It’s all about balance

Education debate is all too often polarised.

Progressives vs Traditionalists,

Competition vs Collaboration,

Testing vs Trust.

And so on. A cynic might say that this makes for good headlines as a quick look at BBC reporting of phonics will show:

“Phonics lessons are ‘almost abuse'” (BBC News, 2014a)


“Phonics is the “best way” to teach reading” (BBC News, 2014b)

And so it is with Problem Based Learning (PBL) and the work of John Hattie (2009). One does not have to dig that deep to find often contradictory meaning. For example, homework is touted as a weak to moderate influence on student attainment – yet a closer look reveals that this is merely an average of two very different pictures. For primary pupils, homework is of little benefit to their academic progress. For secondary pupils, the picture is very different – as any teacher will know, homework in the right circumstances is a powerful learning support. However, we can take this even further – really effective homework targets areas of weakness needing attention, rather than mechanistic repetition (Stobart, 2014) – perhaps we could say homework is personalised? A progressive concept of which Hattie disproves. Or does he?

In Hattie’s overview of educational interventions PBL is ranked a very lowly 118th. With an effect size of 0.15, problem based learning is barely better than ‘just leaving children to get on with it’ … However, there is a wide variation in the eight meta-analyses that Hattie synthesises and it is worth exploring these meta-analyses individually.

To believe Hattie, PBL is detrimental to knowledge acquisition. He quotes Dochy et. al. (2003) showing an effect size of -0.78 on the acquisition of knowledge. This is equivalent to the loss of over one year’s teaching! If this were true, it would be enough to dent the ardour of any teacher. However, Dochy et. al. do not believe in the robustness of their own result – and state “this result is strongly influenced by two studies and the vote count does not reach a significant level. It is concluded that the combined effect size for the effect on knowledge is non-robust” (ibid: 533). What Hattie is very positive about is the impact of PBL on skills acquisition (d = 0.66) and knowledge and complex theory retention (d=0.75). It is this level which is most important at ‘A’ level’s higher grades which require synthesis and deep thinking.

Notwithstanding this raises a number of questions

  • What is PBL best at doing?
  • What should PBL be combined with to give maximal benefit?
  • How is PBL moderated by age and subject domain?
  • Does PBL equally suit all learners, irrespective of their baseline?

Early research methodologies lacked much sophistication and ‘resolving power’. The field of educational effectiveness research has only latterly been able to explore interaction effects and non-linear relationships and we should be alert to the weaknesses of past research. Day et. al.’s (2009) exploration of the developmental pathways that schools travel is a fascinating example which illustrates the weaknesses of a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It should be no surprise that PBL should be similarly blended with other techniques as befits each learners’ situation.

For one example of how PBL is combined with academic rigour, watch Marc Chun’s Keynote to PBL World 2013.



BBC News, 2014a. Phonics lessons are “almost abuse”, says academic [WWW Document]. BBC News. URL (accessed 7.23.16).

BBC News, 2014b. Headteacher: Phonics is the “best way” to teach reading [WWW Document]. BBC News. URL (accessed 7.23.16).

Day, C., Sammons, P., Hopkins, D., Harris, A., Leithwood, K., Gu, Q., Brown, E., Ahtaridou, E., Kington, A., 2009. The Impact of School Leadership on Pupil Outcomes: Final report (DCSF-RR No. 108). Department for Children, Schools and Families, London.

Dochy, F., Segers, M., Van den Bossche, P., Gijbels, D., 2003. Effects of problem-based learning: a meta-analysis. Learn. Instr. 13, 533–568. doi:10.1016/S0959-4752(02)00025-7

Hattie, J., 2009. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge, New York.

Stobart, G., 2014. The Expert Learner: Challenging the Myth of Ability. Open University Press, Maidenhead.

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