Deeper learning in New South Wales

The New South Wales education department (DoE) is spending thousands of taxpayer dollars training teachers in an approach that claims to deliver ‘deeper’ learning.

The training is supplied by David and Clare Price, education consultants from the U.K., and the approach that they offer is project based learning. I was alerted to this training by a flyer on Twitter. It costs $330 to attend the two days and DoE teachers are given a course code to use if they want to attend.

The flyer doesn’t provide any evidence to support the claim that project based learning is somehow ‘deeper’. I’ve had a look at the engaged learning website and this doesn’t seem to either, apart from a few references to the hiring practices of companies like Google. These are interesting observations but are clearly not enough to support a particular teaching method and so the claim has to be based on some other body of evidence. What is it?

In order to answer this question, we would probably need to unpack what we mean by ‘deeper’ learning. It could mean that knowledge and skills are retained for a longer period. It could also mean that that students more readily transfer skills to novel situations. These are the sorts of outcomes that education researchers routinely evaluate.

The website implies that deeper learning involves the development of the four ‘C’s – critical thinking, communication, creativity, collaboration. Again, the question of whether project based learning is well-placed to deliver these skills is one that could be the subject of research.

I ask for evidence because I have good reason to be sceptical about project based learning. Professor John Hattie of Melbourne University suggests that projects are a good enhancement to learning after students have been explicitly taught all of the relevant knowledge and skills. You shouldn’t use projects as a base for learning because students don’t have enough knowledge to draw upon.

This is supported by a review of the research by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark that takes a similar view and explains this in terms of human cognitive architecture. Experts and novices are fundamentally different because experts have a lot of knowledge in long term memory that they can draw upon with ease. We should not make the mistake of thinking that the kinds of things experts do – like completing projects – is the best way for novices to learn.

For this reason, I am also concerned that there is an equity issue with project based learning. Students with lots of prior knowledge and plenty of resources at home may learn much more in a project based environment than students who have less of these things. So we could be encouraging teachers to use an approach that leads to less equitable outcomes.

Let me make a few things clear. I don’t think $330 is particularly expensive. I do think that education departments should fund staff training and I do think that it is acceptable to take teachers away from their classes for two days in order to attend this training. That’s all fine.

But we should do none of these things lightly and without serious thought. We don’t want to train staff in a practice that might make them less effective. Could we at least agree that courses should give a clear statement of the evidence that they are based upon so that teachers can evaluate this before they decide whether to attend?

After all, if critical thinking is good for our students then perhaps we should model a bit of it.

[Update – David Price has stated on Twitter that NSW dept isn’t spending anything on this training. If DoE teachers are using the code on the flyer to attend then I’m not sure who is paying for that]

[Update – David Price has responded to this post here. In his response, he notes, “last year the NSW Department for Education didn’t just hire me as keynote speaker for their annual schools conference ‘Inspire, Innovate’, they also hired me to run project based learning workshops for government schools.”]

[It would be good to have some comments on this topic from DoE teachers but, as I understand it, their social media policy doesn’t allow them to comment on anything in a way that could be interpreted as critical of department policy]


21 thoughts on “Deeper learning in New South Wales

  1. Tempe says:

    Yes indeed.

    After hearing from a teacher that they were attending PD for maths by a woman called Ann Baker and learning about their program that they sell, called “Natural Maths” I asked the teacher what research there was to support natural maths – which is, I think, based on very progressive ideas. The teacher told me there was a lot of neuroscience backing it up and it was something to do with how your eyes do most of the learning.

    I emailed the company and asked about research and evidence. The email I had back from a for-profit company was this: “Nice question but difficult to answer in a couple of sentences. Please buy our book available on Amazon.” So many red flags here!

    Why would schools invite and pay these people who can’t even point me in the direction of evidence in a couple of sentences. Surely that isn’t to hard?

    Is it any wonder fads enter our schools so easily?

  2. Hey there!
    Nice post, totally agree that we shouldn’t be handing out wads of tax-payer cash for PL that isn’t going to be effective, BUT having said that, the step to say that PL that isn’t grounded in evidence-based (published) research – like that of Hattie, which, let’s face it, has had a lot of criticism levelled at it of late – is actually probably too far of a stretch for me. I think practitioner-based research (reflective practice like blogging, as you do yourself) is highly valid, and if PL stems from that, can often be even more effective at the classroom level than some stuff that’s been published in a fancy journal. That’s just my experience.
    Anyway, to your question regarding research into PBL, I started to do my Master of Ed at Sydney Uni looking into just that, got half way and decided that sharing my journey via my blog would be a more effective way of supporting teacher practice than having a title after my name. You can see my journey here (which, has a bunch of references to published research related to PBL, and the strategies/theory that underpins it:
    The Buck Institute for Education started their PBL journey with a focus on research, and after a few years (and a number of published papers) they decided that a focus on delivering quality PL and creating quality resources was more helpful for the classroom teacher. However, you can read a summary of the research that supports PBL here:
    Edutopia has also got a good article summarising research into PBL here:
    I would also argue that PBL can be seen as an umbrella structure that gives an authentic context for a range of evidence-based teaching practices, such a Assessment for Learning (Black & Wiliam are the dudes for this), and therefore you can site a whole range of research that supports it. Finally, you can look at the work of Seymour Papert into constructionism (of which PBL is a form), and obviously relate that to Piaget’s work on constructivism.
    Yes, PBL is a bit a buzz word at the moment, and yes, it can be done very poorly by teachers who do not understand or appreciate the above theory/research(, but that’s where quality PL comes in. I can’t vouch for Claire and David Price, as I haven’t attended any of their workshops, and don’t know their particular approach to PBL. I can only hope that if they’re being promoted by the DoE that what they’re doing in quality. My frustration with an event like this being supported by the DoE is not with the fact that it’s PBL and lacks reference to evidenced-based research, but rather that once again the DoE is shipping over ‘experts’ from overseas, rather than using the expertise of the educators who work within DoE schools who have been, and continue to be using PBL as their main methodology… like me.
    Finally, QUT lecturer and academic Kelli McGraw is beginning her research into PBL in the English classroom at the end of this year, so perhaps in a couple of years you’ll have that published paper that can confirm or deny the effectiveness of PBL as a methodology.
    Bianca 🙂

    • Hi Bianca

      Thank you for taking the time to contribute to this discussion. I would not wish to diminish your personal experiences with PBL. Clearly, they are valid. However, we would be unlikely to promote the use of a new drug on the basis of case studies, no matter how compelling. Instead, we would look to clinical trials and other forms of research to give us information about its safety and effectiveness compared to other potential treatments. Education is clearly not medicine but I don’t think that means that we should have a different standard of evidence. It is not as if large scale evidence is unavailable although I would admit it is never perfect.

      I think it is interesting that, as you describe it, your journey has mirrored that of the Buck Institute in that you have moved away from seeking evidence and towards professional learning. Should the former not support the latter? I am aware of Papert’s constructionism having experienced a version of it myself at school. This paper by Mayer is an excellent treatment of the topic:

      Click to access MayerThreeStrikesAP04.pdf

      Although I mention Hattie in the post, I am most persuaded by the cognitive science argument as outlined in the Kirschner, Sweller and Clark paper to which I link. If you have not read this then I recommend giving it a go. If you are really keen, you might also want to read the three subsequent rebuttals as well as Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s response to these:

      Click to access hmelo_ep07.pdf

      Click to access 2007%20Problem%20based%20learning%20is%20compatible%20with%20human%20cognitive%20architecture%20Commentary%20on%20Kirschner%20Sweller%20and%20Clark.pdf

      Click to access 2007%20Is%20direct%20instruction%20an%20answer%20to%20the%20right%20question.pdf

      Click to access sweller_kirschner_clark_reply_ep07.pdf

      The Kirschner, Sweller, Clark paper seems to have transformed the landscape of educational psychology. The predominant model was previously that of constructivist teaching practices. Now, even those who most strongly disagree with Kirschner et. al. tend to accept their fundamental points about cognitive architecture and the need for a large amount of teacher instruction. Instead, they tend to argue for highly guided and structured forms of problem-based learning or for a period of problem solving prior to full explicit instruction.

      You are right, of course, that sources such as Edutopia are not quite in the same place in this regard.


      • Well there you go, you’ve got research to back up your assumptions. Not sure why you wrote the post asking about evidence to support PBL, as it seems you already have your answers related to your passion for cognitive load theory, or whatever. I’m pretty happy with my approach to education, and I’m sure you’re happy with yours – you clearly have a very influential mentor for your PhD. Good luck with it.

      • Yes, I am very lucky with my two supervisors. Thanks for your best wishes.

        I am aware of lots of research evidence. That is true. However, I am still interested in evidence to support PBL. My main point is that if a course claims that the approach it is promoting will lead to ‘deeper’ learning then it should state the evidence on which that claim is made. I don’t think this is unreasonable.

      • Nope, totally reasonable. What’s NOT reasonable, is waiting around for science to back up everything we do as teachers. I get your point regarding the line ‘deeper learning’ as a selling point, but your extended swipe a PBL in this post (and your subsequent comment) is, I believe, unhelpful. However, I do now know the motive for that position, so thanks for the clarification. Cheers for the chat.

      • Why bring ‘motive’ into it? We all have our motives and biases. I am making no claims or suggestions about your motives and I would never do so. Making things personal is hardly helpful. It would be better to discuss practices and evidence. I think that is a reasonable position.

    • Biancha, this seems like a really churlish response:

      “Well there you go, you’ve got research to back up your assumptions. Not sure why you wrote the post asking about evidence to support PBL, as it seems you already have your answers related to your passion for cognitive load theory, or whatever. I’m pretty happy with my approach to education, and I’m sure you’re happy with yours – you clearly have a very influential mentor for your PhD. Good luck with it.”

      The “assumptions” you’re so dismissive of are the product of the best that science is currently able to tell us about how we learn. What we like is (or should be) irrelevant. We really should be prepared to hold ourselves to higher standards.

      I too am really interested in evidence to support PBL because its methodology contradicts these findings of cognitive science. If it turned out that there was good evidence to support PBL then it would warrant serious investigation. However, in the absence, as yet, of such evidence it’s even more important to challenge those who are making unsupported claims about “deeper learning”.

      • Haha – hey David. You’re right, churlish is part of my character, but you’d only know that via experience with me 😉 Ironically, today I am about to present to my staff on ‘hinge point questions’, and I’m using one of your examples… from your classroom teaching experience shared on your blog. I guess that’s different though, cos Wiliam has all that data to back up his recommended teaching strategies. Funny how things turn out – I’d never heard of you/your blog until last week when searching that stuff, and here you are now, telling me I’m churlish. Life is a funny thing.

      • Actually, having reviewed the evidence I decided I was wrong about many of the early posts I wrote on my blog: my class teaching experience was insufficient to allow me to objectively evaluate the efficacy of techniques and strategies. On balance, I think hinge questions are probably harmless enough but I’m sceptical of much of the gimmickry associated with AfL.

        And to be clear, I have no idea whether you as a person is churlish – I just said that your reply *seemed* churlish. But let’s not put poor Greg through having to read a tedious back and forth on what we did and didn’t mean.

    • Tempe says:

      Biancah – I see you are a head teacher so I presume you are responsible for the “teaching” of other teachers. To my mind, if you are going to advocate for a certain way of teaching then you ought to have some solid evidence to back that up otherwise you are, essentially, experimenting on our children.

      It may be that you see PBL as successful but I wonder how you are measuring that success? Also, I believe one of the most important questions is, what works best and is supported by evidence.

      I must say I am pleased to see you reading Greg’s blog because you are perhaps curious to seek out the truth rather than relying on you’re own personal preferences. That is a fine attribute. Shame you had to resort to making your argument personal because to me that is a sign that you don’t really have a strong argument.

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  4. Some great points here. I recently went to a session on PBL which was unbelievably evangelical. Regardless of whether I am for or against it, I’m always happy to listen to different ideas and incorporate different approaches for interest and engagement, even if it is just in a small way. There were some really great ideas at the session I attended, however I felt so uncomfortable by the way it was delivered that it totally turned me off. I agree that approaches should be evidence based, but they should also be disseminated in such as way that treats teachers with a bit of respect as intelligent professionals and take into consideration the realities of schools and teaching. In saying that, I quite enjoy using PBL in small bursts (and for certain/appropriate topics) coupled with explicit teaching.

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