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]