Projects are the best way to learn – not!

Myth number 6 of Daisy Christodoulou’s “7 myths of education”, the myth that projects and activities are the best way to learn, seems to be the one that really causes most dismay among her critics. Kevin Stannard and Tom Sherrington both fall back on the line that there are good projects and bad projects, without taking on board the substance of Daisy’s argument, which was that projects overload working memory and are deeply inequitable, relying on pupils bringing prior knowledge to the task. It started me thinking about why so many head teachers seem to regard curriculum innovation as synonymous with project work and look favourably on anything which encourages it, despite the idea having been around for decades.

I have a confession to make here – I indulge in a little project work myself. With my year 9 class, after they have made their option choices. It is a nice change, both for them and for me. However, I have no illusions that it is the most effective way to learn. For every piece of high quality contribution to the project, there are at least five others which are dire and there is always one member of the “team” who has spent most of the time colouring in, simply because the project has overloaded his/her working memory. More recently, the internet has offered numerous “cut and paste without understanding” opportunities, not to mention the horrors of internet translation….

Back in the 1970s, my local comp started to teach most subjects in KS3 (or lower school as it was called back then ) through projects – but they soon went back to discrete subjects. More recently, I hear about schools which initially opted for project based courses, such as RSA Opening Minds or International Middle Years curriculum, reverting to subjects after a while. So why does the idea keep coming back?

I think it has a lot to do with the different concerns of subject teachers and head teachers. Most subject teachers I know went into teaching because they loved their subject and wanted to use it in their job, while hopefully communicating their enthusiasm for it to a new generation. Head teachers have a different priority. They need to “sell” the school. The fact is that a class filled with children working in groups on a project looks more interesting to an outsider, looking in, than a class being taught the rules of trigonometry or the conjugation of verbs in a foreign language. The fact that most of the children are not learning much is lost, as the confident, knowledgeable child in each group explains the project to the outsider. The visitors go away thinking “how delightful”. The head feels “job done – school sold”

Project work is  cargo cult activity, but the fact that it looks so wonderful to an outsider explains its longevity, despite evidence which questions its effectiveness.

Any thoughts?

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5 Responses to Projects are the best way to learn – not!

  1. nictaewa says:

    I have to disagree. It really does depend on the how & why. Projects can cause working memory overload if students have not been equipped with the process & collaborative abilities. As you say, they are also heavily dependant on prior learning. I would query what learning is not? If you take most project-based models they have insufficient modelling & scaffolding. This does not have to be the case. Projects can involve a lot of skills but they can also be scaled back or a learning program can build those skills over time in preparation.

    We have a dedicated passion project day & I mix project-based elements up in specialist subject teaching. I have the advantage of only teaching students who already have prior experience in project approaches, though. We are currently working on a way to implement, model, & scaffold project processes with learners who are new next year.


    • fish64 says:

      Interesting – but I would still question whether it is the most effective way to learn. In my magazine projects, I find that, because students are having to think about layout and presentation, the quality of their writing deteriorates. Dan Willingham gives an example of a project where students were supposed to be learning about slavery and the Underground railroad in nineteenth century USA. Part of the project involved making biscuits as would have been made by slaves. Students ended up thinking more and learning more about baking cookies than they did about slavery and the Underground railroad. I would argue that projects are less effective than discrete subjects, because students have to think about too many things. I know they can be motivational for students, but do the students learn as well as we think they do?


      • nictaewa says:

        Food for thought. I think there are some false comparisons here. If you spend time baking cookies as a gimmick, then your students are not going to learn as much about slavery & the underground railroad. This is common sense. Bad examples of any method are an unfair comparison.

        The question is what are you trying to achieve in the learning. If you take your magazine example & your goal is to simply measure improvement in writing alone, projects will never work out as well. It is an unfair measure. Let’s say you did formal writing & then I measured your students on their ability to lay out a magazine or work together as an editorial team? Is that fair?

        I am not advocating a project-only approach, but it does come down to what the learning goals are & whether the approach you use meets those learning goals.


  2. Pingback: But it doesn’t really mean that….. | fish64

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