Why the UK needs to understand when and how PBL really ‘works’


The truth is that the education sector is still not as close as it would like to be in really understanding when and how Project Based Learning has an impact on student outcomes.

Earlier today the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) published a report setting out the findings of research into Project Based Learning (PBL) undertaken by Innovation Unit with Durham University.

Despite some excited headlines, the truth is that the education sector is still not as close as it would like to be in really understanding when and how PBL has an impact on student learning. (And to be clear, when we say PBL, we don’t mean the themed curriculum kind that reorganises subject content to make it seem relevant, but the kind that sets really high expectations of what students can do, and includes deep academic learning as an intrinsic part of the projects.)

PBL is an approach that is seen to have great success elsewhere and Innovation Unit has been keen to bring that learning here, where it would be of benefit to students, schools and communities. Networks such as High Tech High, Expeditionary Learning and New Tech Network from the US use predominantly project based learning and consistently perform better than other schools locally and nationally.

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?

Three reasons we can see:

  1. PBL is really hard to do well. PBL done well requires root and branch change in schools that most struggle to achieve. If it doesn’t then it’s not being done right. Introducing new practices that require significant changes beyond the level of the classroom is hard and takes time to get right: it is never as simple as training a teacher to change how they teach. Schools embarking on the introduction of new practices need both strong leadership and the capacity to manage significant change which, in the case of PBL, means altering the curriculum, pedagogy, timetables, staffing structures, professional development and leadership structures. Or, it means designing a new school from scratch, which is an opportunity available only to some.
  2. The schools in this particular study were disproportionately vulnerable to external pressure. Schools in the intervention group were disproportionately subject to external intervention by Ofsted and Academy takeovers, meaning there was significant dropout: 8 of 11 schools in the study were ‘Requires Improvement’ or worse (national average is 1 in 5), 3 had a change of headteacher during the year of the study, and 2 were taken over by new academy sponsors. The control group were stable in comparison, with 8 of 12 schools Good or Outstanding, and only one change of headteacher during the period of study.
  3. We can’t measure everything we’d like to. It’s really hard to measure the wider learning outcomes that schools are actually seeking when they implement PBL (although the process evaluation does a good job at capturing the impact of changes on individual students’ attainment, confidence, and learning skills). This accords with the universally positive comments made by Ofsted about the practice and its impact on students in schools we have worked with. Our hypothesis was that by improving the culture and experience of learning overall, we might in time see a measurable improvement on core skills like reading. But PBL even at its best is not a reading intervention — if that’s the only goal then there are lots of better interventions out there and the EEF toolkit is a great way of finding them.

This EEF evaluation makes an important contribution to the knowledge base about what it takes to implement new practices in English secondary schools. However, over a short period of time and in schools struggling with many other competing priorities (and, at times, chaotic change), it simply hasn’t been possible to achieve conclusive results through this specific study.

Our advice to schools interested in delivering PBL is that it can be a powerful learning strategy if it is part of a whole school change process and you are ready and able to make the necessary time and staff available.

Schools such as Stanley Park High and School 21 are clear examples of the positive impact that Project Based Learning can have when embedded in a wider strategy for innovative teaching and learning. However, it is not a silver bullet, nor is it the best or easiest way to rapidly improve specific outcomes like literacy — particularly if your school’s capacity to manage large scale change is limited.

Innovation Unit is committed to learning about what it takes to transform education such that young people learn in education systems and institutions where every individual is engaged and achieves success.

We recognise that the quest to really understand the value of PBL to the myriad of ambitions we have for children and their learning must go on, and, alongside our partners, we will absolutely keep learning.