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

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
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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 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:

Chart showing the similarities and differences between project-based- and problem-based-learning

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!

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John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

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Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Hi Abdelillah,
I agree about the idea of all forms of Experiential Learning being complementary. One of the grad classes that I teach for Antioch University New England specifically examines project-based, problem-based, place-based, and service learning, looking at their similarities and differences, and works on determining when each is most appropriate to use in the classroom.

Abdelillah's picture

Hi Dan,
What's meant by place-based and where it overlaps with project-based and problem-based.Thank you in advance.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Abdelillah-
Dan did a great job of summarizing the differences, but I'd add that Place-Based Learning is usually a tool to ramp-up the level of rigor in a Problem or Project Based lesson since it places the learning in a more public context. David Sobel is a colleague of mine and he's sort of the father of the Place-Based movement. You can read more about his take on it here:

Will Minton's picture
Will Minton
Traveling the world to learn about education

Thanks for this. Very useful in clarifying the nuances between solid instructional approaches. Two other phrases I find help me focus instructional decisions are "treating students as sense makers" and the question "what can students do with what they know?" Also, deliberately communicating the group dynamic skills students should be refining as they complete projects and solve problems can insure they grow by leaps and bounds over the course of the year. Thanks again for a thought provoking article!

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi John,

I am so proud of you. This post is a great example of your thoughtful and helpful contributions to education. I hope to see more of your posts on Edutopia in the future.

Your former and very proud teacher

MattsonConsult's picture

I agree with your comments to the letter. Project-based learning is more in keeping with what is found in the business environment. A cross-functional team of business department people come together to develop projects that focus on business growth, competitive strategies, etc. The end result is usually identifying measurable and operational outcomes. I believe this could be done with students, as long as they have proper guidance and direction.

Eliot013's picture

I am looking at implementing a problem-based learning approach into my classroom. It is interesting to see the difference between the two PBL's. By getting buy in from the students and providing authentic learning experiences which relate to real world problems you are going to develop intrinsic motivation in the students, especially in boys. The problem-based learning approach allows them to deconstruct and reconstruct knowledge in a way that is relevant to them. An excellent read about the comparisons between the two. End result of them both is high levels of engagement!

Julio Voltolini's picture

In the case of experiments using the scientific method steps like plant growing in the sun and in the shadow, is this a PROJECT based learning and not a PROBLEM based learning, right?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Julio! I think it has more to do with how you frame up the work. If students are solving a problem (as opposed to creating something to show they understand how it works), then I'd call it Problem Based. For scientific method projects, a Problem-based approach might be a more open-ended "How/why does X happen?" while a project-based approach might be a more traditional lab.

There was an article on this topic not too long ago, actually: I wrote a bit of a response in the comments and then fleshed it out more fuly on my own blog here:

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