Project-based learning that works – schools ministers should take note

Janet Downs's picture

Schools minister Nick Gibb didn’t wait to make a speech before citing research by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) which supposedly damned Project-Based Learning (PBL).  He tweeted it.  But the tweet’s now disappeared from his Twitter feed.  Perhaps he read the report's summary.  Or maybe David Price’s blog.   Or even this site.

Nick Gibb says he’s in favour of evidence-based education.   And he’s a fan of the EEF.   Odd, then, that the EEF Toolkit finds so many of his favoured strategies aren’t particularly effective.

Leaving Nick Gibb’s attitude to evidence to one side, what can be said in favour of PBL?

Let’s begin with the EEF.   An EEF trial found a project aimed at Year Six pupils boosted their writing skills by up to nine months.  The strategy involved pupils having a ‘memorable experience’, such as a trip out.  A ‘structured approach’ to writing about the event followed. 

The results were very positive.  Participating pupils and the control group took a writing test at the project's end.   The former did ‘considerably better’ than pupils in the control group. 

A little-known, but highly effective project is the National Gallery’s ‘Take One Picture’.  The website explains it thus:

Each year the Gallery focuses on one painting from the collection to inspire cross-curricular work in primary classrooms…The challenge is then for schools to use the image imaginatively in the classroom, both as a stimulus for artwork, and for work in more unexpected curriculum areas. 

In 2012, one Year 3 pupil from Downhills Primary School, London, asked if the class were doing ‘Maths, Art or Science’.  In 2015, Clayesmore Preparatory School, Dorset, combined art with geography and religious studies.   This year, Ashfield Infant and Nursery School, Cumbria, worked across many areas of the curriculum including literacy, ICT, Science, Maths and D&T.

The Innovation Unit explains that properly devised PBL ‘sets really high expectations of what students can do, and includes deep academic learning as an intrinsic part of the projects.’    It describes its approach as REAL:  Rigorous, Engaging, Authentic Learning.    Nothing wishy-wash there.    The Unit notes, however, that PBL is ‘really hard to do well’.  As such it isn’t for every school especially those in the throes of academy conversion or transfer, significant staff changes or recovering from a poor Ofsted.

Done well, PBL can be transformative School21, an innovative school judged Outstanding, is committed to developing ‘projects where students feel motivated to produce work of genuinely high quality’.  Stanley Park High, named 2016 Secondary School of the Year in the TES Awards, has devised its own ‘Excellent Futures Curriculum’ which includes PBL.

I am not suggesting all schools take this approach.  Schools pressurized into doing it would likely do it badly.   PBL requires commitment, planning, training, support and time to implement the strategy.

But if the Government genuinely wants to see innovation in schools, it should not sneer at methods it derides as ‘progressive’.  Neither should it push its idea of what a ‘good curriculum’ looks like nor only praise schools which use minister-approved methods.  And it shouldn’t claim its policies are ‘evidence-based’ when it ignores evidence which doesn’t concur with their prejudices.




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trevor fisher's picture
Tue, 08/11/2016 - 14:50

I am very surprised that no one ever mentions Machiavelli on this site. While I admit to being both a \Marlowe Scholar and a political scientists, two reasons for studying Machiavelli, its very clear that the old scrote 5 centuries ago described English Education policy in the twenty first century down to a T.

How come we don't cite him as the key influence at Westminster?

Trevor Fisher.

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