I’m really excited to be part of the group facilitators over at Edutopia.  This week. we’re having an interesting discussion about cross-curricular project based learning which, in my mind, is about trying to get teachers in different subject areas to collaborate and create  projects that cross over between subject areas to help kids see the connection between english, social studies, science and math.

One person brought up an important point, that I think needs to be addressed when we shorten this kind of thing to PBL.  Project based learning and Problem based learning are often used interchangeably and I think it causes confusion.  For example, project based learning may be thought of as any long term learning project in the classroom that ends up with a diorama or poster or classroom presentation, at least by parents.  However, in education there’s a deeper meaning, where project and problem based learning are really about getting to essential questions and authentic questions that need asking and answering.

I initially came to this discussion thinking about project based learning as being more like what Sally Smith developed at The Lab School in Washington DC.  At the end of the day, students in the same grade/level belong to a theme based club.  In that club, they may be studying the rainforest, or the renaissance or other themes that fit into their academic classroom work.  However, in the club, kids may  use their math skills while constructing models of different layers of the rainforest, or grow plants while noting their daily changes, using their writing and scientific observation skills,  or work together to research and portray a specific scientist or part of the rainforest community through role play based on research and writing skills.  This sort of Project based learning is designed to use and consolidate skills kids are learning in core academic subjects, rather than necessarily answering a novel question.

By contrast, in the lingo today, Problem and project based learning is inquiry driven, which means that the students are trying to answer an essential question that drives learning.  For example, most problem based learning starts with a question, often sounding like a debate point, such as “Does Money Buy Better Education?”  or “How can we improve communication in our school?” Ideally, the question is a real, authentic task rather than one isolated to the classroom.  (I think the easiest examples of problem based learning in action are the TV shows, Project Runway or Top Chef.  Each week a new problem or challenge is presented, such as “Design a red carpet look for this specific person” or “Cater a wedding for these people only using 5 ingredients per dish”)

Problem based learning starts with having students explore the issues, listing what they know and don’t know.  They need to develop and write out a problem statement, and then start to list out possible solutions, actions to be taken, and a list of what they need to know.  Research and experimentation will be required to answer the “need to know” portions, and the end is a solution, complete with anything from written work to posters to models that support and/or defend the solution in a convincing way.

Project learning might not start with the essential question at hand, and often, it may not be an authentic task, ie. one that could actually make a difference in the world or the community.  Every project is not project/problem based learning.  So that model of the cell your child has to do for biology is a good project and helps them better visualize a cell and its functions, but it wouldn’t qualify as “project based learning” even though plenty of learning is going on in the process.

This differentiation is more important than it seems, and its easy to get problem and project based learning jumbled up.  In fact, I think many educators use the terms interchangeably, which adds to the confusion.  (For example, this blog refers to problem based learning as project based, as does ASCD  and the Buck Institute for Education, calling for the ‘essential question’ type Project Based Learning.  However, if teachers and parents aren’t clear on the differences, it’s very easy to assume if you are making kids do projects, it’s project based learning, even though it may never enter the realm of authentic, real world problem solving.

Is this a problem with the language being used?  If what Sally Smith has used so successfully with kids who struggle in school with her program is not Project based learning, what is it?  And how do we help teachers understand that project based learning should be problem centered, and not “show and tell” end product centered?

We’re going to have to find a way to clarify this language issue if we really want inquiry based PBL to take hold across classrooms, and we’ll need to help everyone, from parents to teachers to administrators really understand the difference.