The PD Corner: PBL vs PBL – Does it Really Matter?

Project – , Problem – , and Inquiry-Based-Learning 

“PBL” is not a new term, but it is getting a lot of air-time lately as educators strive to teach to the 21st Century learner. “Sage on the Stage” methodologies are being left behind as more and more schools encourage teachers to use “PBL” in

their classrooms and act as the “Guides on the Sides,” facilitating a more student-centered environment. Some confusion exists about  this because “PBL” refers to two different, though complementary, instructional strategies: Problem Based Learning and Project Based Learning.

Many educators are talking about the differences and similarities between the PBLs. They are not mutually exclusive. Both are student-centered, constructivist strategies, often with no “right answer.” In one, a product is definitely expected. In the other, there is always a problem at the center. Sometimes a third strategy is tossed into the mix when comparing the two, and that is Inquiry Based Learning, usually referring to some research involved and generally students decide upon their learning path. Often one is described as being more student-directed than the other, but some sources conflict on this point.

What it comes down to is summed up best with this quote:

In conclusion, it is probably the importance of conducting active learning with students that is worthy and not the actual name of the task. Both problem-based and project-based learning have their place in today’s classroom and can promote 21st Century learning.

Dr. Chris Campbell, Teacher Magazine 2014

I have taught using all three “instructional strategies,” in combination and alone, though mostly in combination. I can tell you from experience that Renzulli Learning makes them a whole lot easier, any way you want to look at it. (And I started saying that long before I started working here!) Let me explain.

If you have taken the Renzulli Learning online course Enrichment for All Students (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? It’s free!), you may recall Dr. Sally Reis referring to the Enrichment Triad Model, developed by Dr. Joseph Renzulli in 1977, as her favorite component of the Schoolwide Enrichment Model. Through the Enrichment Triad Model, Renzulli & Reis encourage educators to give students the opportunity to embark on a Type III Project. A Type III Project allows students to pursue an investigation into something that is of interest to them personally, and by definition is “Individual and Small Group Investigations of Real Problems.” So that means it’s a Project Based Learning opportunity that is centered on a Problem, best designed by the student him or herself, which promotes Inquiry. Get it?

In my gifted pull-out program, students did exactly that: a months-long Type III Inquiry Investigation based on a topic – a Real World Problem – they were personally interested in, a.k.a. a Passion Project or Genius Hour; these differently named opportunities are all more or less derivatives of Renzulli’s model: to enable students to learn skills and standards through a research project based on anything they wish. To be clear, it is entirely feasible for teachers to offer a Type III Investigation opportunity within the context of a particular curricular topic; the point is to give students some choice and voice. Choice of topic/question/problem to pursue, and product choice about how they wish to share their learning (“voice”) is critical in this approach. When Type III’s are undertaken by students you will see higher student engagement which research demonstrates leads to higher achievement. So how does it work?

The foundation of the Renzulli & Reis Schoolwide Enrichment Model is to start with a strength-based assessment of students’ Interests, Learning Styles, and Expression Styles. From there, provide students with lots of resources that target these strengths. Offer lots of “Type I” General Exploratory Enrichment Activities at the school, classroom, and even student level when possible. 

As students are exposed to lots of enrichment offerings, you will see that “spark” in some of those pairs of eyes when a student gets very “turned-on” (Joe’s words) by something in particular. So this is when you capitalize on that spark and encourage further investigation into that something. This becomes a Type III Investigation or project, which can be based on the need to solve a problem or answer a question. 

Where do Type II, “Group Training Activities” come in? This is where you get to integrate your skills and standards through group mini-lessons connected to the students’ content, such as reading nonfiction, extracting evidence from a text, how to conduct an interview, scientific process, how to make a data chart and bar graph, etc etc… not to mention a whole lot of other skills your students will need to learn for their particular investigation that you may have never intended but nonetheless those kids will seek out what they need, with or without you and their classmates; I promise you that. It is Just In Time Learning at its very best!

As the Type III process unfolds, teachers facilitate the process while students drive the content. At whatever age/level your students may be, the Type III process will grow with them. And each of your students will take it to a slightly varied level – that’s the beauty of it all. 

Sure, this sounds lovely but we all know that projects can be time consuming and overwhelming, especially when all of your students may be pursuing different topics. This is the reason that Joe & Sally sought out people to help them build a software platform to simplify this process for teachers, and thus, Renzulli Learning was born!

As I said earlier, I tried all of this with and without Renzulli Learning… it’s truly a no brainer from my perspective! While it seems obvious that professionally life was just easier with RL, let me tell you – it enhanced my personal life as well! I’m sure I don’t need to tell you – assuming you are a teacher – how much personal time teachers put into our craft. Well, with RL, that was just less, and easier! Here’s how:

  • Strength Based Assessment: The Renzulli Learning Profiler
  • Type I Exploration: The Enrichment Activities Database – hand curated resources and activities targeted to each students’ Profile results, and including an advanced safe-search engine
  • Type II Skills: Embedded in the Enrichment Database, presented in context of Type III, and expedited through teacher-driven Assignments to students via the Learning Management System
  • Type III Investigations: Organized within the Project Wizard 

Renzulli Learning also easily facilitates collaboration – an important 21st Century skill –  among your students. The teacher can create groups – custom or by Profiler results – in which students can work together. Newly added is the Global Collaboration function! Now you can connect your students across town, across the state or country, and even around the globe with students who have common interests. Imagine the possibilities! 

Indeed, PBL may not just be the best academic answer, but also the best cultural answer. Project-based learning, while it’s diverse and experiences can vary, allows students multiple opportunities to engage with others, as well as themselves, in new and more personalized ways. By contributing to something larger than themselves, i.e. a real-world project, they begin to see themselves as contributors and advocates who have self-worth, a voice and a real role in the world at large.

Michael Niehoff, Getting Smart 2018

How often do students do this type of work? I once had a 6th grader complain, “But I did a Type III Project last year!” I put on my very best tween-whine – foot stamp included – and cried “Oh no! But I read a book LAST year!” That elicited a few giggles, including from the student who said it. Just like students read different books at higher levels year after year and learn new skills along the way, even if they often tend towards the same genres or topics, students doing Type III projects year after year will grow in their practice. Given this opportunity, students will be able to dive deeper and focus on higher level skills and a variety of different products over time.

The best part is what they teach YOU along the way! I am often asked if I miss teaching, if I like what I’m doing now. Well, I LOVE what I am doing now, working with educators around the globe! However, I do miss being with kids every day. And I honestly miss learning through their work the things I never knew I was going to learn that fascinated me as I watched the fascination in their eyes. I encourage you, implore you – just try it! Whether you call it Problem Based Learning or Type III or Project Based Learning, Renzulli Learning can make this easier and lead the way for you!