We all know the story of project-based learning. It has been around since at least 1918 when William Heard Kilpatrick wrote The Project Method: The use of the Purposeful Act in the Educative Process and yet, over all this time, it has accrued very little evidence of effectiveness. Perhaps the most significant recent development was a randomised controlled trial run by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in the UK. This was necessary because, as the EEF state in their literature review, “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.” It is quite extraordinary to reflect that we are in this position given the long history of project-based learning and its current popularity, but there we are.
In their trial, the EEF found, “Adopting PBL had no clear impact on either literacy (as measured by the Progress in English assessment) or student engagement with school and learning.” They also found a possible negative impact on the literacy of students eligible for free school meals. However both findings have to be treated with caution because so many schools dropped-out of implementing project-based learning during the study. It is due to this background that I predict that project-based learning will soon reappear under a new name – watch this space.
However, I did recently come across a study that demonstrates a positive effect of project-based learning on scientific understanding which I thought was worth investigating. Tara Craig and Jill Marshall, the authors of the new study, agree with the EEF that, “…there is a lack of studies randomly assigning students to receive PBL,” and so set-out to design a study of their own. This sounds promising – random assignment is the best way of determining a cause-and-effect relationship between a teaching approach and its effects on learning.
Once I read the body of the paper, however, my optimism faded. Students were not randomly assigned to project-based learning or some other approach within once school or a group of schools. Instead, entry to Manor New Technology High School, a school using project-based learning, was determined on a lottery basis, with the losers going to the more conventional Manor High School and not receiving project-based learning. These formed the intervention and control groups.
Lotteries are often used for entry into Charter schools in the US and this approach has been used to attempt to determine the effects of Charter schools. It is therefore clear that project-based learning is not the only factor that varies between the groups and the effectiveness of the school would also contribute. It is possible, perhaps likely, that Manor New Technology School attracts better or more motivated teachers and there is also likely to be an effect on the students of gaining entry. I suggest this is likely because Manor High School does not sound great. It had a lower school performance ranking and teacher recruitment and retention issues. For this reason, professional development was focused on classroom management rather than project-based learning.
Despite these clear differences, when ethnicity and economic disadvantage are controlled, there was no significant difference between the intervention and control group on four out of five measures involving maths and science performance. However, there was a significant difference favouring the intervention in Year 10 Science.
This is hardly encouraging evidence in support of project-based learning.