the same one or two teachers. This helps create real connections, strong teacher-pupil relationships, good behaviour and a sense of belonging.
Secondly, our unique approach helps develop young people’s future skills. ATL and No Limits provide them with an opportunity to apply subject learning to real-world problems. This develops traits like interpersonal skills, initiative and resilience that they’ll need to succeed. And because ATL brings together teachers and pupils across subjects, it breaks down artificial silos that don’t exist in the real world.
Alongside their usual subjects, pupils have six ATL lessons a week. Perhaps we’ll explore the theme of climate change. Pupils learn about the geographical and scientific aspects of this in their individual subjects. Then, during their ATL lessons, they’ll come together and take on assignments exploring how climate change impacts people in the real world, what’s being done about it, and so on.
Our No Limits Curriculum centres on ‘driving questions’ such as ‘How can we, as global citizens, understand climate change in order to initiate eco-friendly practices at our academy?’
These questions provide students and teachers with a learning purpose. They’re engaging, provocative and open-ended, and should have several possible solutions. They also immerse pupils in a problem that affects their current future lives. In answering them, pupils are taught to apply key workplace traits, including interpersonal and communication skills.
To get started, we launch new assignments with a ‘wow’ event. For example, to launch a recent technology assignment, we turned our school library into a ‘History of Technology Museum’. Pupils got to explore tech from the ancient world right up to the modern age, interacting with artefacts – like brick mobile phones – to see how things have changed. These events get them excited about their learning, while developing the curiosity that’s so important for engagement.
Where possible, we also contextualise learning through employer and local business engagement.
One project, for example, focused on public health, with the driving question: ‘How can we, as local public health directors, prepare a response plan to the spread of the next infectious disease?’
Pupils devised a social media awareness campaign for the local community about a disease of their choosing. Our local Public Health Director came in to share her work. It was fantastic because the pupils got to ask really relevant questions and received invaluable expert insights.
To end each project, we celebrate pupils’ learning with a presentation or performance to an audience. This might be parents, peers or their local MP. For example, for one event pupils created an anthology of writing on the themes of love, life and loss. The project helped them explore their emotional literacy and at the final event they were clamouring to get up and read their work!
This sums up what ATL is about – it’s fun, engaging, and given an opportunity to share their learning, kids will jump at the chance. This helps develop phenomenal confidence. The reason I think it works is because the children understand that it’s about developing skills they’ll need to solve real problems in the future. There are so many careers out there and we want to prepare them.
For some people, there’s this idea that project-based learning is in opposition to traditional approaches. That’s not my experience at all. It’s true that the current school system emphasises exams and there are great organisations like Edge Future Learning addressing this. But ATL develops the very resilience and critical thinking skills that young people need to succeed in their examinations. The idea these approaches are opposed to each other is a false binary.
Steve & Paula Kenning, co-founders of the Aspirations Academies Trust, launched our ATL and No Limits Curriculum about three years ago. We’re now extending it to additional year groups. It has empowered teachers and pupils, showing us the curriculum from a new perspective. Which is surely the point: the real world isn’t one single subject so why would we ever teach it that way? Take a risk and give it a go!