Inquiry Based Learning, Project Based Learning, Problem Based Learning: What Is The Difference?


Here is another great guest post by my teaching partner Chantelle Davies discussing inquiry, problem and project based learning.  Thanks for sharing your insight.  

Inquiry based learning, project based learning, problem based learning:  what is the difference?  Many would tell you there is little difference.  I found several compelling arguments that would suggest they are the same thing;  with a new name.  I decided to learn more.   

Inquiry Based Learning,  although not an entirely new concept, seems to be the latest buss work that begun floating around our board these last two years. In an overly simplified explanation, it is simply a way of teaching that encourages students to ask questions throughout the entire learning (inquiry) process.  Students are encouraged to ask questions that drive research, sharing of information, testing theories and ultimately lead to further and deeper questions.  Questions leads to expanded learning.  According to Ontario's Capacity Building Series there are four phases to the inquiry process:

1.  Focus- This is when students begin to define the topic they interested in, framing it into a beg question or a prediction.  During this stage, teachers act as a support listening to their questions, discussing ways they can go about their learning, modeling how to build good questions, and beginning to group curriculum expectations that can be addressed through the topic.

2.  Share Learning- During this stage students begin to answer their questions and share their findings with their peers and the teacher.  Through sharing, questions are refined in order to dig deeper and encourage rich thinking.  There is opportunity to assess any curriculum that has been addressed and teachers help students think about ways to show their learning.  

3.  Explore- Here students find out more information using a variety of sources.  They clarify their questions and ask more questions related to their focus.  They discuss their findings.  Teachers provide tasks that allow students to add new learning to their existing background knowledge, they enourage sharing of information and peer-feedback and model reflection.

4.  Analyse- This fourth stage is about synthesizing the information that students have gathered.  Students are comparing, sorting, classifying and interpreting information to draw conclusions about the questions they asked.  At this point teachers are providing opportunities for students to share their findings and allowing time for peer and self assessment.  Even in this final stage teachers support students in asking more questions; to begin the inquiry process again.

Moving on, the reading I have done would lead me to believe that Problem Based Learning and Project Based Learning could both operate as a subset of inquiry based learning.  John Larmer, from the Buck Institute of Education said in a post he did for Edutopia, that "[problem based learning], along with project-based learning, falls under the general category of inquiry-based learning -- which also includes research papers, scientific investigation, Socratic Seminars or other text-based discussions, etc."  Given my recent learning, I would agree with John provided the PBL (either one) is driven by student questions and not by questions that only the teacher has posed.

In trying to define the difference between project based learning and problem based learning,  John Larmer and several others would suggest that they are very similar.  Below is a great chart that John provided in his blog post highlighting the subtle differences between the two PBL's.

Problem based learning appears to be helpful to math teachers.  Several blogs I read, sighted that teachers preferred to focus their inquiry on a single subject question.  I was easier to get at the concepts they needed to teach.  This makes sense to me, given our jam packed curriculum.  Teachers can help guide students in creating problems (or provide the problems, if not student inquiry driven) that focus on a strand in math, but perhaps allow them to address several concepts within the strand.  That seems like a lot in itself.  In the primary grades, it may be easier to work from a project based learning approach where homeroom teachers have the flexibility to work with their students over longer periods of the day.  Projects such designing a new addition for the school (something that will be happening at my school this year) would easily lend itself to discussions and discoveries in science (Forces Acting on Structures), Math (Numeracy - How many new students are coming?  How many rooms will be needed?  How does this affect the timetable?), Art (3D design/perspective, colour theory for classroom design), etc.  A primary teacher, who spends many more hours with his or her students has the flexibility to take an idea like this and encourage students to explore it further.  It also allows the flexibility to ensure that the questions and answers are student driven, lending itself to the once again popular, inquiry based learning model.

My challenge is, how do we as teachers ensure all of our curriculum expectations are covered in a timely manner.  If inquiry is a cyclical process, how to we control (and if not control, know it will get done)  that all strands and subjects are covered by June?


1 comment:

  1. Wow. What a good question. My answer would be that we need to be aware that expectations might be "covered" implicitly and that not all expectations need to be covered for every child. However, when fully immersed in this style of teaching, assessment and reporting can be difficult as there are many grey areas. We also need to consider the fact that our overall assessments, when done through PBL methods, are more accurate and telling of the child, since we are seeing the child when he/she is involved and engaged, rather then as mere recipients. -Zoe