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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Different Ways Of ‘Learning By Doing’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 29, 2015 21 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

This week’s question is:

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

Thinker, educator, writer John Dewey suggested that we learned best by doing. Educators today are trying to implement that philosophy through a number of instructional strategies, including project based, problem based and inquiry learning. This series will explore the differences between the three of them.

Today’s guest responses come 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.

In addition, you might want to explore these additional resources, including two previous posts from this column:

The Best Sites For Cooperative Learning Ideas

Do’s and Don’ts for Better Project-Based Learning

Few people know more about Project-Based Learning than Suzie Boss, and she responded to this “question of the week.”

The Best Advice On Doing Project-Based Learning

This post is a Part Two to the earlier one by Suzie Boss (and readers!).

On a different note, you might be interested in my commentary titled Why Viewing Classroom Management As A Mystery Can Be Helpful, which has been published elsewhere on the Education Week Teacher site. It’s an excerpt from my latest book, Building A Community Of Self-Motivated Learners. I hope you can join me at a free Ed Week chat on “Solving The ‘Mystery’ Of Classroom Management” on Tuesday, March 31st, 4-5 PM, Eastern Time.

Response From Suzie Boss

Suzie Boss is an education writer and consultant who focuses on project-based learning (PBL) and social change. She is the author of several books about PBL and innovative learning strategies, including Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World and Reinventing Project-Based Learning, co-authored by Jane Krauss (and just updated in a 2nd edition). She is a regular contributor to Edutopia and the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and is on the national faculty of the Buck Institute for Education:

In the current educational landscape, we can find schools and individual teachers adopting a variety of similar-sounding approaches: project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, challenge-based learning, place-based learning, passion-based learning, and on and on.

What all these approaches share is an emphasis on learning by doing, with students making their own meaning of the world as they work toward solutions. Despite common underpinnings, these approaches can look quite different in practice. How do they vary when it comes to implementation? How do different “flavors” of student-driven instruction shape the teaching and learning experience?

Defining terms is a useful exercise for a number of reasons. When teachers are collaborating on curriculum design, it helps to be talking the same talk. Common language is also important in school systems that are looking to adopt consistent instructional strategies and standards of quality work. It’s helpful for students, too, to hear similar language and expectations from one classroom to the next. Parents and other stakeholders also benefit from talking the same talk about teaching and learning.

So, here’s my take at a brief glossary. One caveat: When I work with teachers on professional development, I encourage them to negotiate their own common understandings. How do you and your colleagues define learning experiences that put students at the center? What does successful learning look like in your context? That can be a thought-provoking conversation.

Start with Inquiry

All the instructional approaches mentioned above are rooted in inquiry. Simply put, inquiry is the personal path of questioning, investigating, and reasoning that takes us from not knowing to knowing (Krauss & Boss, 2013). If a project, problem, or challenge doesn’t ignite curiosity and inspire a genuine need to know in students, we can’t expect them to engage deeply or care about the outcome of their investigation. That’s why inquiry is the engine for student-driven learning.

Inquiry is not unique to K-12 education. Look outside the classroom and you’ll find experts in diverse disciplines who are thoughtful inquirers. Scientists, historians, mathematicians, artists, and writers all investigate questions, issues, problems, or ideas. As they examine questions through disciplinary lenses, they detect patterns, apply standards of evidence, make judgments, and add their new understanding and insights to existing knowledge in their field (Darling- Hammond & Barron, 2008).

In the classroom, some inquiry experiences are more valuable than others. John Dewey, early proponent of learning by doing, understood this when he cautioned against simply “messing about.”

In the versions of student-driven learning that are gaining traction today, inquiry isn’t a free-for-all or a revival of the Free School movement. Instead, it’s a deliberate pursuit of questions worth asking, with teachers helping to structure and guide the learning experience. Inquiry also has a home in more traditional settings. Students are inquiring when they are engaged in a science research project or tackling a writing assignment that asks them to think the way historians do.

Galileo Educational Network is a nonprofit organization that advocates for an “inquiry stance” in all aspects of learning. Galileo has developed an inquiry rubric that examines learning experiences from multiple perspectives. For example: Is the inquiry experience authentic, connecting what students are learning with the world beyond the classroom? Is there academic rigor and rigorous investigation? Is ongoing assessment woven into the experience? Do students engage with content experts and share their results with an audience? These are all indicators of inquiry learning done right.

The most open-ended inquiry experience I’ve come across is called Genius Hour. A strategy to reignite students’ curiosity and help them explore their passions, Genius Hour gives students regular time each week to pursue investigations of their own design. Learn more by following the hashtag #geniushour.

Problem-Based Learning

In Thinking Through Project-Based Learning, co-author Jane Krauss and I explore the history of the two PBLs--problem-based learning and project-based learning. As we explain (Krauss & Boss, 2013):

Problem-based learning emerged in medical schools during the 1950s. Finding that medical students struggled to make the leap from academic work to effective clinical practice, teaching physicians at McMaster University in Canada developed the problem-based approach. Instead of memorizing medical textbooks, future doctors were now learning through clinical scenarios set up to mirror the problems physicians might encounter in their daily practice. This shift from knowledge acquisition to problem solving proved effective. The approach has since been become standard not only for medical schools but also in economics, business, engineering, and many other fields.

In K-12 education, problem-based learning takes place in a variety of disciplines, but it’s increasingly common in math. Students are typically introduced to a problem through a case study, simulation, or open-ended question or prompt that provides an engaging starting point. Students then work together to conduct research, refine the problem, design and test solutions, and follow other lines of inquiry to arrive at their answer.

The set-up scenario for problem-based learning is typically designed by the teacher, with a tight focus on specific learning outcomes. Solving a problem requires a few days, at most--shorter in duration than most projects. Collaboration and peer-to-peer learning are common features.
Geoff Krall, an instructional coach for the New Tech Network, shares examples of problem-based learning in mathematics on his Emergent Math blog. He has developed a problem-based learning starter kit, complete with examples of good problems to get your students learning math through inquiry.

Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning, like problem-based, starts with an open-ended question, scenario, or challenge intended to engage student interest. Both approaches aspire to have students apply what they learn, not merely recall content.

The key differences between the two approaches have to do with scope and duration. Projects tend to be more open-ended than problems and are also more likely to be interdisciplinary. Projects may last for a couple weeks or for an entire semester. Although teachers play a key role as project designers, they allow for student voice and choice in determining the direction a project takes. And unlike problems, which end with a solution, projects tend to result in students demonstrating their understanding by making, demonstrating, or advocating for something. That makes an authentic audience key for project-based learning.

Depending on the project, students might take on a number of roles--functioning as scientists or mathematicians, travel agents or museum curators, citizen advocates or manufacturing consultants. They are likely to read, research, work in teams, consult experts, use a variety of technologies, write, create media, and speak publicly in the process of learning. Although projects can work as simulations, they’re more engaging if they involve real-world learning.

Whether the focus is a project is your own community, a STEM challenge, or exploration of a global issue, make sure it’s a worthy learning experience by paying attention to these do’s and don’ts for project-based learning.

Krauss, J., & Boss, S. (2013). Thinking Through Project-Based Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Barron, B. (2008). Powerful Learning: What We Know About Teaching for Understanding. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Response From Jeffrey Wilhelm

Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm is currently Distinguished Professor of English Education at Boise State University and regularly teaches middle and high school students. He is the founding director of the Maine Writing Project and the Boise State Writing Project, and author of 32 texts about literacy teaching and learning. He is the recipient of the two top research awards in English Education: the NCTE Promising Research Award for “You Gotta BE the Book” (TC Press) and the Russell Award for Distinguished Research for “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys":

Yikes! Muddy waters! There are many different models of inquiry teaching and learning, and of project- and problem-based learning. Adherents tend to be passionate and sometimes doctrinaire in how they define and practice the process of their particular model.

Here is my personal take:

I contend that inquiry, project - and problem-based approaches are consistent theoretically, grounded in the same research base, generally practiced in similar ways towards similar goals. That said, there are some differences and unique wrinkles in the general approaches, and of course, in the specific ways they might play out in any one classroom. I consider inquiry as an umbrella model that subsumes the many versions of project- and problem-based learning.

I use the “inquiry and design” model, and have for over twenty years, whether teaching middle school or university. I work closely in schools with teachers using Understanding by Design and Expeditionary Learning. I move easily from one to the other. They are similar enough as inquiry models that I hardly notice the difference.

Here’s a caveat: Inquiry is sometimes misconceived as a discovery model - in which students pursue their own questions and formulate their own answers. Understanding here is a personal construction. But as a “term of art” in cognitive science, inquiry is seen as something very different: as a learning-centered apprenticeship model - in which learners are inducted into co-constructing understandings (with teachers, other students, and most importantly the experts that one reads, interviews or collaborates with). Understanding here is something co-constructed, that is justifiable according to disciplinary standards through the use of recognized concepts and tools, e.g. inquiring as historians do, using primary documents and historical lenses to interpret the past, or inquiring via the scientific method, setting up experiments and sharing findings to advance and share scientific understanding.

Here’s the crux move: In any of these models, teachers do not purvey information as they do in information or teacher-centered models; nor do they let students do whatever they want and come up with idiosyncratic solutions. In inquiry, teachers are guides who help set problems, facilitate learning by helping students develop understanding and use of concepts and strategies as experts do through meaningful activity, and then help consolidate understandings through reflection and the cultivation of transfer, e.g. by identifying future uses and contexts for applying what is learned. (For a full treatment of these models, see chapters 1-3 of Strategic Reading, Heinemann; for examples of unit level comparisons, see Engaging Readers and Writers with Inquiry).

Here is a gut-check: the focus must be on present learning and transfer of strategies, habits and dispositions rather than information or the completion of “this project” or “this problem”.

Let’s take my ninth grade Romeo and Juliet unit framed by the essential question: What makes a good and healthy relationship? We frontload the unit to activate prior interests and understandings, including all points of agreement and disagreement. Then we read a wide variety of informational and narrative texts about the issue, always considering what we are learning about good and healthy relationships. Our final reading is Romeo and Juliet. Students know from the beginning of this nine week unit that they will conclude by writing an argument of definition. They also complete a collaborative multimodal project. This year it was a video exploring an aspect of healthy relationships and a how-to guide for achieving this aspect.

Since students know from the beginning that they are working towards a culminating argument video project, and since all instruction in the unit is in service of helping students prepare to complete these projects, one could call this project-based learning. I call it inquiry culminating in a project. During the unit itself, my students engaged in different examples of what I would call problem-based learning. For instance, we asked: what do we need to know to read and write scripts? Students looked at various short scripts as data and induced the various conventions of scripts (framing systems like title, cast and genre; setting descriptions; technical stage directions; character stage directions; character dialogue). They then transformed cartoons about relationships into scripts correctly using these five sets of conventions. So students inquired into how scripts work and then solved the problem of writing conventionally correct short scripts of their own. I’d call this problem-based learning embedded in a larger project-based inquiry environment, one that developed strategic knowledge in service of reading Romeo and Juliet and composing video scripts. In my recent book Uncommon Core my co-authors and I explore how to solve reading and composing problems, and meet the CCSS standards, in the context of wider inquiries like this.

* Inquiry models that apprentice students to deep understanding share these features with both PBLs:

* Framed by authentic open-ended questions or ill-formed problems as they exist in the world, creating an immediate “need to know”

* Activates what students already care about and know so these are recruited for learning the new

* Learning significant new concepts (often threshold concepts central to understanding how disciplines work) and strategies through repeated hands-on practice.

* Provides meaningful contexts of use (whether real or simulated) in which students learn and then apply what has been learned

* Involves collaboration and dialogue

* Emphasizes learning the HOW and WHY; learning WHAT in terms of concepts and strategies is done through the WHY and the HOW.

* Leads to transfer and student independence

As such these are perfect models for addressing the next generation of standards world-wide, including the Common Core here in the U.S., which focus on higher order strategies that are best mastered through active, hands-on practice in contexts of use.

As inquiry models, project-based and problem-based learning sometimes feature these varying emphases:

(chart adapted and expanded from John Larmer, Buck Institute for Education, blog in Edutopia, January 2014)

A final comment: all inquiry as apprenticeship models promote engagement and transfer. But they also promote better achievement on standardized tests, as demonstrated by disaggregations by teaching treatment of test data on the PISA and NAEPs.

I think project-based learning involves wider kinds of general inquiry processes, and problem-based learning is about more circumscribed inquiry into how one understands a specific data set or how to solve a kind of problem. I certainly would maintain that completing any type of project involves solving a problem and most problems can lead to the creation of projects like a usable knowledge artifact or transferable protocol.

The takeaway: stop worrying about needless hair-splitting and semantics and pay attention to the underlying principles. Then get on board helping your students learn HOW to engage with real world problems, giving them lots of direct experience and practice with central concepts and strategies for doing so. All three of these models can help you to do it!

Response From Steven Anderson

Steven Anderson is a former teacher and Director of Instructional Technology, a member of the ASCD Faculty, and a 2012 ASCD Emerging Leader. Anderson is author of The Tech-Savvy Administrator: How Do I Use Technology to Be an Effective School Leader? (ASCD, 2014) and co-author of The Relevant Educator: How Connectedness Empowers Learning (Corwin, 2014):

In essence they are different only in name. While each has differences they are subtle variations on the same theme.

In my time as a Director of Instructional Technology, I was determined to roll out a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program to my students. But I didn’t want it to be the typical open the network and now we teach approach. It was important to me that we do things differently with our teaching because, let’s face it, when students have access to just about all known knowledge from the beginning of time the teacher is no longer the smartest person in the room. So we have to teach different. Our approach centered on authentic based learning. Creating scenarios that hold value and meaning to the student are key to this methodology. Many of our teachers were trained in the problem-based method by Wake Forest University, so they had a good grasp on what we were trying to do. We tweaked the method to utilize technology as the tool it was designed to be and focused on creating tasks that students could relate to.

Many times the problem-based approach involves students stepping into shoes of a paleontologist or crime scene investigator or some other role that is highly abstract to the student. While it may seem like these scenarios are attempting to get students hooked to the problem all it really does is disengage them. Rather if we use problems and scenarios from the students’ world they are much more likely to be engaged and excited about the learning.

So really problem-based, project-based and inquiry-based learning are all generally the same. The question we should be asking, is how do we use these methods to create authentic-based learning environments that allow students to harness the power of technology to craft meaningful solutions to real-world problems?

Response From Stephen Lazar

Stephen Lazar is a National Board Certified Social Studies and English teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City:

While undoubtedly there are multiple, “official” branded versions of each, I want to merely share how I think in terms of projects, problems, and inquiry as I plan my high school Social Studies courses, without making any claims to definitiveness. But before clarifying, I need to complicated things a little further.

When we talk about projects, problems, and inquiry, I think we also need to be very clear whether we’re talking about learning or assessment. I can’t fathom what inquiry-based assessment would look like; inquiry-based learning, though, leads to assessments, which might include projects or problem-based assessments. On the other hand, projects and problems, in addition to being end of unit assessments, could also be the driving force of learning as well. Though in those situations, I still like to think of the learning as preparation, and therefore separate, from the project or problem.

I want to start with inquiry, because for me, that is the foundation for all effective learning. Inquiry-based learning begins with questions, and the learning that occurs through the search for the answer to these questions. In history classes, my inquiries tend to be bounded in content, like “Was the French Revolution successful?” or “Why have some immigrant groups done better than others?” Note that both questions are problematic (what does success mean? Should we be thinking in terms of groups?) and part of the work is dealing with that.

The key question teachers should ask themselves about inquiry is who is actually doing the inquiry work. Early in my career, I thought I was doing inquiry-based learning, but really, I was the one doing inquiry, not my students. I had what I thought was a great unit on US Foreign Policy based on the question, “Why are we at War in Afghanistan?” which traced the development of US interventions from the Spanish American War to today. But I was the one doing all the work. Students learned lots of facts about various US interventions, but I was the one connecting everything. For explanatory questions such as the one I asked, it’s only inquiry learning if the students are the ones doing the connective work. It’s also essential that the answers to the questions need to be evidenced-based.

As I’ve developed and matured as a teacher, the students more often the ones doing the intellectual work to answer our questions. My role is to ensure that students have the resources and evidence they need to answer our driving questions. Sometimes this means providing them the resources, other times it means making sure students know how to find them for them selves. A few years back, I described models of doing history as inquiry for Ed Week Teacher, which I would encourage people to read for more detail.

Projects and problems, then, may serve as culminating assessment for an inquiry, or may very well be the foundation for the inquiry themselves.

When I teach history, I think mainly in terms of projects as assessments. I ask myself, at the end of this inquiry, what should students know and be able to do. When I want to focus more on historical thinking and skill building, projects often involve some additional research, and a presentation of what students have learned through a paper, presentation, website, or documentary. When my focus is understanding, history projects might ask students to take on the perspective of someone from the past, and the creation of something (a diary, Facebook page, Twitter conversation, etc) from that perspective. As we get into more recent history, a project often involves speaking to people who have experienced the history, and documenting their experience.

When I teach government or economics, I think more in terms of the real problems our society currently faces or that students will face in the near future. Economic problems include paying taxes, creating a budget for different people at different ages and in different financial circumstances, creating a long-term investment plan, or writing a small business plan. Government problems are more often driven by immediate issues in students’ communities, though often these are recurring: who to vote for, racism, inequality, etc. Students’ inquiries then focus on how to best address the given problem they’re investigating, and what steps they can take to address the problem. In these cases, preparing to address the problem becomes the inquiry.

Thanks to Suzie, Jeffrey, Steven and Stephen 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. I’ll be including readers’ responses in Part Two.

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