High school English language arts teacher Merion Taynton took “a leap of faith” in November 2016 and jumped in “with both feet” into Project-Based Learning (PBL).
While teaching Goethe’s Faust in her Grade 10 class in a Chinese independent school, she adopted PBL in an attempt to “grapple with the ideas” within the text rather than “the text itself.” What would you sell your soul for? How much are your dreams worth? Those were the questions Ms. Taynton posed, as she set aside her regular teaching notes on 19th Century European Literature. Students would complete their own projects and decide, on their own, how to present their findings. “I’m going to do a video,” one said. “I’m going to produce a rap song” chimed in another, and the whole approach was ‘anything goes’ as long as the students could produce a justification.
Ms. Taynton’s project-based learning experience was not just a random example of the methodology, but rather an exemplar featured on the classroom trends website Edutopia under the heading “Getting Started with Literature and Project-Based Learning.” Better than anything else, this learning activity demonstrates not only the risks, but the obvious pitfalls of jumping on educational fads in teaching and learning.
After spreading like pedagogical magic dust over the past five years, Project-Based Learning recently hit a rough patch. Fresh educational research generated in two separate studies at Durham University’s Education Endowment Foundation (EFF) in the United Kingdom and as a component of the OECD’s Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) has raised serious questions about the effectiveness of PBL and other minimal teacher-guided pedagogical strategies.
The EFF study of Project-Based Learning (November 2016) examined “Learning through REAL projects” involving some 4,000 Year 7 pupils in 24 schools from 2013-14 to April 2016, utilizing a randomized control trial. The research team found “no clear impact on either literacy..or student engagement with school and learning.” More telling was the finding that the effect on the literacy of children eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) – a measure of disadvantage – was “negative and significant.” Simply put, switching to PBL from traditional literacy instruction was harmful to the most needy of all students.
The 2015 PISA results, released December 6, 2016, delivered another blow to minimal teacher-guided methods, such as PBL and its twin sister, inquiry-based learning. When it came to achievement in science among 15-year-olds, the finding was that such minimal guided instruction methods lagged far behind explict instruction in determining student success. In short, the increase in the amount of inquiry learning that students report being exposed to is associated with a decrease in science scores.
Much of the accumulating evidence tends to support the critical findings of Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark in their authoritative 2006 article in Educational Psychologist. “Minimally-guided instruction,” they concluded, based upon fifty years of studies, “is less effective and less efficient than instructional methods that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process.” The superiority of teacher-guided instruction, they claimed, can be explained utilizing evidence from studies of ” human cognitive architecture, expert-novice differences, and cognitive load.”
Project-Based Learning, like inquiry-based approaches, may have some transitory impact on student engagement in the classroom. Beyond that, however, it’s hard to find much actual evidence to support its effectiveness in mastering content knowledge, applying thinking skills, or achieving higher scores, particularly in mathematics and science.
In September 2015, an Ontario Education What Works: Research into Practice Monograph, authored by David Hutchison of Brock University, provided a rather mixed assessment of PBL. While the author claimed that PBL had much to offer as a “holistic strategy” promoting “student engagement” and instilling “21st century skills,” it faced “challenges that can limit its effectiveness.” Where the strategy tends to fall short was in mastery of subject content and classroom management, where time, scope and quality of the activities surface as ongoing challenges.
Implementation of PBL on a system-wide basis has rarely been attempted, and, in the case of Quebec’s Education Reform initiative, Schools on Course, from 1996 to 2006, it proved to be an unmitigated disaster, especially for secondary school teachers and students. The “project method” adopted in the QEP, imposed top-down, ran into fierce resistance from both teachers and parents in English-speaking Quebec, who openly opposed the new curriculum, claiming that it taught “thinking skills without subject content.” In a province with a tradition of provincial exit examinations, PBL cut against the grain and faltered when student scores slipped in 2006 in both Grade 6 provincial mathematics tests and the global Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) assessments.
None of the critical research findings or claims of ineffectiveness have blunted the passion or commitment of PBL advocates across North America. With the support of the ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine and web platforms such as Edutopia, a handful of PBL curriculum and program experts, including Jane Krauss of International Society for Technology Education (ISTE), Suzie Boss of Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation, and Dr. Sylvia Chard of the University of Alberta, have been effective in planting it in hundreds of school systems from Oregon and California to New York State and Ontario, in New England and the Maritime Provinces.
The PBL movement in North America is propelled by progressive educational principles and an undeniable passion for engaging students in learning. Powered by 21st century learning precepts and championed by ICT promoters, it rests upon some mighty shaky philosophical foundations and is supported by precious little research evidence. Lead promoter Suzie Boss is typical of those advocates. “Projects make the world go round,” she wrote in a 2011 Edutopia Blog post, and “Confucius and Aristotle were early proponents of learning by doing.” That may be quite imaginative, but it is also completely fallacious.
Most of the PBL “research” is actually generated by one California organization, the Buck Institute for Education, where the lead promoters and consultants are schooled in its core principles and where PBL facilitators develop teaching units and workshops. It’s actively promoted by ISTE, Edutopia, and a host of 21st century skills advocates.
Even Canadian faculty of education supporters like Hutchison concede that implementing PBL is “time-intensive” and fraught with classroom challenges. Among those “challenges” are formidable obstacles such as a) managing the significant time commitment; b) ensuring that subjects have sufficient subject depth; c) balancing student autonomy with the imperative of some teacher direction; and d) keeping projects on track using ongoing (formative) assessment instruments. When it comes to implementing PBL in ESL/ELL classrooms or with larger groups of Special Needs students those challenges are often insurmountable.
What works best as a core instructional approach – explicit instruction or minimal teacher guided approaches, such as PBL and Inquiry-Based Learning? Which approach is best equipped to raise student achievement levels, particularly in mathematics and science? Are the potential benefits in terms of promoting student engagement and instilling collaborative skills enough to justify its extensive use in elementary schools?