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“Asking the right questions” is what most of our best teachers encourage and expect from our students. It’s also what our leading education researchers do when trying to grapple with a particularly thorny or “wicked” problem besetting students and teachers in the schools. Yet far too many teachers across Canada remain reticent to do so because they are essentially trained to carry out provincial mandates. Raising the difficult questions is not always welcomed or appreciated where it counts — among those who set education policy, prepare teachers, and implement curriculum in our K-12 school system.

Working out what works in education is not as simple as it seems, particularly when it comes to improving student learning and deciding upon the most effective pedagogical approach for widely varying cohorts of students. Unfreezing fixed positions, both “progressive” and “traditionalist,” is what opens the door to more meaningful, productive conversations.  We see that in the recent success of Stephen Hurley’s VoicED radio conversations, introducing passionate educators representing differing perspectives to one another for the first time in living memory.

Since its inception in September 2013, researchED has championed creating space for regular classroom teachers in “working out what works” in their classrooms.  Posing those difficult questions can ruffle a few feathers, especially among curriculum leaders and in-house consultants. It’s not easy to venture outside the safe confines of social media “echo chambers” and to consider research generated outside the established “research bubbles.” It’s most encouraging to see Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation president Harvey Bischof and his Provincial Executive actively supporting the movement.

Grassroots, teacher-led organizations can also, at times. be messy  Teachers are given a new platform to express not only their real life frustrations but also to share their discoveries during forays into the education research world. Independently-minded teachers are free to speak for themselves, but do not speak for researchED.  Debates can get overheated, especially on social media. We do need to be reminded that educators, whatever their persuasions, have to be prepared to listen, consider divergent viewpoints, and treat each other with respect.

The Internet and smart technology has changed the rules of engagement, bringing the latest research within a few keyboard clicks.  One would think that providing a forum for asking deeper questions would be more widely accepted in assessing province-wide and school board-wide initiatives before they are rolled out every September in our K-12 school system.  It can, however, be a little threatening to those promoting theory-based curriculum reform or pedagogical initiatives. Questioning such initiatives, most teachers sense– at least in some school systems –is not always conducive to career advancement.

We should all welcome the arrival of the latest book on Canadian education, Pushing the Limits, written by Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer and published August 29, 2017.  In many ways, it’s a hopeful and encouraging book because it identifies well-funded “lighthouse projects” in the GTA and a few other Canadian jurisdictions.  While the title is somewhat puzzling, the sub-title is far more indicative of the books real intent, i.e., explaining How Schools Can Prepare Our Children Today for the Challenges of Tomorrow. For Canadian educators and parents looking for a  popular, well-written, fairly persuasive brief for the defense of current policy directions, this is the book for you. For serious education researchers, it will be a goldmine of information on recent initiatives sparking further inquiry into the state of evidence-based teaching practice.

Teachers familiar with researchED will immediately spot a few contentious assertions in Pushing the Limits. Success stories abound and they serve to provide credence to provincial curriculum initiatives underway, particularly in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. The overriding assumption is that schools exist to “prepare our students for the future” and to equip them with “21st century skills.”  Grade 7 teacher Aaron Warner, creator of the two-hour per week  “Genius Hour,” repeats a very familiar claim: “Sixty per cent of the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet.” That buttresses the overall thesis that lies at the heart of the book.

As leading members of the Ontario People for Education research team, Gallagher-Mackay and Steinhauer, as expected,  do make a case for broadening provincial student assessments to include SEL, short for “Social and Emotional Learning.” That’s hardly surprising, given the Ontario Education- P4E partnership  driving that initiative across the province. Digging more deeply, it will be interesting to see what evidence the authors produce that it is either advisable or can be done successfully.

The wisdom of proceeding to adopt SEL system-wide and to recast student assessment in that mold remains contentious. On this particular subject, they might be well advised to consider Anya Kamenetz‘s recent National Public Radio commentary (August 16, 2017) explaining, in some detail, why SEL is problematic because, so far, it’s proven impossible to assess what has yet to be properly defined as student outcomes. They also seem to have overlooked Carol Dweck’s recently expressed concerns about using her “Growth Mindset” research for other purposes, such as proposing a system-wide SEL assessment plan.

Good books tackle big issues and raise fundamental questions, whether intended or not. Teachers imbued with the researchED spirit will be well equipped to not only tackle and effectively scrutinize Pushing the Limits, but to bring a broader and deeper understanding and far more scrutiny of the book’s premises, contentions, and prescriptions. That, in turn, will  hopefully spark a much better informed discussion within the Canadian K-12 educational community.

What’s causing all the buzz in the rather small Canadian teacher education research community? Is it the appearance of a new player committed to raising those difficult questions and to assessing initiatives, through a teachers’ lens? Is it our seeming aversion to considering or supporting evidence-based classroom practice? And is there room for a new voice in Canadian teacher-led education research and reform? 

 

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The educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the K-12 school system, educational innovations come in waves where “quick fixes” and “fads” are fashionable and yesterday’s failed innovations can return, often recycled in new guises.

Education research is rarely applied where it is needed in challenging the assumptions of current orthodoxy and teaching practice. Only one out of every ten curriculum or pedagogical initiatives is ever properly evaluated, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ‘s Education Office, managers of the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA).

Growing numbers of classroom teachers, as well as serious education researchers, are looking for evidence of “what works” before jumping on the latest educational bandwagon. That’s the spark that ignited the British teachers’ movement known as researchED challenging prevailing myths, questioning entrenched theories, and demanding evidence-based teaching practice.

                            researchED founder Tom Bennett’s 2013 book, Teacher Proofwas a direct hit on educational orthodoxy supported by flimsy explanations resting only on questionable social science theories. After a decade of teaching in East London, he knew something was amiss because a succession of pedagogical panaceas such as learning styles, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Brain Gym, and ‘soft persuasion techniques’ simply did not work in the classroom.  His work and that of leading researchED apostles like Daisy Christoudoulou and Martin Robinson has now spawned an international movement to demand research-informed teaching practice.

“We believe that the teaching profession is poised and ripe for change,” says Tom Bennett. “It should be a change where teachers and schools are guided by the best evidence available, not just the latest theories. That’s what propels our new, teacher-led organization.”

Surveying the state of Canadian K-12 education and the current alignment of research priorities, Bennett’s prediction may well bear fruit. North American and Canadian education research, mostly the preserve of faculties of education, once described as a “black hole” still gets little or no respect among policy-makers. High-quality research on the effectiveness of reforms is either weak, inconclusive or missing altogether. Is the mindfulness and self-regulation strategy the latest example of that phenomenon?

Much of the field is driven by political or ideological agendas where action research is used to mount a case for province-wide funding of ‘pet projects’ or unproven technology-in-the classroom innovations. Where education projects are supported by sound scholarship and evidence-based research, it too often has little influence on what is mandated for implementation in the classroom.

elearningred2016coverSchool system leaders and their provincial ministers tend to embrace broad, philosophical concepts like “21st century learning” and to mimic initiatives promoted by Pearson Learning, Microsoft and other international learning corporations. Top-down education policy and curriculum mandates like this tend to run aground when they are introduced to teachers as the latest innovation in teaching and learning. Without the active support of committed and engaged teachers they simply die on the vine and wither away, soon to be replaced by the next panacea.

Out of the testing and accountability movement of the 1990s and early 2000s emerged a ‘new managerialism’ – a whole generation of education management that mastered the rhetoric and language of “outcomes” and “accountability” with, sad to say, little to show for the massive investment of time and talent.  With standardized testing under fire, education lobby groups such as Ontario-based People for Education, are mounting a determined effort to implement ‘school change theory’ and broaden student assessment to include uncharted domains in social and emotional learning.

researchED is now in the forefront in blowing the whistle on innovations floating on untested theories. Popular notions that “schools are preparing kids for jobs that won’t exist” have been found wanting when held up to closer scrutiny. Current fashionable teaching practices such as “Discovery Math,” and “Personalized Learning” ,at least so far, simply do not pass the research-litmus test. It is, by no means certain, that introducing coding in elementary schools will work when so few teachers in the early grades have any background or training in mathematics or computer science.

Since September 2013 researchED has attracted droves of teachers to conferences in the U.K., Australia, Scandinavia, and the European Union. Next stop on this truly unique “British education revolution” is Canada.  The movement’s founder, Tom Bennett, will be the headliner of the first researchED conference to be held in Canada on November 10 and 11, 2017 in Toronto. 

ResearchED Toronto aims to attract a brand-new audience of teachers, policy researchers, and reform-minded parents  Tickets for the full conference are available at https://researched.org.uk/event/researched-toronto/  Batten down the hatches, the British are coming, and, once teachers get a taste of the experience, there will be no turning back.

Part Two of a Series on the researchED Movement.

Will the researchED movement find fertile ground in Canada?  Are there signs of a willingness to come together to “work out what works” for teachers and students? How entrenched are the ‘core interests’ upholding the current orthodoxy and inclined to inhabit their own echo chamber?  Will our “urban myths about education” continue to obscure our understanding of what really works in the classroom? 

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“All that glitters is not gold” is one of the better known English proverbs. It means that not everything that looks glittery and precious turns out to be.  That pearl of wisdom is also a tiny piece of true knowledge, found in Aesop’s Fables, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and it readily comes to mind when confronted with Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy‘s recent conceptual invention, New Pedagogies of Deep Learning.

Since the launch of its first installment, A Rich Seam, with Sir Michael Barber at Pearson Learning in London, UK, back in January 2014, Fullan and Langworthy have been preaching the new gospel of Deep Learning at education conferences around the English-speaking world. “New teaching partnerships between teachers and students are the essential foundations of effective new pedagogies,” they claim, and are “beginning to emerge as digital access opens the door to broader and more varied sources of content knowledge.”  These new pedagogies are capable of not only motivating “bored students” and “alienated teachers,” but “blowing the lid off” learning in the 21st century classroom.

The New Pedagogues funded by Pearson International, the world’s largest “learning corporation,” exude great faith in the power of learning technology. Fresh from Microsoft and its global research team, Langworthy sees “exciting things” happening in schools world-wide when teachers set aside  knowledge “content delivery” and engage students using “collaboration” facilitated by the latest technology. While Fullan’s latest research partner holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Boston University, she introduces herself  with the phrase “I am a learner” (rather than a teacher), and claims that A Rich Seam is “trying to put some substance and conceptual rigour” around the theory.

Fullan and Langworthy’s grand theory is heavy on imaginative thinking and incredibly light on content. Tapping into the “rich seam” of the new pedagogies involves “deep collaboration” to “learn from and with your students.”  Deep Learning seeks to develop what are termed Fullan’s Six Cs: character education, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking, so, one is left to assume, the fundamentals of reading, writing and mental computation are just as passe as teaching content knowledge in the classroom.

The New Pedagogues, much like John Dewey and the old-school Progressives, tend to see factual knowledge in opposition to the kinds of abilities and thinking they seek to develop in students. While teaching isolated facts is clearly unhelpful, they go far beyond that in assuming that teaching facts is somehow opposed to teaching meaning and essential context. Indeed, as Daisy Christodoulou shows in Seven Myths about Education (2014), mastery of bodies of factual knowledge actually allow creativity, problem-solving and analysis to happen.

Exciting discoveries can happen spontaneously, but thinking well requires knowing facts.  That’s the considered view of one of America’s leading cognitive scientists, Daniel T. Willingham. Based upon cognitive science research over the past 30 years, knowing things actually facilitates deeper thinking and learning.  In Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009), Willingham put it succinctly: “The very processes that teachers care most about –critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving –are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).” So intertwined are they that one London English teacher, Joe Kirby, likens the development of knowledge and skills to a “double helix.”

Distinguishing between “deep” and “”surface” approaches to study is certainly not new and can be traced back to original empirical research in the 1970s.  A 2013 literature review of “deep and surface learning” by J.S. Atherton clarified the differences and provided a useful comparison chart.  Although learners may be classified as “deep” or “surface,” they are not necessarily attributes of individuals and are often found in combination with one another. They do correlate fairly closely with motivation, since “deep” tends to be associated with intrinsic motivation and “surface” with extrinsic. What is abundantly clear, however, is that knowing something is absolutely critical to “deep learning” and reflected in its first three characteristics: finding significance, relating previous knowledge to new knowledge, and relating knowledge from different courses. 

Michael Fullan’s The New Pedgaogies of Deep Learning may well turn out to be yet another 21st century learning illusion. He’s now riding high on global rocket fuel provided by Sir Michael Barber and Pearson International. It is well advanced in Fullan’s educational ‘sandbox’, the Ontario school system, where he commands seemly unlimited research dollars and seems to appear on every “educational leadership” conference program. After four decades of “new initiatives” now long-forgotten, it’s incredible to read his rousing January 2014 call for “new pedagogies” capable of unleashing “rich futures” where “students and teachers” are “always learning” and it makes the whole “system” go round.

What’s really driving Michael Fullan’s latest project funded by Pearson Learning? Is it possible to truly learn deeply without a sound foundation in factual knowledge and subject content?  How much of the New Pedagogies rests upon “21st century learning” conceptual thinking and false assumptions about the place of knowledge in student learning? 

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Developing a Growth Mindset in students and their teachers is perhaps the hottest trend in the education world outside of Canada. Originating in psychological science research conducted by Carol S. Dweck, starting in the late 1980s , and continuing at Stanford University, it burst upon the education scene in 2006 with the publication of Dweck’s influential book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  The next great thing, growth mindset, became an instant buzzword phrase in many education faculties and professional development sessions.

The so-called Mindset Revolution, like most education fads, has also generated its share of imitations and mutations. Two of the best known are  the Mathematical Mindset, promulgated by Mathematics educator Jo Boaler, and a more recent Canadian spin-off, The Innovator’s Mindset, the brain-child of George Couros, a division principal of  Teaching and Learning with Parkland School District, in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada. While Growth Mindset 1.0, got little traction in Canada, the second generation iteration dreamed up by Couros is increasingly popular among technology-savvy Canadian and American educators.

CarolDweckBannerLegions of professional educators and teachers in the United States, Britain, and Australia, have latched onto GM theory and practice with a real vengeance. One reliable barometer of ‘trendiness,” the George Lucas Educational Foundation website, Edutopia, provides a steady stream of short vignettes and on-line videos extolling the virtues of GM in the classroom. The growing list of Growth Mindset pieces @Edutopia purport to “support students in believing that they can develop their talents and abilities through hard work, good strategies, and help from others.”

What is the original conception of the Growth Mindset?  Here is how Carol Dweck explained it succinctly in the September 22, 2015 issue of Education Week: “We found that students’ mindsets—how they perceive their abilities—played a key role in their motivation and achievement, and we found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement. More precisely, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset). And when students learned through a structured program that they could “grow their brains” and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better. Finally, we found that having children focus on the process that leads to learning (like hard work or trying new strategies) could foster a growth mindset and its benefits.”

GrowthMindsetModelDweck’s theory of Growth Mindsets gained credibility because, unlike most educational ‘fads,’ it did emerge out of some sound initial research into brain plasticity and was tested in case studies with students in the schools. Leading education researcher Dylan Wiliam, a renowned student assessment expert, lent his support to the Growth Mindset movement when he embraced Dweck’s findings and applied them to building ‘feedback’ into student assessment.  He adopted this equation: Talent = Hard Work + Persistence (A Growth Mindset) and offered this endorsement: “The harder you work, the smarter you get. Once students begin to understand this “growth mindset” as Carol Dweck calls it, students are much more likely to embrace feedback from their teachers.”

Ten years on, cracks appeared in the Growth Mindset movement when some of the liveliest minds in education research began to probe more deeply into the theory, follow-up studies, and the supposed evidence of student success. An early skeptic, Disappoined Idealist, hit a nerve with a brave little commentary, December 5, 2014, wondering whether the Growth Mindset described a world as we wanted it to be, rather than one as it is, and likened it to “telling penguins to flap harder( and they would be able to fly like other birds).  Self-styled ‘education progressives’ have taken their cue from American writer Alfie Kohn who weighed in with a widely-read Salon commentary in which he argued that Dweck’s research had been appropriated by “conservative” educators trying to “fix our kids” when we should be “fixing the system.”

The Growth Mindset ‘magic dust’ is wearing thin in the United Kingdom. British education gadfly David Didau,The Learning Spy, initially “pretty psyched” by Dweck’s theory, has grown increasingly skeptical over the past year or so. In a succession of pointed commentaries, he has punched holes in the assumption that all students possess unlimited “growth potential,” examined why more recent GM interventions have not replicated Dweck’s initial results, questioned whether GM is founded on pseudoscience, and even suggested that the whole theory might be “bollocks.”

Intrepid Belgian education researcher, Pedro De Bruyckere, co-author of Urban Myths About Learning and Education,  has registered his concerns about the validity of research support, citing University of Edinburgh psychologist Timothy Bates’ findings. Based upon case studies with 12-year-olds in China, Bates found no evidence of the dramatic changes in Dweck’s earlier studies: “People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.”

For much of the past two years, Dweck and her research associate Susan Mackie have been alerting researchers and education policy-makers to the spread of what is termed a false growth mindset” in schools and classrooms in Australia as well as Britain and the United States. Too many teachers and parents, they point out, have either misinterpreted or debased the whole concept, reducing it to simple axioms like “Praise the effort, not the child (or the outcome).” In most cases, it’s educational progressives, or parents, looking for alternatives to “drilling with standardized tests.”

GrowthMindsetFalsityDweck’s greatest fear nowadays is that Growth Mindset has been appropriated by education professionals to reinforce existing student-centred practices and to suit their own purposes. That serious concern is worth repeating: ” It’s the fear that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement.” In a December 2016  interview story in The Altantic, she conceded that it was being used in precisely that way, in too many classrooms, and it amounted to “blanketing everyone with praise, whether deserved or not.”

A “false growth mindset” arises, according to Dweck, when educators use the term too liberally and simply do not really understand that it’s intended to motivate students to work harder and demonstrate more resilience in overcoming setbacks. She puts it this way:  “The growth mindset was intended to help close achievement gaps, not hide them. It is about telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.” Far too many growth mindset disciples, Dweck now recognizes, reverted to praising students rather than taking “the long and difficult journey” in the learning process and showing “how hard work, good strategies, and good use of resources lead to better learning.”

One of Dweck’s most prominent champions, Jo Boaler, may be contributing to the misappropriation of Growth Mindset theory in her field.  As an influential Stanford university mathematics education professor, Boaler is best known as an apostle of constructivist approaches to teaching Mathematics in schools. She saw in Dweck’s Growth Mindset theory confirmation that a “fixed mindset” was harmful to kids convinced that they “can’t do Math.” It all fit nicely into her own conception of how children learn Math best – by exploration and discovery in classrooms unleashing childrens’ potential. It became, for Boaler, a means of addressing “inequalities” perpetuated by “ability groupings” in schools. It also served to advance her efforts to “significantly reposition mistakes in mathematics” and replace “crosses” with “gold stars” and whole-class “opportunities for learning.”

The Canadian mutation, George Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset, seeks to extend Carol Dweck’s original theory into  the realm of technology and creativity. Troubled by the limitations of Dweck’s model and  its emphasis on mastery of knowledge and skills, he made an “awesome” (his word) discovery –that GM could be a powerful leadership tool for advancing “continuous creation.” In his mutation of the theory, the binary “fixed” vs. “growth” model morphs into a more advanced stage, termed the “innovator’s mindset.” In his fertile and creative mind, it is transmogrified into a completely new theory of teaching and learning.

GrowthMinsetCourosModelTaking poetic licence with Dweck’s research-based thesis, Couros spins a completely different interpretation in his fascinating professional blog, The Principal of Change:

As we look at how we see and “do” school, it is important to continuously shift to moving from consumption to creation, engagement to empowerment, and observation to application. It is not that the first replaces the latter, but that we are not settling for the former. A mindset that is simply open to “growth”, will not be enough in a world that is asking for continuous creation of not only products, but ideas. “

Promising educational theories, even those founded on some robust initial research, can fall prey to prominent educators pushing their own ‘pet ideas’ and pedagogical theories. While a 2016 Education Week report demonstrates the GM initiatives produce mixed results and British education researchers are having a field day picking apart Carol Dweck’s research findings, another version of her creation is emerging to make it even harder to assess her serious case studies being replicated around the world.

Which version of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset theory and practice are we assessing – the original conception or the “false” conception?  How and why did an educational theory intended to motivate students, instill a work ethic, and help kids overcome obstacles get so debased in translation into classroom practice?  Is the fate of the Growth Mindset indicative of something more troubling in the world of education research? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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).

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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.

explicitinstructionpisaThe 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.

pblhandsonlearning

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? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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