Project Based vs Problem Based

Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL

At the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), we’ve been compiling a list of the various forms of “____-based learning” that we’ve come across over the years. The list includes things like:

Case-based instruction
Challenge-based learning is a method of learning.
Learning in the context of a community
Design-based learning is a method of learning.
Learning through play is becoming increasingly popular.
The use of inquiry-based learning
Learning on the ground
Learning that is driven by a passion
Learning in the context of a specific location
Problem-based learning is a method of learning.
Learning based on skills and abilities
Service learning is a type of learning that takes place in the community.
Learning in a studio environment
Team-based learning is a method of learning.
Work-based learning… and a new favorite of ours…

Check out the term “zombie-based learning” (it’s a thing!)

Let’s Try to Sort This Out

Originally coined by William Kilpatrick in 1918, the phrase “project learning” is derived from the work of John Dewey and may be traced back to his writings. At BIE, we consider project-based learning to be a broad category that, as long as there is an extended “project” at the heart of it, can take on a variety of forms or be a combination of them, including but not limited to:

Yes, I would want to receive the newsletter promotion at the end of the month.
The process of conceptualizing and/or designing a real product, performance, or event
Attempting to resolve a real-world situation (may be simulated or fully authentic)
The process of researching a topic or issue to come up with a response to an open-ended inquiry.
Consequently, based on our “big tent” model of PBL, several of the more recent “X-BLs” — problem-, challenge-, and design-based — are essentially updated versions of the same notion. Even though they all contain, to varying degrees, all of BIE’s Essential Elements of PBL, they each have their distinct flavor. By the way, all three of these approaches, together with project-based learning, fall under the broad category of inquiry-based learning, which includes research articles, scientific studies, Socratic Seminars, and other text-based conversations, among other things. The other X-BLS might necessitate some investigation as well, but we’re getting into the weeds now.)

Other X-BLs are so titled because they take advantage of a specific context for learning, such as a certain location or type of activity, to facilitate learning. Certain of the 8 Essential Elements may be present in them, and some projects may be contained inside them, although this is not always the case. For example, as part of a community- or service-based learning experience, students may organize and carry out a project that improves their local community or benefits the people who live there, but they may also participate in other activities that are not related to the project. As an alternative, students may learn information and skills through a game-based or work-based program that does not include anything that we would label project-based learning (PBL) style activity.

Problem-Based Learning vs. Project-Based Learning

In part, because they share a common acronym, we receive a large number of inquiries concerning the parallels and differences between the two public school systems. We’ve even had questions ourselves; a few years ago, we developed “problem-based” economics and government courses for high school students that were well received. However, we then modified the names to “Project-Based Economics” and “Project-Based Government” to avoid any confusion about which PBL was being discussed.

To distinguish it from project-based learning, we opted to refer to it as a subset of the latter — that is, one of the possible ways in which an educator could frame a project as “to address a problem.” Problem-BL, on the other hand, has its history and set of procedures that are normally followed, which are more rigorously observed than procedures used in other sorts of projects. Using case studies and simulations as “problems” extends back to medical school in the 1960s, and problem-based learning (PBL) is still more frequent in higher education than in K-12, where project-based learning (PBL) is more common.

Problem-based learning often follows a set of steps, such as these:

Presentation of an “ill-structured” problem (one that is open-ended and “messy”).
The concept or definition of the problem (the problem statement)
Creating a “knowledge inventory” is an important step (a list of “what we know about the problem” and “what we need to know”)
Developing a list of potential solutions
Formulation of learning concerns for use in self-directed and guided learning environments
The dissemination of findings and solutions
You may recognize this approach if you are a project-based learning (PBL) instructor, even though it is known by numerous names. Aside from the framing and more structured processes in problem-BL, there isn’t much of a conceptual difference between the two PBLs — it’s more a question of style and scope: Problem-BL is more formalized, whereas problem-BL is more informal.

A comparison chart illustrating the similarities and differences between project-based learning and problem-based learning is provided.

A Note on Math and the Two PBLs

Photograph courtesy of John Larmer
A Remark on Mathematics and the Two PBLs
Project-BL is a key educational technique in several K-12 schools, such as the New Technology Network and Envision Schools, however, some teachers at such schools have begun to declare that they utilize problem-BL for arithmetic. Teaching mathematics largely through multi-disciplinary projects, particularly at the secondary level, has proven to be a difficult task. (This is not to say that occasionally undertaking multidisciplinary projects that include mathematics is a bad idea!) These teachers believe that by utilizing problem-BL, they may create single-subject math projects — referred to as “problems” — that effectively teach more math content than many standard project-BL units by being more limited in scope than many typical project-BL units. In certain cases, tackling an “issue” will need less autonomous student investigation and less time spent developing a sophisticated product that will be presented to a public audience.

How Does This Tale of Two PBLs End?

The completion of any form of undertaking, one could argue, requires the resolution of a problem. If students are researching a topic — say, immigration policy — the challenge is identifying where they stand on the issue and how to communicate their viewpoints to a specific audience through video production techniques. Alternatively, if students are constructing a new play structure for a playground, the challenge is determining how to create it appropriately, taking into consideration the wishes and demands of the users as well as the many limits of safe, approved construction. Alternatively, if they’re creating stories for a book to be published on the Driving Issue “How do we grow up?”, the challenge is expressing a distinctive and rich response to the question concisely.

As a result, it is not necessary to be concerned about the semantics, at least for the time being. The two PBLs are just two sides of the same coin in terms of their respective roles. It all comes down to how you frame your project-based learning experience, or, er… extended learning experience, in the first place. Overall, the conclusion is the same: both PBLs have the potential to engage and educate your children in significant ways!