Illinois 21: Projects, Problems and Products: Variations on a 21st Century Learning Theme

What is the Difference: Project, Problem and Products?

From: Illinois 21: Illinois Consortium for 21st Century Schools

Variations on a PBL Theme: Project-based learning, Problem-based learning, Product-based learning. Like a rose, Project-Based Learning is always the same no matter what someone names it. Lately, Project-based learning has been treated like an elephant surrounded by blind men, all disagreeing about what to call this interloper. Some say “Inquiry”. Some argue “Problem-based learning” and others “Product-based learning.” All claim a different definition.

None are wrong. They are all experiencing the same animal from a different angle. Like the rose with its infinite varieties, project-based learning is a generic term (In this post, PBL is the symbol for the generic term). PBL is like the circus’ big tent with its three rings. In one ring, we have those who start PBL with the idea of a problem to solve. In another, those with an essential question to answer. In the third ring, those who are responding to a need to create a product. In addition, there are lots of other acts outside the three rings, but still inside the big top.

What the three have most in common is a process, multiple methods and a spotlight on an instructional approach that engages students hearts, minds and hands in learning from doing. No more than 25% of the teacher’s time goes to talking to students en masse. In most instances, that talking includes setting expectations, giving instructions and providing all class feedback.

  • Project-based learning begins with an essential question that leads students to gather information or collect data, organize it into a response and then allows these students to pick a communication format for their answers in which they present their ideas to an audience.
  • Problem-based learning begins with an ill-structured problem.  Students define the problem, select strategies and find a novel solution. They too present their solution to an audience.
  • Product-based learning begins with the identification of a need to improve a product or process. Students define the need, explore alternative possible solutions, select the most novel solution that they can make or do, complete it as useful product and test its capabilities.

The start of each variation is the key difference maker.  The start determines which thinking skills and problem solving framework will engage the students in arriving at their answer, solution or goal. It also determines “the what” the students will end with—an answer to a question, a solution to the problem or a product.

Purist defenders of each variation may debate my differentiation as well as the contention that the three models are essentially like variations on a theme. They will stand firm arguing that there are multiple other important differences separating their model from the other two. However, what is more important than debating these minor distinctions is the two fold need to (a) note the important similarities and their benchmarks of excellence and (b) the important effects on students and their learning.

Let’s begin with the effects that the three share when well done. With their emphasis on student engagement in learning from what they are doing, here is what all three have in common.

  • Deeper Learning.  This is the major outcome of high engagement projects. Deeper learning says  “learned knowledge is necessary, but insufficient for learning in the 21st Century.” When teachers engage students in learning the knowledge in the curriculum as opposed to filling empty minds with information and then  helping students transfer that knowledge  by answering a question, solving a problem or designing a product, the result is deeper understanding of the content.      
  • Critical and Creative Thinking. These are the major tools students use to accomplish their goal. Throughout the learning experience, they apply these skills to the tasks involved in completing the project or solving the problem. When students need these skills in specialized instances, teachers take the time to teach the specific skills involved and guide transfer into the tasks at hand.
  • Problem Solving.  This macro-cognitive process comes in two forms: structured and ill-structured.  Students apply math skills to solve structured problems to complete tasks. They also apply reasoning skills when they have to solve ill-structured problems in a cross-curricular  inquiry. Rather than have information poured into their heads, PBL students put these problem solving  skills into practice.
  • Collaboration. Whether you visit a PBL classroom at High Tech High with its emphasis on products, New Tech High or Glen Ellyn elementary schools with the emphasis on inquiry projects,  or the Illinois Math and Science Academy with its emphasis on problems, you will  see that teachers have structured learning units so that students can collaborate with each other in a variety of ways.
  • Self-Directed Learning. When students have a ”need to know”,  be it about information, basic skills, thinking skills, problem solving know-how or just what others  think, in all three varieties of PBL they ask, investigate, or search out help. In the best scenario, teachers’ mindset is to employ gradual release of responsibility so students to find answers on their own as they grow more skilled at self direction.
  • Teacher Development. Schools adopting PBL as its core instructional model allot time for teachers to master the methodology that goes with their school’s model. In addition, the best prepare their teachers to collaborate so that they can develop and refine the curriculum and its library of tested and critiqued instructional units. It is not unusual to see teachers in PBL centric schools using the same approaches to instruction with which the facilitate student engagement as they spend close to 100 hours each year developing their own competencies.
  • Multiple Measurable Results.  In addition to standardized test results that blow conventional teaching approaches out of the water, high engagement schools report fewer absences, fewer tardies and other disciplinary incidents, higher college attendance rates, qualitative results about school liking, aspirations, development of deeper learning outcomes including collaboration, self-direction and the thinking skills.

The similarities among the three variations are far more important than the differences. Ivory tower academicians may want to quibble about angels on the head of a pin, but the installation of PBL in whatever variety, as long as it is well done, is far more important. It is these very similarities among the three varieties which separate PBL from those obsolete forms of instruction which so limit how much and how well students can learn.  With that idea in mind, it behoves those who advocate for the more effective PBL varieties to practice what they preach about collaboration and work on ways to push the practice of each variety. Teaching and learning in the 21st Century, engaged classroom can only benefit.


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