But my projects contain a lot of explicit instruction

I seem to have had the same argument with a number of people so it’s probably worth putting my response in a short post.

Following my criticism of Project Based Learning, some have suggested that I lack an understanding of how it is conducted these days. There is actually a lot of explicit instruction involved (and formative assessment). We can therefore use the evidence base for explicit instruction (or formative assessment) and repurpose it as evidence for Project Based Learning. 

This is an interesting argument and one that I observe a lot in education, sometimes less overtly stated than this. You see it, for instance, when people claim that Reading Recovery now makes some use of phonics. 

The obvious answer is: get your own evidence. If PBL is the question then we need evidence for PBL, not for a strategy that might or might not be used as part of it. After all, PBL has been around for at least 100 years so the evidence should be available by now.

However, if we take this argument at face value there are two major problems.

What would a fully guided project look like?

In a fully guided project, the teacher would set the objective and control all of the methods that are used to reach that objective. I have some experience of this running class practicals as a science teacher.

Imagine a practical to find out which foods contain starch. I might lay the foods out, the iodine and the sample trays. I would probably explain each of the steps and also give students a ‘recipe’ card with all of the steps written down.

It’s worth mentioning something else about this experiment: I conducted it with a class as part of some research work carried out by the Institute of Education whilst I was training. The object of this was to try to get students to think about the science while conducting the practical work. 

Even with such a simple design, this was extraordinarily hard to do. My students’ heads were in the space of equipment and instructions. It was really difficult to get them thinking about the nature of the foodstuffs and whether they should contain starch.

This illustrates my point that activity does not necessarily imply learning. At the end of the experiment, many students could not even recall which foods contained the starch.

Projects imply students finding things out for themselves

In reality, of course, nobody would describe such a fully guided activity as a ‘project’. The word implies student choice and an element of finding things out for themselves. So it is clear that, in essence, projects are not a form of explicit instruction. 

Of course, you can mitigate the lack of learning that takes place during project work by bookending it with explicit instruction. This is something that many generations of science teachers have learnt to do with practical work. But this does not make an argument for projects.

So why do projects at all? Again, I will point out that they can be effective when students have already learnt all of the required knowledge and skills. There is also an argument for variety. 

As a science teacher, I would still conduct practical work despite its limitations. This is because practical work is something that sets science apart and some students enjoy it. I would never argue that it is more effective, leads to deeper learning or that science teaching should be ‘based’ in practical work. 

These are the arguments that are made for PBL and that lack evidence.


26 thoughts on “But my projects contain a lot of explicit instruction

  1. As part of a PD session on engagement, @cpezaro and I ran an ‘engaging’ science experiment to demonstrate exactly what you note above. Our key focus was to highlight the difference between social & behavioral engagement and intellectual engagement and to very clearly demonstrate that teaching and the teacher are what make the difference between ‘activity’ and meaningful learning… I reckon you would have liked it… Although you would probably ban me from scientific experiments forever more; at least those involving fire and chemicals… 🙈

  2. Stan says:

    Greg is going to have to cover group work next. A big overlap with PBL but not necessarily the same. A project could be done individually and an experiment might be done as a group just due to limited equipment.

    Group work is often associated with discovery methods but that seems contrary to the goals of discovery learning. If discovery learning does produce better learning then there will be a positive feedback loop for any student that is a little ahead of the rest of the group. They will do most of the discovering and get the benefit of it and be further ahead in the next group discovery session. Perhaps that can be mitigated but it would be much easier to avoid altogether by doing individual work.

    Group work as with PBL is often lauded for the benefits other than learning say math for example Items such as collaboration and communication skills will be developed by group work. Outside of child education when people are doing team building exercises no one chooses math as the problem for the team to solve. Just maybe experts in teamwork have determined better options for improving collaboration skills.

  3. Bart says:

    ‘Projects’ get attacked by the PBL crowd as well. Things like this http://www.teachthought.com/learning/project-based-learning/difference-between-projects-and-project-based-learning/ show the disdain they have for any task that has a defined problem and narrow amount of solutions.
    I have used projects extensively when teaching computer science to senior secondary, we had learnt the content, done a bunch of exercises, and they are now presented with a bigger problem that will take a week or two to complete. I know they have the skills to solve the problem but there are multiple approaches they could take. This allows me to check for plagiarism as students code slightly differently and if their code doesn’t resemble anything we have done in class I can get them to describe how it is working. Students are also required to document everything project management style.
    With a PBL approach, which I have tried, where things are so much more open you have to spend so much time trying to narrow their scope because they don’t have the skills or the time to do something. I’ve also found it doesn’t really lead to an increase of understanding as students just rip whole swathes of code that does what they want it to. It takes a very special student to get the most out of this approach.

  4. It seems like you’re conflating Project Based Learning with Discovery learning and then targeting your disdain at the confabulation you’ve created.

    Project Based Learning as a title runs a broad range of practices from the well designed to the “better off if you hadn’t done that”, and ‘Discovery learning’ is not a universal feature of the approach, so to lambast all project based learning for the sins of discovery learning seems, at best, a misunderstanding, at worst a deceitful strawman.

    Given that you’ve written previously about having some in depth discussions with the like of Bianca Hewes about PBL, a misunderstanding seems unlikely, though not impossible.

    Would it be worth writing a blog post outlining what practices you are specifically referring to when you reference PBL? As the term is not universal in meaning or application it would help clarify these posts.

    • This comment seems to be a little unfair, particularly the suggestion that I am somehow being deceitful. I have actually spent quite some time investigating what project based learning is.

      In the post below I analysed evidence put forward for project based learning by Bianca Hewes. The evidence was for *problem* based learning but given that Hewes is a declared advocate for project based learning I looked at it in good faith:


      In this post I analysed six papers presented by David Price who delivers training in project based learning:


      Yet it seems that I still don’t truly understand what good project based learning looks like.

      I wonder if this is a case of the reversal of the burden of truth. I am sceptical about PBL and yet the onus is on me to define it. If I do so in a way that you do not agree with then my evidence and reasoning can be dismissed. Whereas it is actually the advocates of PBL who carry the burden of defining it and providing the evidence. Otherwise PBL becomes an unfalsifiable proposition because sceptics can always be accused of defining it incorrectly or of not addressing ‘good’ versions of it.

      Perhaps I am wrong to suggest that project based learning necessarily involves students finding some things out for themselves. If that is the case, perhaps you could point me to a definition or description of a form of project based learning that doesn’t involve this.

      • Firstly – I didn’t realise this was going to post under my account username. This is Cameron Malcher (@capitan_typo on Twitter)

        I appreciate that you have probable spent some time looking into PBL, which is why a blog post outlining what you believe the practice to include would be useful.

        The reason for the comment about misunderstanding or deceit comes from the fact that, as far as I’m aware, there’s no single codified set of practices universally recognised as Project Based Learning, and so to talk about it as a singular whole is inaccurate. I’f you’ll indulge me in a crude analogy, it’s a term with many applications, much like a religious ideology.. The Westboro Baptist Church call themselves Christian, as does the Gosford Anglican Church. Both call themselves Christian despite being ideologically opposite on many issues, and supposedly drawing their inspiration from the same source. But because there is no single arbiter of what it means to ‘be’ a Christian, both groups are equally valid in their use of the term despite, I’m certain, each finding the other to be somewhat abhorrent to their own beliefs.

        That’s how I see the term Project Based Learning. There is no single arbiter or gatekeeper of the term, and therefore no single standard to meet to qualify as engaging in Project Based Learning – hence why the title itself is not adequate to summarise or denote a single set of practices.

        So when you ask me my perspective on Project Based Learning, all I can really talk about is my experience and the collection of practices I engage in under project based learning.

        The primary purpose of PBL as I’ve used it is to give learning context and purpose. For example, when teaching advertising in Stage 5 English, I would often run a project in which students had to develop an advertising campaign for a social issue or public awareness campaign. They could pick the topic, but the forms, skills and assessment areas were all proscribed.

        What would then follow would be a series of lessons about the use of visual design elements and language in advertising (with lots of worked examples) explicit lessons on persuasive language devices and rhetoric in advertising, and some lessons on research skills to find information appropriate to their chosen topic and advertising campaign.

        The structure of the learning was such that after one or two lessons, the students would have time to apply what they’d learned to their chosen project and over time that drafting and editing process let them build towards their final presentation. Individual learning was assessed through some individual written responses explaining key aspects of their project and how they used key techniques to get their point across, and there would be a bit of critical peer-evaluation as well.

        Ultimately the topic and information contained within the project was immaterial as the project was assessing specific skills and areas of knowledge relevant to the English syllabus. It simply provided context and purpose for the content they were learning. Given the research showing the relationship between salience and long-term potentiation, that context and purpose seems like an incredibly important thing to foster in students, especially those who are not already intrinsically motivated.

        Now some people would take issue with this as an example of Project Based Learning because the ‘project’, while operating in a real world context, is only simulated – as in, their ad campaign was never going to be seen by a public audience – but that kind of criticism is an example of what I mean by saying there’s no single, authoritative object to refer to by the singular use of the term Project Based Learning.

        My criticism of your post (and your whole thesis regarding Project Based Learning in general) is that you tend to treat it as a monolithic whole, which is inaccurate and tends to undermine your attempts to criticise the practice.

      • The process you describe seems to involve students in finding a lot of things out for themselves around the specific contexts that they are using. It fits with a wider philosophy that you are teaching a set of generic skills that are context independent. I don’t think this is true. Literacy skills are profoundly related to context.

      • Rather than criticising and attempting to constantly ‘debunk’ Project Based Learning, the question should be what are / can there be effective implementations of Project Based Learning?

      • Rather than criticising and attempting to constantly ‘debunk’ homeopathy, should the question be what are / can there be effective implementations of homeopathy?

        This is an extreme example but the point is that you start from assuming the PBL can be effective. I don’t and I need some evidence. If you don’t need evidence then that’s fine but we won’t agree.

      • That’s another response steeped in either misunderstanding or deceit.

        Asking the question “Can there be effective applications of homeopathy” is excatly what many researchers have done – and they came to the answer of “no”, but to first get to that fairly definitive answer, first they had to take seriously the possibility that it COULD work, and explore it form that perspective.

      • No. That’s not right. Homeopathy doesn’t work in principle. Also, homeopath’s are well practised in reversing the burden of proof and suggesting that critics don’t understand homeopathy. So it’s quite apt.

        Please stop accusing me of deceit. It’s not at all pleasant and I won’t let through any more comments that are unpleasant in this way.

      • Yes. My response would be to remark that it is interesting that project based learning is enough of a thing that PD can be delivered on it and that you can interview people about it but that when I seek to critique PBL it melts away into a myriad of different things, thus rendering critique impossible.

      • “The process you describe seems to involve students in finding a lot of things out for themselves around the specific contexts that they are using. It fits with a wider philosophy that you are teaching a set of generic skills that are context independent. I don’t think this is true. Literacy skills are profoundly related to context.”

        I don’t see how teaching about the visual and linguistic techniques of persuasion in advertising could be interpreted as generic skills independent of context. The context is advertising, and a particular form of advertising, and further the specific forms of advertising being studied.

        I honestly don’t see how you could read that example and arrive at the conclusion that I believe I’m teaching ‘generic skills independent of context’ – especially when I explicitly stated that the project existed to provide “context and purpose” to the intended areas of learning.

        Which part of that project description suggests that students are being left to find ‘a lot of things out for themselves’?

      • What are the students advertising? Is it something they they already know everything about? Or is it a something they need to research in some way? If it’s the former then I take your point but I would question the worth.

        Are all products advertised in the same way, using the same vocabulary and techniques? Is there a difference between advertising a lawnmower and a Haircare product? Or have you restricted the field to a choice of one or two things that you teach the students about?

      • Those questions are already answered in the description.

        What are they advertising: A social issue or public awareness campaign – in short, they’re advertising an opinion. This unit can be done with no further research than having an opinion on something because, as stated multiple times now, the subject of the advertisements exists primarily to give the learning about language and design a context and purpose.

        No, all products are not advertised the same way, hence why worked examples are used to teach different strategies and approaches. Students, having learned about various techniques and approaches, choose, apply, draft and edit their use of those techniques as appropriate.

        If you’re not willing to read and engage honestly with what is written then it’s very difficult to take your opinions.

      • Ok. I missed the bit about the social issue or public awareness campaign. If it is something they already have an opinion on and possess all the knowledge required to write about, and you teach them all the techniques that they need to construct the advert then this doesn’t seem like they are finding anything out for themselves. I suppose you call it a project because they can choose the issue and it takes up quite a lot of time?

        I would add that this seems like an opportunity lost. Students need a broad knowledge of the world in order to comprehend a range of texts:

        Click to access AE_SPRNG.pdf

        If students are writing about a social issue that they know lots about already then they won’t be growing their knowledge of the world, vocabulary. It might be better to teach them about a social issue that they don’t already know everything about and then get them to write an advert for a campaign related to this. Ultimately, knowledge of this issue might prove more enriching and a better foundation for future learning than knowledge of advertising techniques.

        Putting this aside, you are right that the version of PBL that you outline contains no discovery learning.

      • It’s probably also worth pointing out that I have previously written that project based learning may be effective when students have all of the prerequisite knowledge and skills.

      • I’m confused now. I thought you said that your students already knew everything about the topic and that you taught them all about advertising before they started. So are you arguing against yourself?

        To answer the question – they might be building episodic knowledge of applying what they have learnt in different ways. I find this plausible.

      • No, I said that within the confines of the project they selected a topic with which they were already familiar/knowledgeable and then I taught them skills and additional knowledge towards a specific goal. They did not know everything before undertaking the ‘project’ – they were explicitly taught new knowledge and skills under the umbrella of working towards the projects completion.

        In a purely chronological sense, they were taught things before applying them, but in a conceptual sense they were taught new things as part of the overarching project

  5. Pingback: A pedagogy of privilege | Filling the pail

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