The Emperor’s New ProjectPosted: September 12, 2016
A recent study found something quite counterintuitive. Girls who were given an infant simulator were more likely than those who had a standard health education program to become pregnant in the following years. The idea of the simulators was to give girls a sense of how difficult it is to care for a baby and therefore reduce the chance of pregnancy.
This is not the final word in the matter. There could be specific reasons why this particular program failed and others might work better. But it’s worth knowing.
I’m pretty sure all of those involved with the infant simulator would have thought it was a great program. They would probably have told you how engaging the girls found it and how they had all agreed that looking after the baby was such hard work. This is why we need experimental data in the social sphere. We cannot trust out intuitions; our personal experiences. Those who argue that areas like education need a lower standard of evidence than, say, medicine are wrong.
I have recently been exploring the evidence for Project Based Learning because of the claim that it delivers ‘deeper’ learning. The evidence base for this is extremely weak. One commenter pointed me towards Edutopia and its papers related to Problem Based Learning. I also explored some other studies that has been cited to promote Project Based Learning. Even with weak study designs, many of them don’t really support the claim that projects deliver anything superior. On Twitter, Corinne Campbell recently pointed to the hierarchy of evidence that the New South Wales Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation uses to evaluate professional development. Most of the Project Based Learning evidence would struggle to reach silver standard.
Perhaps this is because Project Based Learning is a new approach? After all, it is associated with the 21st century skills movement. Perhaps there has not been enough time to research it? Is it then right to keep this promising approach from children while we wait for this evidence?
Project Based Learning may be many things but it’s not new. John Dewey was using it in his laboratory school back at the start of the 20th century and William Heard Kilpatrick wrote an influential essay on the topic back in 1918. If you strip out the sexist assumptions and old-fashioned language, Kilpatrick’s essay resonates with what people say about projects today:
“Suppose a girl has made a dress. If she did in hearty fashion purpose to make the dress, if she planned it, if she made it herself, then I should say the instance is that of a typical project. We have in it a wholehearted purposeful act carried on amid social surroundings. That the dressmaking was purposeful is clear; and the purpose once formed dominated each succeeding step in the process and gave unity to the whole. That the girl was wholehearted in the work was assured in the illustration. That the activity proceeded in a social environment is clear; other girls at least are to see the dress.”
So if there is evidence for Project Based Learning then we should have it by now. Educationalists having been promoting the idea for a long time. So why is the evidence not forthcoming?
I think this is because people mistake activity for learning. In a project there is lots to do. But much of this activity is inconsequential: things like looking for the scissors. This makes projects inefficient and it draws students’ attention to the wrong things.
One of my PhD supervisors did an experiment in the 1980s. Undergraduates were given a series of problems. Each problem involved a starting number and a goal number. The participants had to get from the first number to the second using only two moves which they could repeat: multiply by three or subtract 29. The problems were designed so that each one was solved by alternating the steps. Although the students could generally solve the problems, very few ever worked out the rule.
This is because the process of attending to the solving of the problem took up so much attention that little was left to notice patterns. This is likely to be what happens with projects. There is too much extraneous information to filter and so little is learnt.
Which is why a teacher guided approach where students’ attention is drawn to key features is so effective.
Am I calling for a ban on projects? No. They can be effective once students have the right knowledge and skills. They may also be less effective but still worth doing with novice learners just to vary a day’s activities and do something a bit different. I am fine with that. I just don’t think people should be claiming that projects are an effective way to learn and I certainly don’t think we should be investing professional development funds in training teachers to deliver projects at scale. Not if we believe in an evidence-based approach.