‘Firm evidence’ which challenges ‘progressive’ project-based learning is neither firm nor conclusive

Janet Downs's picture

‘…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).  




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jane's picture
Sun, 06/11/2016 - 11:32

As always, Janet, thank you for your questioning of the basis for the headlines. Every politician should be forced to read your pieces.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 06/11/2016 - 11:46

The politicians that control the English education system should indeed take an interest in the EEF research. The government has increasingly involved itself, not only in what must be taught in schools, but how it must be taught.  The schools minister, Nick Gibb, regularly talks about teaching methods that have been proven to work and implies that these are more likely to be found in academies run by Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) than in LA schools supported by LA inspector/advisors.

The following list is my take on what the DfE is repeatedly telling the public and the media about how they believe teaching and learning should be approached in our state funded schools based on what they are publicly praising as ‘good practice’ in existing MATs and their Academies. For each Academy school intervention/priority that it appears to me that the DfE is recommending, I give the EEF rank of its effectiveness.

Setting or streaming (-1)£*** – Damaging to learning, 33rd

Performance pay (0)££* – Ineffective, 31st 

School uniform (0)£*- Ineffective, 28th

Extending school time (2)£££*** – 24th

Homework (primary) (2)£** – 21st

Behaviour interventions (4)£££**** – 12th=

Digital technology (4) £££**** – 12th=

Its rather a thin list comprising a mixture of what the EEF concludes to be moderately effective, ineffective and damaging examples of what the DfE and MATs are prioritising in their view of ‘good schools’. More could be added, but neither Nicky Morgan nor Nick Gibb ever mention any of the interventions that the EEF has found to be the most effective.

Read my full analysis of theEEF findings and the meanings of symbols in the rankings shown above here


More on the  five most effective approaches researched by EEF, all of which Nick Gibb dismisses as 'progressive', can be found here



trevor fisher's picture
Sun, 06/11/2016 - 15:38

what is really political about this is the way this story echoes the messages being generated in 1976. Forty years on, the model which the right attacks is project based discovery learning which was being rubbished in 1976. And nothing seems to have changed.... or only in the minds of a right wing dogmatism which ignores the actual developments, including national curriculum and OFSTED. Its a groundhog day in which it is permanently 1976.

The SOSS seminar on November 17th in the Lords can only look at Callaghan's speech, which was a weak comment on the alleged progressivism of the time. The story of how that narrative survives and is the only one accepted by the media whatever else the school revolution does is the real issue.

Why, forty years after William Tyndale collapsed, are Gibb and other right wing politicians harping on about this? The story the Baker's UTCs are in trouble which was in the TES two weeks ago never got any mainstream press.

Trevor Fisher

DavidPriceOBE's picture
Mon, 07/11/2016 - 11:39

Well done, Janet, for picking up on this. I blogged about it when I saw Nick Gibb and others gleefully jumping on the TES headline, rather than actually reading the report The blog - http://engagedlearning.co.uk/lies-damn-lies-and-conscious-misrepresentat... - has had 6,000 views in 48 hours, so people are clearly furious about the regular misrepresentation of 'evidence' Roger's comments above are well made. The EEF is a cherry-pickers charter, but the worst culprits are the people who urge us to evidence-based policy making, when in fact they practice policy-based evidence making!

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 07/11/2016 - 12:40

Thanks David.  I've just read your blog in which you included Nick Gibb's tweet.  Funny, but the tweet has now disappeared from Gibb's twitter feed.   I wonder why.

DavidPriceOBE's picture
Mon, 07/11/2016 - 15:23

Ha! Thanks for sharing Janey - we have to take our little victories where we can...and I think that's worthy of a Tweet!

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