Over the last few weeks of the Spring term, I can genuinely claim to have seen education in action in ways I had not expected through the final productions of two performance extended project qualifications.
Much has been written about the value of the EPQ for university preparation, although most teachers and students, including me, are more familiar with the dissertation and investigation forms of assessment than performance and artefact EPQs.
The epiphany for me was how the combination of intellectual rigour, organisation and practical skills demanded by performance and artefact EPQs develops and showcases skills which are relevant for university and workplace and in ways which are accessible for the most academic to the student that might feel overwhelmed by a project of 6000 words plus.
‘A drop in the 1920s’ was a piece of immersive theatre with a script written by a student based on her favourite novel, ‘The Great Gatsby’. An audience of no more than four was led blindfolded by the lead actress through rooms with 20s’ music, news recordings about prohibition all playing in the background to the party at Mr Gatsby’s. We drank ‘champagne’, chatted with Nick and Jordan and friends who revealed their neuroses, loves and aloof observations. We even learned how to do the Charleston – my ineptitude a source of great amusement! We witnessed a marital row, mysterious phone calls, a suddenly blackened room, heard a murder and were questioned by an aggressive police detective.
Those who know the novel will begin to glimpse the intellectual skill involved in the adaptation not to mention the practical organisation required to deliver all the elements. Afterwards, the feedback form asked for our impressions on the effectiveness of the immersion to aid the writer’s reflections on whether she had achieved her purpose.
In a very different performance, two students used Brechtian and Verbatim techniques, film and song composed by the students to explore the age of medical consent. Using a news article about a 16 year old Jehovah’s witness who lost his life by refusing to accept a blood transfusion, the performance explored the emotions of the consultant who had no choice but to obey the law and the mother who wanted to override her son’s decision even though she had brought him up in the faith.
In this instance, audience feedback was used to determine whether the distancing effects had achieved their purpose in drawing attention to the ethical issues and whether the drama had altered our views on the age of medical consent.
Neither of these performances would have been successful without the three terms of research and preparation and practical organisation that had preceded them nor a deep engagement with the ideas and commitment to the excellence of the outcome.
The real strength of independent project work undertaken over a long period is the more gradual development of expertise and the opportunity to reflect and refine. The inspiration comes from the freedom to make personal choices about subject matter freed from the shackles of a given scheme of work. And, when it really works – I will not pretend it always does – it nurtures a resilient commitment to an excellent outcome. A performance or an artefact that is to be presented to peers and teachers is for some students a greater stimulus than a dissertation that will be read and marked by one teacher – principles that students carry over into all their learning.
These are just a couple of examples of practical EPQs. Others we have seen are a film exploring the dangers of legal highs; a photographic exhibition challenging attitudes to transgender images in fashion; the refurbishment of a motorbike and a photographic sixth form prospectus. I have witnessed many of our students who struggle with more conventional ways of working more confidently show their thinking and learning from the project-making process. In common with all EPQs, the oral presentation and the reflections of the activity log are central components.
Surely, this is more akin to employment and much of university study, where we work more collaboratively, develop ideas over time and refine outcomes until they are as good as they can be and where innovators and researchers set their own boundaries. In that world we do not have to memorise everything we have encountered over two years for a brief exam; nor do we have to jump through a series of assessment hoops– as if we best show our understanding by repeating what the mark scheme says.
What a shame that the rushed nature of A level curriculum change did not embrace different forms of assessment that allow a greater range of skills to be demonstrated. This alone is a good reason for encouraging students to take on a project as part of their sixth form programme.
Just as important is greater breadth. As changes to A levels have led to a narrowing of subject choice and the introduction of EBACC a decline in performing and creative arts, performance and artefact EPQs present a genuine opportunity for young people to enrich their portfolios with something creative they may not wish to take on for A level and genuinely stretch themselves.
Sadly the words education and examination have become too often interchangeable. What is great about the EPQ in all its forms is that students learn how to think, plan, reflect, apply knowledge and genuinely find an expertise where the boundaries provide direction rather than control it.
Being led blindfold down the once familiar corridors above my office, I was reminded of Keats’ letter to his friend John Reynolds comparing human life to a mansion of many apartments. After infancy we move to the Chamber of Maiden Thought, a place of intoxicating light and wonder where we are tempted to stay. Off this chamber are a large number of dark passageways leading we do not know where. The courageous act is to begin to explore them. Education really should lead us down unexpected and fulfilling avenues.
The image selected is from one of the artefact projects exploring riverside architecture.