Should I teach problem-, project- or inquiry-based learning? - SmartBrief

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Should I teach problem-, project- or inquiry-based learning?

4 min read


Lately, there have been a bunch of buzzwords floating around the education world that all seem to mean the same thing. You’ve probably heard them: problem-based learning, project-based learning and inquiry-based learning. Is there a difference? How will you know which one to do in your classroom?

First, let’s start with what they have in common. All of these methods place an emphasis on teaching process, not just content. They require students to make discoveries for authentic audiences and purposes. Using these methods will help you meet the Common Core State Standards, which are all about helping students become independent thinkers who can gather information on their own and use knowledge for real-world tasks.

So you know you want to try one of these teaching methods, but how do you decide which one? Here’s a cheat sheet to understanding the subtle differences and deciding which one is right for you.

Project-based learning

  • Definition: Students create a written, oral, visual or multimedia project with an authentic audience and purpose. Project-based learning is usually done in English, social studies or foreign-language class.
  • Example: Teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s ELA students wanted to fix the broken bell at their school. They developed a thesis, organized a petition, wrote letters and prepared an oral statement that was read to the principal.
  • Teaching Tip: Make sure your project doesn’t just have students regurgitate knowledge. For example, don’t have students make a map that displays information from a textbook. Have students discover their own findings for their projects.
  • For More Info: Edutopia’s Project-Based Learning Professional Development Guide includes a variety of student examples.

Problem-based learning

  • Definition: Students investigate and solve a real-world problem. To do so, students must identify what they already know and what they need to learn, and then they find and apply knowledge. Problem-based learning often takes place in math and science class. It doesn’t necessarily include a project at the end so it doesn’t always take as long as project-based learning.
  • Example: Nancy Sulla, author of “Students Taking Charge: Inside the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom,” gives this science example: Researchers are conflicted on whether we can use certain types of bacteria to clean up radioactive pollution in water. Have students use the scientific method, evaluate data on bacteria, and decide how one bacteria or a combination of them would work effectively as microscopic radioactive pollution eaters.
  • Teaching Tip: Make sure you choose a problem that is open-ended and has no one right answer.
  • For More Info: This site from the University of Delaware offers a variety of problems from which teachers can choose.

Inquiry-based learning

  • Definition: Students explore a question in-depth and ask further questions to gather knowledge. This method is often done in science but can be done in any subject area. The term “inquiry” has been around for years; some people say that problem-based learning is just the new term for the same thing.
  • Example: Teacher Winnifred Bolinsky used inquiry-based learning to help students understand the physics principle of inertia.
  • Teaching Tip: Give students a variety of ways to gather knowledge — not just on the computer but through hands-on learning.
  • For More Info: Examples and video clips of inquiry-based learning can be found on Thirteen’s Edonline site

How are you doing these types of learning experiences in your classroom? Leave a comment.

Lauren Davis is a former English teacher. She is the senior editor at Eye On Education. She recently edited a three-book series, “Common Core Literacy Lesson Plans”: Ready-to-Use Resources (K–5, 6–8 and 9–12). She also writes a blog series, Comments on the Common Core.