Project-based learning that works?

Both project-based learning and core knowledge share the quality that neither of them have been substantiated by large-scale randomised controlled trials – Although I would argue that core knowledge has more supporting it from the other corners of my triangle of evidence:


Project-based learning is, of course, a pedagogy whereas core knowledge is a curriculum. So I’m comparing apples and oranges here. Despite this, there are a number of further parallels.

Both approaches have been adopted as models of whole-school reform in the U.S. There are Core Knowledge (upper case) schools using the curriculum produced by the Core Knowledge Foundation (set-up by E. D. Hirsch Jr.) and there are Expeditionary Learning schools which utilise project-based learning. Many of these schools stand-out as successes – the kind of schools that politicians like to visit. There is some evidence to support both approaches (see the entries in the Best Evidence Encyclopedia here and here).

Core Knowledge and Expeditionary Learning have also both been commissioned to produce English Language Arts curricula for New York schools. According to the comments on this blog post, New York added a guided-reading element to both programs. There is a good reason why Core Knowledge limits the amount of guided reading – Hirsch has written about the redundancy of practising reading comprehension strategies and has urged that the time would be better spent studying content such as history, geography, science or the arts. Perhaps the folks at Expeditionary Learning thought the same. If so, it’s a pity that New York didn’t understand what they were trying to do.

Core Knowledge is intended to be pedagogically neutral. It lists content rather than how to teach it, although the purity of this position is probably compromised by the support materials which include elements such as ‘read-alouds’ that imply a particular teaching approach.

Expeditionary Learning certainly sounds like a full-fat 1920s progressive approach to pedagogy:

“Our classrooms are alive with discovery, inquiry, critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. Teachers talk less. Students talk (and think) more. Lessons have explicit purpose, guided by learning targets for which students take ownership and responsibility. Student engagement strategies and activities serve to differentiate instruction and maintain high expectations to bring out the best in all students, cultivating a culture of high achievement.”

But if you look at their curriculum, something funny happens: It looks a bit like a core knowledge one. For instance, in Grade Four English Language Arts, the central texts include: The Iroquois – The Six Nations Confederacy, Mary Englar; Animal Behavior – Animal Defenses, Christina Wilsdon; Simple Machines – Forces in Action, Buffy Silverman; and Divided Loyalties – The Barton Family During the American Revolution, Gare Thompson and Barbara Kiwak.

And the project work for which Expeditionary Learning is famous seems to take place after the students have learnt a lot of this stuff:

“Each module provides eight weeks of instruction, broken into three shorter units…

Final Performance Task: This is a culminating project, which takes place during Unit 3 of every module. Performance tasks are designed to help students synthesize and apply their learning from the module in an engaging and authentic way. Performance tasks are developed using the writing process, are scaffolded, and almost always include peer critique and revision.”

So it seems less like learning through project work and more like demonstrating what you have learnt through project work. This is a key difference that is likely to make the project work far more effective.


5 thoughts on “Project-based learning that works?

  1. I’ll say this about Expeditionary Learning’s curriculum, which I applied and modified in grades 6-8 over the last 3 years: it’s sequenced quite thoughtfully across the grade-spans in terms of content and skills (as any curriculum worth it’s salt should). But it also throws everything and the kitchen sink into each lesson in a heroic attempt to fully address all the Common Core standards, and thus requires extensive paring down and focusing for actual teaching. From what I’ve heard, they really didn’t intend for the lessons to be applied as written, but to serve more as guidance and models that should be adapted.

    The protocols and lessons from EL units are generally strong, though sometimes they don’t quite connect as clearly as they should. And you’re right, Unit 3 is really just a culminating final activity, but it’s non-essential, and in fact, it was the first thing we threw out when modifying the curriculum in the interests of focus and time.

    I haven’t applied Core Knowledge myself, but from what I’ve heard from a colleague, it also requires similar modifications and adaptation, such as incorporating more writing activities, in order to become a viable classroom curriculum.

    I haven’t yet come across a curriculum that doesn’t require some substantial tailoring.

  2. In 1994, I found Marzano et al’s meta analysis on the effectiveness of teaching strategies, and a pen associated framework for organizing core knowledge and skills and ways to teach them effectively called Dimensions of Learning, and it has influenced my teaching ever since:
    The premise being teachers identify and classify core knowledge targets (declarative and procedural ) either specified or implied in their curriculum, they identify parts for which teacher-guided inquiry would be most effective, and targets that are best suited to being taught through direct instruction, they help students practise and shape the core knowledge skills in various ways to achieve mastery and fluency, they plan for lessons that help students elaborate on the core knowledge facts, concepts principles, relationships etc so they can consolidate the learning, they then ask students to apply their learning learning through forms of project-type/ research or experimental inquiry, among other forms.
    From my experiences with Grades 5-8, can students learn core knowledge through project-based activities? Yes, if learning targets very clear and specific, if required skills and processes are taught ahead of time, and if teacher monitoring and support given at all times.
    If core knowledge is considered a curriculum not a pedagogy, and project -based learning is a pedagogy, it makes sense that they could be used together. Considered alone, I would ask how is the core knowledge going to be taught and learns, and what are the learning targets of the project-based learning? i don’t get how one can pit the two against one another.

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