An evening with Ron Berger

I was fortunate to be able to attend the Ron Berger evening held at the Campsmount academy in Doncaster last week.  Ron was invited over by the XL academy group as they are looking to employ Ron’s model of project based learning, (PBL) in their new free school.

I had read Ron’s book, An Ethic of Excellence, and was staggered by the impact of critique and its part in encouraging students to perfect their work beyond a standard we have traditionally seen as acceptable.  I was really looking forward to listening to Ron, asking him questions, finding out more about PBL, critique and how effective it can be in the UK system.

Ron opened the session by playing the video about Austin’s butterflies. For those of you who have not seen this clip – it shows the role critique had in developing a first grader’s drawing of a butterfly.

Austin’s Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work – Models, Critique, and Descriptive Feedback from Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo.
I was struck by the thought, how often do we encourage students to go back and develop their work once or even twice let alone five or six times?  Are we more concerned with their well being or the apparent lack of time in trying to work our way through a syllabus?

Ron showed countless examples of student work.  The Radon study carried out by a group of students that became the model of Radon analysis in small towns across the state, the study of well water quality that was published and shared with everyone in the town and the astonishing work in supporting redevelopment in Rochester, New York State, when the adult support of a regeneration initiative had stalled due to politics and lack of drive.

Perhaps the most impressive work for me, was the energy survey of education buildings.  The student group were taught, by town engineers, how to carry out an energy survey and proceeded to make a number of recommendations to the Mayor in an attempt to save money,  The Mayor not only implemented the student’s plans, he went back with a request that the students carry out a review of all municipal buildings.  It turns out that the student recommendations saved over $100 000 over a two year period!

What a difference – we’ve all seen student projects in school to encourage us to turn the lights off but they don’t have anywhere near the impact of Ron’s students – that might be due to the lack of adult enthusiasm and expectations rather than the students.

Start with the end in mind

It seems that the key to these stories is not just the PBL, or the critique, it is the audience.  Ron stated clearly that students do not really want to spend time perfected work for the sake of their teachers – they need a wider, more important audience.  Having an audience to present work to emphasises the importance of drafting and perfecting work.  For example, the students carrying out the water safety project would have known their work had to be of an exceptional standard as it was published to every home in the town.  Not only that but they had to carry out their analysis in a detailed manner as the safety of their town’s neighbours depended on it.

Ron advised us, when planning these project based learning expeditions, to start with the outcome in mind and set up work with the clear intention to publish, share and promote the work, this way they students are desperate to fine polish and use the critique model to produce work of real quality.


On top of having the chance to listen to Ron for a couple of hours, we had the chance to ask questions of a number of students used to working with the PBL model utilising critique.  One of the students, a boy from Matthew Moss school in Rochdale, (a great looking website by the way) gave an insight into how critique worked.  He said that they complete their first draft and sought critique from two peers and the teacher.  He said that critique had to follow simple rules.  It should be…

  • kind
  • specific to something in the work that can be improved and observed in the next draft
  • helpful

This was developed by a young lady from the same school.  A year 8 girl who proved to be the Queen of soundbites,

Teachers were being nice about our work – there was no real feedback on how to improve the next draft and unleash my full capabilities

Critique is vital for our learning to improve

She then came out with one of the quotes of the evening,

I left primary school thinking that I only needed to do things once

The audience was really enjoying listening to these students.  They spoke with real passion about PBL and what they felt that they gained in this style of learning over the traditional methods.  A boy from Cramlington Learning Village then spoke about an exhibition event that was attended by parents.  He talked for over 5 minutes, (with only a small mind map for a set of notes!) about the pressure the students felt to put on a good show of their work and the value of the critique that they received from the parents.  He spoke about the buzz of the room during the exhibition and the change of mood when the parents left.  It wasn’t a comedown or a sense that the job was done – the students left with a real sense of accomplishment in what they had done and determination to build on their work further.


It is not in my nature to be cynical, in fact, the stories shared by Ron were enough to reduce me and a number of the audience to the verge of tears.  What got to me was a vision of what matters to me in education, not solely the achievement of grades but the discovery of self worth, a realisation that through hard work and collaboration with peers we can all produce work that demonstrates real mastery.  This mastery and self worth was clearly evident throughout the whole evening and the students we spoke to demonstrated that what sounded great in the US system was working well in the UK system as well.

If you have not read Ron’s book then I urge you to pick up a copy.  I would like you to learn what impact he has had on children’s lives and also share in my bewilderment about where best to start implementing such a process in our schools.  The more of us who start building this into our schools the more likely we are to make a success of it.

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