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Response: Learning By Doing - Part Two

(This is the last post in a two-part series.  You can see Part One here.)

This week's question is:

What are the differences between Project-Based, Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning?

In Part One, guest responses came from educators Suzie Boss, Jeffrey Wilhelm, Steven Anderson and Stephen Lazar. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Suzie and Jeffrey on this topic at my BAM! Radio Show.

Today, Jeff C. Marshall, Nancy Sulla, Derek Cabrera, Christopher Panna, and Heather Wolpert-Gawron and Ron Berger all share their thoughts.  In addition, I include a comment from an experienced reader.

Response From Jeff C. Marshall

Jeff C. Marshall is an associate professor in Science Education at Clemson University and is the Director of the Inquiry in Motion Institute with the mission of facilitating teacher transformation in K-12 mathematics and science classrooms through rigorous and authentic inquiry-based learning experiences. He is author of Succeeding With Inquiry in Science and Math Classrooms (ASCD, 2013):

If John Dewey, a forward thinking father of modern education, was correct that "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself," then our classrooms need to provide student-centered learning environments focused on students doing instead of teachers just telling.

Three instructional strategies (inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning) have evolved that provide student-centered learning environments to foster deep student engagement and to stimulate critical thinking around critical concepts and practices. All three align beautifully to the goals and expectations laid forth in the Common Core Mathematics and ELA standards, the Next Generation Science Standards, and the 21st Century Skills. In fact, these strategies for learning share considerable overlap with one another that include: student-centered learning focus; teacher as facilitator rather than lecturer; relevant, real-world learning experiences; group learning environment with individual accountability; and assessments often are performance based (e.g., project, demonstration, lab) rather than traditional paper and pencil formats.

Inquiry-based learning is the broadest of the three strategies and frequently incorporates the other two strategies. Inquiry learning is predicated on the idea that students must explore major concepts before formal explanations occur. Inquiry should be seen residing on a continuum that ranges from no inquiry -->prescriptive inquiry -->guided inquiry -->open inquiry, where guided inquiry is the target for most classroom experiences. When led effectively, guided inquiry-based instruction provides commonly shared, often concrete, experiences for all students to explore before the formal sense-making (explanation) portion of learning occurs. Though all subject areas can benefit from inquiry learning, "Succeeding with Inquiry in Science and Mathematics Classrooms" provides detailed examples, guidance in planning inquiry lesson, rubrics for evaluating instructional effectiveness, and management techniques for all science and mathematics classrooms.

Problem-based learning typically is guided by a simulation or case study in an effort to motivate students and provide a specific context for learning. Simulations real or fictitious can be used to provide a more realistic learning experience for studying a major historical event or the factors that drive the economy. Case studies can be used, for instance, for preparing future doctors or studying environmental issues.

Project-based learning is typically framed by a more global open-ended question that will be answered over time through a project, presentation, or performance. Before the culminating project can be demonstrated, students must learn the critical concepts, ideas, and practices that will help to support their final product. For instance, how can our school (community or home) reduce our environmental impact?

The excitement and motivation provided through inquiry-based, project-based, and problem-based learning becomes about creating an environment where the learner (student) needs to know as opposed to something you are going to tell them and then hope to show purpose and value later. All three learning strategies provide a rich, dynamic, and engaging means to provide context and motivation to students who would otherwise be apathetic to learning and school in general.



Response From Nancy Sulla

Dr. Nancy Sulla is the president of IDE Corp., designer of the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom, and author of Students Taking Charge and the upcoming book, It's Not What You Teach, But How: 7 Insights For CCSS Success:

Taking the meaning of the terms literally, the definitions create a subset situation. "Inquiry" is an investigation, an act of questioning. A project is a planned and designed activity to achieve a particular goal. A problem is a dilemma that needs to be resolved. As such, inquiry-based learning is the broadest term, with project-based learning being a specific kind of inquiry, one that ends with a tangible product. Problem-based learning is a further subset, with an open-ended situation to be resolved.

With problem-based learning, students tackle an open-ended problem for which they must propose a solution. Students might write a letter to a favorite author convincing the author to write a future book about their town. Students might design a unique polyhedra-based lighting fixture for an eccentric mathematician. The key is to have students grapple with content.

Projects may be open- or closed-ended. Using project-based learning, students work to achieve a goal: create a set of book reviews; build a set of polyhedra figures.

Inquiry-based learning can be broad, such as asking students to investigate what fictional books have in common or what role polyhedra play in the world. In K-12 schools, however, it is more typically closed ended, having students discover known concepts, for example, conducting experiments to see the conditions under which seedlings will grow.

Problem-based learning can include the others. Ex: Small particles of plastic are gathering in the ocean currents, creating large garbage patches; design a novel solution to clean up the plastic. Students might engage in inquiry-based experiments to determine how to remove microplastic from saltwater. A project-based component might be to develop a presentation on the garbage patches and the severity of the situation. Both of these activities involve procedural learning: skills that are attained through following and practicing a procedure. The final problem-based solution requires what I refer to as "novelity" - the ability to respond appropriately and successfully in novel situations, a key indicator of truly understanding content.


Response From Derek Cabrera

Derek Cabrera holds a PhD from Cornell University, is an author of six books and an internationally recognized expert in cognition, systems, and learning, and taught at Cornell University.  Derek is currently co-Founder and senior research scientist at Cabrera Research Lab in Ithaca, New York. He is the co-author of Thinking at Every Desk: Four Simple Skills to Transform Your Classroom (W. W. Norton; 2012). Visit him at cabreraresearch.org:

The differences among project-based, problem-based, and inquiry learning are found in their origin point, and the subsequent context(s) in which one method is chosen over another. For example, project-based learning focuses on activating learning through experience, finalizing a product that demonstrates what was learned. Problem-based learning originated in medical schools as a means of developing effective collaboration and isolating the root of a real-world problem to come up with a solution. Inquiry-based learning developed in contrast to student memorization of facts in traditional schools: Teachers act as facilitators by posing a question for exploration rather than as a means to get information to be recalled.

Despite their different historical origins they are all early attempts to solve the same root problem in human learning, a problem that is often lost in educational processes: the need for students to think. We often make the mistake that knowledge and information are synonymous, (for example, with grading and high-stakes tests that often assess a student's ability to memorize information), rather than their deep understanding or knowledge. The reason thinking is so critically important is that thinking is what causes information to become knowledge. This idea is the basis for what amounts to the F=ma of learning: Knowledge is equal to the [complex] product of Information and Thinking, or K=IT. Each of these early learning theories (project-based, problem-based, and inquiry learning) are attempts to highlight the importance of constructing or deconstructing ideas through thinking and building knowledge, which is why they are all philosophically constructivist and therefore highly related.

The second dilemma these early learning theories attempted to solve was students' difficulty with ungrounded abstractions (concepts) or symbols. To remedy this difficulty, our bodies are replete with sensory perception (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, and experience in general) that allows us to ground our thinking. So, again, all of these theories are early attempts to create ways of grounding knowledge.

My research lab has made progress in developing contemporary theories, based upon these early ones, of better ways to both build and ground knowledge, as well as many other learning techniques such as prior knowledge, metaphor and storytelling, case- and service-based, experiential, NLR, tactile manipulatives, labs, artifacts, field trips, gamification, initiative games, expeditionary learning, and even gap years. We have found that they all share a single similar purpose that can go by a lot of names (e.g., activation, reification, etc.): All have to do with grounding knowledge. We now know that these two concepts--building and grounding--are the essential ingredients of human knowing.



Response From Christopher Panna

Christopher Panna is a social studies teacher and technology integrator at the Walworth Barbour American International School in Israel. Follow him on Twitter @signorpanna:

These three approaches have much in common aside from their potential to provide authentic and powerful experiences for students. Rather than using an instructional standard as the goal, students are charged with completing a task or answering a question. The teacher's role becomes that of facilitator and students take greater responsibility for their progress.

Inquiry based learning is built around investigating one or more key questions. These can be content-specific or general and enduring. For example, my Ancient History students could tackle a question like: How did the natural environment shape the course of Mesopotamian civilization? Or we could ask something that applies to both the lives of the Mesopotamians and ourselves: What are the pros and cons of living in a highly organized society?

In a problem-based unit, students have to produce a solution to a challenge. Much of the growth occurs as students develop the skills and knowledge necessary to reach a solution. In my Economics class, students chose a country and developed a financial plan for its government. To do this they needed to understand the country's economic indicators (GDP growth, unemployment rate, etc.) and the likely effects of various policy choices. The summative assessment involved a presentation in which they explained and defended their policy recommendations.

Project-based learning is similar in that students respond to a challenge, but here they must create something concrete rather than produce a hypothetical solution. For example, US History students could make a video to educate citizens about the Bill of Rights. Projects like this have the potential for great rewards as students take ownership of their creation and share it with a wider community. What begins as an assignment for school could transform them into community organizers or Youtube stars.



Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher.  She has authored workbooks on teaching Internet Literacy, Project Based Writing, and Nonfiction Reading Strategies for the Common Core.  She is the author of  ˜Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers and  Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing Across the Content AreasHeather blogs for The George Lucas Educational Foundation's Edutopia.org as well as her own www.tweenteacher.com:

I get asked this question often by nervous teachers with wonderful intentions. And here's how I respond: Don't worry about it. Are you basing your units on the following:

Student choice?
Authentic Audiences?
Bringing outside expertise into the classroom?
21st Century Methods of Communication?
Subject Matter Integration?

Then most likely, you can make the argument that you are doing any of 'em. Do your units tell a story where students role play (engineer, architect, board member, etc...) to give them a framework of how to pitch a final product? Do your units combine oral presentation, writing, creating, technology, and literacy?

Project-based, Problem-based, Inquiry-based. These all encompass the above elements. So for that reason I say that teachers shouldn't get too hung up on the terms and instead focus on rich practice that reaches so many different levels of learners.

So everyone take a breath and don't get too concerned about the nomenclature. If you're utilizing these elements, you're teaching with passion, you're teaching with engagement, and you're teaching with rigor.


Response From Ron Berger

Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer for Expeditionary Learning, taught public school for more than twenty-five years. He is the author of An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students and a co-author of Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment and Transformational Literacy: Making the Common Core Shift with Work That Matters:

What are the differences between project-based, problem-based and inquiry learning?

This is a great question, and a difficult one! These practices share a lot of characteristics, but also have many nuanced differences. I'll do my best to tease out those distinctions here.

The most important thing about these three models of instruction is what they share: they all put students in a leadership role in pursuing learning, and they all require students to grapple with challenges and formulate ideas or solutions. As for what distinguishes each model, there is not a simple answer. Definitions for each model vary and the models overlap in many ways. While proponents for any particular model tend to use tight definitions to describe it, as a whole the terms are often used loosely--and even interchangeably--in general educational settings.


Inquiry learning is the broadest term and project- and problem-based learning are both subsets. Inquiry learning includes all instructional strategies that compel students to explore materials and concepts. This approach is found, for example, in the pre-school model of the Reggio Emilia Schools; in the elementary school technique of Guided Discovery, framed by the Responsive Classroom model; by the Montessori model; and by a wide range of art and science programs that use discovery and experimentation to encourage students to develop ideas, techniques, and hypotheses. Discrete practices such as Socratic Seminars that involve students in leading inquiry-based discussions are also often seen as part of inquiry learning. You can see high school students leading an inquiry-based discussion protocol very capably here.

Problem-based and Project-based learning are terms that are often used interchangeably. There is not universal agreement on how they may be distinct, but those who distinguish them tend to cite these differences:

  • Real World Connection
    • Project-based learning is typically used for real world-connected projects for authentic audiences (e.g., students interview local civil rights heroes and publish a book to honor their stories; students create a water quality report for the town about a local stream)
    • Problem-based learning may use simulation problems or academic problems that are challenging provocations to thinking but may not have real-world use (e.g., design a container with flat surfaces and minimal surface area to hold a set of given objects; describe a fair solution to an ethical dilemma from history)
  • Disciplinary versus Interdisciplinary
    • Project-based learning is often deeply interdisciplinary; the real-world connection typically involves research, design, creation, and communication
    • Problem-based learning may be primarily centered in a single discipline (e.g., inquiry-based math lessons often include problem-based learning)
  • A Final Product or Performance
    • Project-based learning typically results in a final draft product or performance that is shared with the public (e.g., book, machine, display, blueprint, website, symposium)
    • Problem-based learning may culminate in a solution, but is not necessarily brought to a polished product


The Case Study approach--best known from its use in medical schools, law schools, and business schools--is one particular branch of problem-based learning that is highly-defined and sometimes prescribed in its pedagogical steps. That approach has inspired and informed use in undergraduate and K-12 classrooms as well.

All of these models of instruction, when used well, can build student ownership and engagement and push student thinking in ways that are difficult to match with other pedagogical approaches. Some of that power is self-evident when viewing high-quality student projects. If you're interested in seeing examples, I encourage you to visit the Center for Student Work. For the past 25 years, I have been working with my colleagues at Expeditionary Learning and at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to build and curate an archive of exemplary student projects, which are now housed online in this center.


At the center, you can view projects like this one, in which seventh-grade students at Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago created a book to honor heroes in their community who are working as "Peacekeepers" to quell neighborhood violence. The project began with an in-depth study of the U.S. Constitution, which moved into a study of Second Amendment rights. This is a powerful issue for students. Gun violence is so extreme in the neighborhood surrounding the school that 96% of students personally knew someone who was a victim. The students worked with and interviewed local activists and civil servants, wrote compelling profiles of them, photographed them professionally, and published this book. They worked with those activists to create a citywide "Day of Peace"--a cease-fire--that sent a message of what is possible when neighbors work together. You can see that project here.

The full collection in the Center for Student Work is open to the public, with all examples free to view and download. It can be found here.

One of the best ways to understand the power of all three of these overlapping practices is to view a classroom where they are done well. You can view a short video of such a classroom here.



Responses From Readers

John Larmer from the Buck Institute for Education:

I agree with what all your contributors say. In 2012, I wrote a blog post to try to sort it out. Note: Sometimes people who saw just the bottom part of the chart in the post (when it was shared by cutting & pasting without the context) got the impression I was being critical of problem based learning - I'm not. Some problem-based learning folks objected to my saying it was more often single-subject, didn't always have a tangible product, and wasn't always "fully authentic" but a simulation. I think my words are accurate in terms of what is most typical, but yes, there are plenty of examples of problem-based units that are in fact interdisciplinary, with tangible products, and fully authentic.

Thanks to Jeff, Nancy, Derek, Christopher, Heather and Ron, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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