‘Firm evidence’ which challenges ‘progressive’ project-based learning is neither firm nor conclusive
‘…findings provide firm evidence with which to challenge the progressive style of project-based learning.’ The Times, 5 November 2016 (behind paywall) in an article with the headline, Teaching facts beats emphasis on skills.
Music to the ears of schools minister Nick Gibb. It’s likely this soundbite will be repeated again and again and again. In Gibb’s speeches. In Department for Education press releases. In twitter comments by ‘traditionalists’.
But the evidence was not a firm rejection of project-based learning (PBL). And it’s disingenuous of The Times to suggest it did.
The findings were the result of a randomised controlled trial set up by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) involving 12 ‘intervention schools’ and 12 ‘control schools’. The trial set out to test a particular type of project-based learning aimed at improving ‘engagement in learning as well as practical literacy skills’ among Year 7 pupils. in mainly mixed-ability groups. The PBL scheme used was ‘Learning through REAL Projects’ developed by The Innovation Unit.
EEF found PBL hadn’t had a ‘clear impact’ on either literacy or pupil engagement. The evaluation indicated PBL ‘may have had a negative impact’ on literacy scores for pupils entitled to free school meals (FSM). But EEF found no similar negative impact for low-attaining pupils and issued this warning:
‘Considerable caution should be applied to this finding’.
The results of the evaluation were limited by the amount of lost data caused by schools dropping out of the trial ‘particularly the intervention schools’. At the same time, several of the control group schools adopted PBL or similar approaches. This further reduced the strength of the evidence.
Feedback from the schools and EEF’s own observations found PBL was considered to be useful. It could boost those skills valued by employers and universities: ‘oracy, communication, teamwork, and self-directed study skills’.
EEF summarised the results of the trial as follows:
‘In summary, although PBL is unlikely to improve children’s literacy outcomes or engagement, it may enhance the quality of children’s learning, particularly improving some of the skills required for future learning and employment.’
EEF repeated the warning about the security of the evidence:
‘…because of the high number of schools that dropped out, these findings are less secure than those from most EEF trials, and caution should be exercised when interpreting them.’
This isn’t quite the ‘firm evidence’ against ‘progressive’ methods trumpeted by The Times. It ignored the flaws in the data. And it ignored the warning to exercise ‘caution’ when reporting the results.
A similar lack of caution is likely to be shown by others who might noisily proclaim that the evidence is a vindication of ‘traditional methods’. But the dichotomy between traditional and progressive methods is a false one. Pupils need both.
UPDATE 7 November 12.50. The Innovation Unit has published an article which makes it clear that PBL is not the 'themed curriculum kind that reorganises subject content to make it seem relevant'. On the contrary, it is 'the kind that sets really high expectations of what students can do, and includes deep academic learning as an intrinsic part of the projects.' (My emphasis).