Exclusive: Project-based learning holds back poor pupils

Adi Bloom

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Schools have been warned against using project-based learning, because major new research has found that the approach could leave disadvantaged pupils behind.

A government-funded study has shown that project-based learning has a "significant negative impact" on the literacy of secondary pupils entitled to free school meals. The 20-month trial found that FSM pupils in project-based classes made three months’ less progress in literacy than their counterparts in traditional, subject-based lessons.

In addition, the method had no clear positive impact on the literacy levels or general engagement of the rest of the pupils, according to the research.

'Wouldn't recommend'

Louise Thomas, head of education at the Innovation Unit, developed the programme studied by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). “We certainly wouldn’t recommend that a school that needs to improve reading scores quickly should implement project-based learning,” she said.

“It’s not a way for schools facing challenging circumstances to improve their reading scores.”

The government-funded EEF, which commissioned the research, also said that schools should seriously question whether it was worth adopting this style of teaching.

'Think very carefully'

“Project-based learning has implications on timetabling and staffing,” said James Richardson, deputy chief executive of the EEF.

“It’s very expensive, and it involves whole-school change. Teachers should really think very carefully about committing to this.”

But Mr Richardson added that some schools had dropped out from the trial, which made the findings of the research less conclusive than most EEF studies.

Project-based learning requires pupils to work for an extended period of time on a single project, across a range of subjects, rather than in discrete subject lessons.

Around 4,000 Year 7 pupils from 24 secondary schools were involved in the EEF study between September 2014 and April 2016. Half of the pupils were given conventional, subject-specific lessons, while half were given a timetable made up of between 20 per cent and 50 per cent project-based learning.

This is an edited version of an article from the 4 November edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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