I’ve now looked at the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) report on project-based learning (PBL) in some detail. It gets even more fascinating.
There was a high attrition rate. Half of the schools who initially adopted the intervention and paid the £10,000 start-up cost dropped-out before the end of the study. This affects the security of the evidence.
But why did the schools ditch PBL? I imagine that they felt it wasn’t working for them. So if they had stayed in the project then it is plausible that the results would have been even more negative. This attrition itself also strikes me as further evidence of the failure of PBL. Why?
As John Hattie has suggested, the vast majority of education interventions ‘work’ because people have expectations of success, invest in them financially and with their own pride and are backed by support from consultants. If something doesn’t work under such favourable conditions then that’s a bad sign.
Another interesting dimension is the way that the project changed during the study. It was initially intended to last two years but that was reduced to one because nobody would commit more funding. And they initially intended to measure outcomes in English, maths and science:
“The original protocol only included the academic outcome measures of literacy, maths and science. The piloting revealed that schools were not including maths as part of project based learning and that science was included only in one school. It was therefore decided to retain the literacy focus but to introduce an ‘engagement’ secondary outcome as this seemed more aligned with the intervention’s aims.
So they ditched maths and science because the students weren’t learning any (remember that this took up 20% to 50% of the timetable) and added engagement because they thought this might generate a more positive outcome. Yet at the end of the study there was no evidence even for an improvement in engagement.
The EEF acknowledge that there is no strong evidence for PBL from previous studies:
“The existing evidence for a causal link between PBL and attainment outcomes seems to be weak. Most of the reviewed studies did not involve random allocation of participants to control and experimental groups and, as a result, a causal link between project based learning instruction and positive student outcomes has not been established.”
The PBL intervention was designed and led by The Innovation Unit and they reiterate this point on a blog post responding to the EEF study:
“We know that it can transform academic and personal outcomes for students, so why is it so hard to find out if that’s true in general? In particular, why hasn’t a major study funded by a serious organisation been more conclusive, one way or the other?”
I’m not sure that it can transform academic and personal outcomes and I suspect that this is why no major study by a serious organisation has been more conclusive.
At best, PBL might work well as an enrichment task for those students who already have knowledge and lots of resources – eg support from home – to draw upon. This is why I have dubbed it a ‘pedagogy of privilege‘.
Interestingly, the consultant who recently ran PBL training in New South Wales is British and is a Senior Associate at The Innovation Unit. So we might expect that the PBL he is promoting in Australia has many similarities to the program that failed in the EEF study.