Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

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

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

At the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), we've been keeping a list of the many types of "_____- based learning" we've run across over the years:

  • Case-based learning
  • Challenge-based learning
  • Community-based learning
  • Design-based learning
  • Game-based learning
  • Inquiry-based learning
  • Land-based learning
  • Passion-based learning
  • Place-based learning
  • Problem-based learning
  • Proficiency-based learning
  • Service-based learning
  • Studio-based learning
  • Team-based learning
  • Work-based learning

. . . and our new fave . . .

  • Zombie-based learning (look it up!)

Let's Try to Sort This Out

The term "project learning" derives from the work of John Dewey and dates back to William Kilpatrick, who first used the term in 1918. At BIE, we see project-based learning as a broad category which, as long as there is an extended "project" at the heart of it, could take several forms or be a combination of:

  • Designing and/or creating a tangible product, performance or event
  • Solving a real-world problem (may be simulated or fully authentic)
  • Investigating a topic or issue to develop an answer to an open-ended question

So according to our "big tent" model of PBL, some of the newer "X-BLs" -- problem-, challenge- and design-based -- are basically modern versions of the same concept. They feature, to varying degrees, all of BIE's 8 Essential Elements of PBL, although each has its own distinct flavor. (And by the way, each of these three, along with project-based learning, falls under the general category of inquiry-based learning -- which also includes research papers, scientific investigations, Socratic Seminars or other text-based discussions, etc. The other X-BLs might involve some inquiry, too, but now we're getting into the weeds . . .)

Other X-BLs are so named because they use a specific context for learning, such as a particular place or type of activity. They may contain projects within them, or have some of the 8 Essential Elements, but not necessarily. For example, within a community- or service-based learning experience, students may plan and conduct a project that improves their local community or helps the people in it, but they may also do other activities that are not part of a project. Conversely, students may learn content and skills via a game-based or work-based program that does not involve anything like what we would call a PBL-style project.

Problem-Based Learning vs. Project-Based Learning

Because they have the same acronym, we get a lot of questions about the similarities and differences between the two PBLs. We even had questions ourselves -- some years ago we created units for high school economics and government that we called "problem-based." But we later changed the name to "Project-Based Economics" and "Project-Based Government" to eliminate confusion about which PBL it was.

We decided to call problem-based learning a subset of project-based learning -- that is, one of the ways a teacher could frame a project is "to solve a problem." But problem-BL does have its own history and set of typically-followed procedures, which are more formally observed than in other types of projects. The use of case studies and simulations as "problems" dates back to medical schools in the 1960s, and problem-BL is still more often seen in the post-secondary world than in K-12, where project-BL is more common.

Problem-based learning typically follow prescribed steps:

  1. Presentation of an "ill-structured" (open-ended, "messy") problem
  2. Problem definition or formulation (the problem statement)
  3. Generation of a "knowledge inventory" (a list of "what we know about the problem" and "what we need to know")
  4. Generation of possible solutions
  5. Formulation of learning issues for self-directed and coached learning
  6. Sharing of findings and solutions

If you're a project-BL teacher, this probably looks pretty familiar, even though the process goes by different names. Other than the framing and the more formalized steps in problem-BL, there's really not much conceptual difference between the two PBLs -- it’s more a question of style and scope:


A Note on Math and the Two PBLs

Teachers at some K-12 schools that use project-BL as a primary instructional method, such as the New Technology Network and Envision Schools, have begun saying that they use problem-BL for math. Especially at the secondary level, teaching math primarily through multi-disciplinary projects has proved challenging. (Not that occasional multi-disciplinary projects including math are a bad idea!) By using problem-BL, these teachers feel they can design single-subject math projects -- aka "problems" -- that effectively teach more math content by being more limited in scope than many typical project-BL units. Tackling a "problem," for example, may not involve as much independent student inquiry, nor the creation of a complex product for presentation to a public audience.

How Does This Tale of Two PBLs End?

One could argue that completing any type of project involves solving a problem. If students are investigating an issue -- say, immigration policy -- the problem is deciding where they stand on it and how to communicate their views to a particular audience in a video. Or if students are building a new play structure for a playground, the problem is how to build it properly, given the users' wants and needs and the various constraints of safe, approved construction. Or even if they're writing stories for a book to be published about the Driving Question "How do we grow up?", the problem is how to express a unique, rich answer to the question.

So the semantics aren't worth worrying about, at least not for very long. The two PBLs are really two sides of the same coin. What type of PBL you decide to call your, er . . . extended learning experience just depends on how you frame it. The bottom line is the same: both PBLs can powerfully engage and effectively teach your students!

Note: This is the first of two parts. In the next post, we'll consider PBL vs. projects.


John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Comments (18)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Bob Barboza's picture
Bob Barboza
Bob Barboza, Founder of Super School K12 International University

Thank you for your post. Here is a new PBL to add to your list. Project Based-STEAM ++ Learning (Occupy Mars Project). We are working with a team of 1,000 fifth graders. Our podcasts and portfolio exhibits can be found on Kids Talk Radio.

SchettinoPBL's picture
Teacher and Teacher Educator specializing in Mathematics PBL

Great post -
Love the Similarities - and thanks for your clarifications of the differences between problem-based and project-based learning. From my experiences with mathematics and problem-based learning at the secondary level however, I think one of the biggest differences that I like to talk about is the type of authenticity in the assigned task. In mathematics, since it can be a very theoretical subject matter, in order to practice being a mathematician tasks don't always have to have an applied outcome. I believe it was David Jonassen who coined the phrases "Emergent Authenticy" and "Pre-authentication" when talking about the ways in which a teacher can scaffold or author the types of tasks for students in the differences between project- and problem-based learning. This is a wonderful way to distinguish the original intent of the task and how the student is meant to move through it as a mathematician.

While I do agree that problem-based learning can have less applied outcome tasks, I think the types of solutions, presentation of problems and the process of collaboration fosters the same types of 21st century skills. I would disagree with the statement that it generally "follows specific traditionally prescribed steps" however. Appreciating student perspectives and authorship of the material is probably one the biggest parts of the PBL pedagogy for me.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

Interesting! Our perspective depends on where we stand, doesn't it? My work with the Critical Skills Program is rooted in Problem based learning- plus (think SEL + PBL), I would disagree complete with the chart you include here. In my experience, a good Problem-based experience requires students to pull from all disciplines, think creatively (as opposed to using "prescribed steps," and can be structured to accommodate any length of time- hours, days, weeks, or months. In fact, I'd say that much of what you have in the column on the right reflects much of my experience with Project Based Learning- typically it's short, focused on a single discipline, and tends to be more step-by-step oriented.

I think that the important piece isn't the language we use to describe it- it's the learning experience one designs and facilitates with students.

Gayle's picture
Educational Consultant

Since both kinds of PBL have the same critical thunking objective, I prefer the term Problem-based over Project based because the term project is so over used, beginning in Kindergarten students have "projects" that are actually very prescribed. I like to focus on a problem with a "product" for the outcome. The term product implies a synthesis of understandings.
No matter problem based or project based it is the right path for our students!

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

What's in a name? I like the name "extended learning experience." That says it all! Well done.

In a world beset with an ever-increasing Babel of confusing acronyms, why add more? I mean -- we now have STEM instead of good old-fashioned science, which has a large enough tent to include engineering and mathematics (along with plenty of technology) already. A fuller science learning experience as practiced by many science teachers already is now tagged as STEAM. WTH!! Why not add on history and have SHTEAM?

I vote for dumping all of these silly acronyms that clearly mean different things to different people and just sticking with the simplest possible terms. Science is science. An extended learning experience is just that and does not have to be a confusing PBL.

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Perspectives differ, you're right Laura, and yes, what we call the learning experience is not what matters. The problem-based learning you describe is what I'd call a more "advanced" practice than the typical model (I drew from a more traditional academic perspective, which is used more in post-secondary settings, along with high schools like New Tech and IMSA). And yes, what people call "projects" varies wildly, that's why we're trying to promote a more rigorous model of that PBL.

Gordon Dahlby's picture
Gordon Dahlby
Educational Technology Leadership Consultant

I also would have approached it as problem-based being a superset and project-based may or may not be a subset, depending on how it is crafted, as with other x-based. I have read opinions that problem-based is a more open approach...less constrained.

X-based was a humorous observations of X- trying to ride the coat tails. STEM has similar coat-tail chasers at times.

Good post.

david's picture

Interesting article! However, I do feel that differentiating between problem-based learning and project-based learning is just an exercise in semantics. I feel like one could easily argue that a certain lesson could fit into either category and they wouldn't be incorrect. I see both styles on a spectrum of the same inquiry-based foundation. The steps taken by the student are the same, as are the end results. Having two names just adds to confusion when discussing these techniques, why not give them a simplified name and move on?

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.