Project and Problem-Based Learning – just semantics or real difference?


We educators are famous (or should I say infamous) for using multiple terms for the same thing, changing those terms frequently and using lots of acronyms (I’ve heard education lingo referred to as “alphabet soup”).  So are “Project Based Learning” and “Problem Based Learning” both talking about the same thing (they are both “PBL” after all and I often hear people talk about them as “project or problem based learning” as if they are the same thing) or is there a meaningful difference?

Answer: meaningful difference!

(Just to clarify…I believe in a variety of approaches in the classroom and I believe there’s a place/time/situation for both of these, but I do want to discuss what I see as important differences in them!)

Here’s an example to illustrate the difference:

Targeted content: energy transfer during collisions

Project-based learning approach: learn about how and why safer barriers were installed on NASCAR racetracks and create a poster/presentation/paper/diorama/other “creative project demonstrating your understanding”

Problem-based learning approach: learn about safer barriers and design a safer barrier for a local skate park.

Both approaches are using real-world application of content.  YAY!

Both approaches allow students creativity.  YAY!

The difference lies in what the main “goal” of the project is (besides learning and applying content).  Is the goal to produce a product displaying your understanding of content or an application of content or is it solve a problem?

Project-Based Learning has a “project” as the main end goal.  A poster, display, presentations…typically what people think of when they hear the term “project.”  The goal of learning the content (in this case energy transfer during collisions and how NASCAR created safer barriers) is to communicate that information in their own “words” (or pictures or displays, or whatever).  They end goal is a demonstration of understanding in a presentable way.  In many ways it’s simply a more creative version of a traditional school “report” (although still better since it uses real-wold application and gives students more creativity and choice).

Problem-Based Learning, however, has a solution to a legitimate problem as the main end goal.  The students in this case are still learning about energy transfer and how and why/how safer barriers were designed, but in this case they go beyond simply communicating that information in a creative way – they apply that understanding to design a solution to a “transfer problem.”  What makes it a “transfer problem” is the change in circumstances that require re-thinking the solution.  You cannot simply install safer barriers designed for cars at a skate park.  A car-wall collision is very different than a person-wall collision and many aspects of the design need to be changed to accommodate those differences.  They still may produce a “product” in the end – a poster/presentation/display, etc. of their proposed solution at the skate park – but this time it is a new design solution they developed rather than simply “reporting” what someone else did.

Some advantages to project-based learning are that it’s often easier to manage, takes less time, and is more comfortable for people transitioning from a more traditional model.

Some advantages to problem-based learning are that it’s more authentic, it involves transfer of knowledge to different circumstances, and it allows students opportunities to discuss pros and cons of various solutions.  It goes beyond communication of what students learned – it’s application and synthesis.

And for science in particular, problem-based learning more closely resembles “real science” and allows teachers to seamlessly address process and engineering standards along with content.  And best of all (in my mind anyway), it’s one way to include moments when you can’t “Just google it” like I blogged about last time!  After all – you can google how NASCAR developed safer barriers, but you can’t google how you’d design and implement similar technology in a novel setting/situation simply because it’s “novel”!

What are your thoughts on the differences between project and problem based learning?  Are the differences I described meaningful or just semantics?

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