Project & Problem Based Learning

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.
What is it?

Project and Problem based learning both fall under umbrella of Inquiry – learning that is centered in good questions – questions that matter to students and where students are able to apply what they learn in some tangible way.

Problem-based learning is a subset of project-based learning — that is, one of the ways a teacher could frame a project is “to solve a problem.” Problem-based learning is more likely to use scenarios and case studies and is often shorter in duration the Project-based learning.

Problem-based learning typically follow prescribed steps:

  • Presentation of an “ill-structured” (open-ended, “messy”) problem
  • Problem definition or formulation (the problem statement)
  • Generation of a “knowledge inventory” (a list of “what we know about the problem” and “what we need to know”)
  • Generation of possible solutions
  • Formulation of learning issues for self-directed and coached learning
  • Sharing of findings and solutions

Project-based learning still leads by a question but is likely more based in student interest than presented by the teacher so there is more voice and choice involved. The project typically extends longer in time, may extend outside the classroom, and may be interdisciplinary. Finally the project tends to have an authentic audience rather than just being presented within the classroom as is generally the case with problem-based learning.

Why is it important to have in the classroom?

Research shows we have a real engagement problem in schools – the longer students spend in school the less engaged they are. In order to have curious adults who feel like they can take hold of problems, find solutions, and manage their own learning, we need approaches that put Inquiry at the center and that pay attention to student interests. PBL does this and allows school to reignite student curiosity.


How does it support intrinsic motivation and ownership?

Students who have had great success in traditional schooling often have a hard time switching to project based learning. They have learned to be compliant and are extrinsically motivated. PBL allows students to shift to intrinsic motivation as they have a lot more autonomy and they are getting meaningful feedback during the process that allows them to continue to work on something until they do well at it, letting them see how their mastery is increasing. It calls for questions that are meaningful to students. Finally, it allows teachers to get to know their students better. These are all ingredients for intrinsic motivation to emerge.


What does it look like in practice?

Project based learning in the classroom starts with an authentic question.  This can happen through a process of identifying and refining questions until each student has a great question to pursue, or it can happen serendipitously as the result of a question that arises in the classroom.

For example, Suzie Boss describes how 4th graders in the state of Rhode Island were studying (memorizing) the state symbols when one student asked why they didn’t have a state insect. The students researched and as one thing led to another they ended up presenting to the state house and in the end, Rhode Island did select an insect to represent the state. Their inquiry led to lots of cross-diciplinary learning, including environmental issues and politics.

As another example, there were middle schoolers who had the opportunity to design back-to-school product for their peers and saw those products enter the market place. The students had the chance to have back-and-forth conversation with expert professional designers, as is often the case in project based learning.

The products can be many different things and the process can be highly interdisciplinary.