Back in September, I wrote a post where I asked whether New South Wales should be spending money training teachers in project-based learning (PBL). I questioned its effectiveness and I suggested that disadvantaged children are particularly likely to suffer from a switch to this method.
My post prompted an extraordinary personal attack from one of the consultants delivering the New South Wales training. There was much sound and fury but little light shed on the key question of the effectiveness of project-based learning.
I didn’t realise at the time that the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) were coming to the end of a trial of project-based learning in the U.K. The report has now been released.
As with all evidence, we have to be cautious. The EEF don’t always report statistical significance. The controversial “Philosophy for Children” trial also appears to have switched its outcome measure from the one originally proposed. I’ve been looking into these kinds of trials a little recently (eg here and here) and there are a lot of potential issues.
The type of PBL that was studied by the EEF is known as “Learning through REAL projects,” and it, “particularly aims to improve their [students’] engagement in learning as well as practical literacy skills.” I cannot see how PBL could improve literacy but it is plausible that it might improve engagement.
Unfortunately, there was no clear impact on levels of engagement. Moreover, the literacy results are very worrying. As a whole, the intervention had no effect on literacy. The effect size was negative but the confidence intervals overlap zero meaning that this could have arisen by chance.
However, the effect on the literacy of children eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) – a measure of disadvantage – is negative and significant. In other words, switching to PBL from a traditional course is harmful for these students.
I haven’t yet read all of the report in detail. A good sign – in terms of validity – is that stratification by FSM seems to have been in the original protocol so this isn’t a post hoc analysis.
This result is therefore really worrying and adds to a picture of generally weak evidence for PBL. Yet PBL is all the rage across Australia right now.
It is therefore a matter of some importance that people are aware of the research findings. Spread the word.