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Inquiry-Based Learning vs Project-Based Learning

Inquiry-Based Learning vs Project-Based Learning

You may have heard these terms before and like me, you have thought they were essentially interchangeable.  While IBL and PBL are very similar there are some key differences between them.

I was first introduced to inquiry-based learning when I read Dive into Inquiry by Trevor MacKenzie. This was a fantastic and inspirational book looking at IBL in the classroom. You can learn more from Trevor by checking out my first interview with him in Episode 47 of the podcast Inquiry-Based Learning with Trevor MacKenzie. Throughout this book, Trevor mentions Understanding by Design (UbD) by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. So of course I read this book as well. Since then I have used the UbD approach to create inquiry-based learning units for basically everything I have taught.
The only time I have done something different is when I created project-based learning units. This I was introduced to by a friend Kelly Pfeiffer from Dubbo Distance Education School. I interviewed her for the podcast early on, you can listen to this interview with her in Episode 10 Project Based Learning with Kelly Pfeiffer. Kelly was keen to connect me with Thom Markham from PBL Global, whom she dubbed the "godfather of PBL. I was fortunate enough to interview Thom in Episode 19 Thom Markham the Godfather of PBL reveals the next steps in PBL. I then had Thom run a workshop on PBL in Sydney and have enjoyed learning and implementing this approach.

Similarities between IBL and PBL

  1. Both IBL and PBL use driving questions and sub-questions to help drive the learning. These become the focus throughout much of the learning and help ensure students remain focused throughout the inquiry and research section of the learning.
  2. Inquiry-based learning and project-based learning are both student-centered and can be either teacher-created, co-created, or student-created. In fact, Trevor's book walks through the process he uses in order to shift his students throughout a single year from a teacher-directed IBL to a free inquiry unit created by the students using the UbD framework.
  3. Both approaches have a sustained period of inquiry and research conducted by the students. Throughout this process research skills are explicitly taught and developed. This section of the learning is not without guidance. Both approaches utilise explicit direct instruction. That's right, they are not void of teacher instruction, but instead, these "teaching" moments come in small groups or through videos and other shared resources and documents.
  4. Both IBL and PBL have a process of review. There is a clear system towards the end of the units where students submit and share drafts and receive feedback from students, teachers, and external experts.
  5. Finally, they both have some sort of showcase at the end. This could be a presentation night, a walkthrough gallery, or an authentic presentation to an external audience. Such showcases are often followed by a reflection on and celebration of learning.

Differences between IBL and PBL

  • Project-based learning is completely centred around the project as opposed to inquiry-based learning which focuses on the driving question and other related questions. In PBL the students are creating something and it is this thing that is used to address the standards or outcomes throughout the unit. In inquiry there is also more room for students' questions and time allocated to answering these.
  • PBL also has a bit more emphasis on the design process, especially the prototyping, review, adjust, rinse and repeat process towards the end. This is because PBL is more focused on solving specific problems and lends itself more to the creation of physical products.
  • In IBL there is often a project, but this is not always the case. It is more often that there is a final product or something that is produced, but often the creation and design process is smaller. While both PBL and IBL have final products, IBL lends itself more towards reports, essays, and explainer video types of work, while PBL is more likely to have a physical product, such as a diorama, artwork, robot, or another type of creation. I will admit though, that this is not a hard and fast rule, both can have either, but I see IBL are more relevant for theory-based units and PBL as more useful for hands-on practical units.

I prefer inquiry because...

I prefer Inquiry because, for me at least, there is a slightly greater emphasis on developing learning skills, such as the learning dispositions and the 4Cs of 21st-century learning. I’m not a big fan of the design process (totally personal). I understand it and if you are doing STEM or solving a problem PBL is more suitable I think, but IBL is more flexible for me and can include all the good bits of PBL and more. I also prefer IBL because it allows more time and freedom for the students to be curious and ask their own questions. This I see as a key driving for lifelong learning. And if we can take a note from Trevor and progress our students through the year moving from a teacher-lead inquiry process, scaffold the year and peak with a free student-driven inquiry project that still addresses the outcomes/standards then we will be setting our students up well for success when they leave school.

Where should you start?

Start by crafting driving questions. Both PBL and IBL begin with driving questions that require students to understand the whole unit in order to answer well. These questions cannot be Googled or answered easily. In fact, they often have more than one answer. Crafting these can take time and they need refining. So, begin here and refine and improve your skills in crafting these types of driving questions.


Check out my online courses for PDHPE for those of you in NSW who would benefit. 


Come to my Workshop for HSC PDHPE: A Critical Inquiry Approach

Transcript from the video

Dan: (00:00)
Hi guys, thank you so much for coming and joining me today. I'm going to be talking about inquiry based learning, but I'm also going to be talking about project based learning. I'm going to compare the two, see what the differences are, what are the similarities, and hopefully help you as you go about your process of working out, which approach should you use for your classroom and the lessons you're going to teach.

Dan: (00:22)
Before we get started, though, I want to let you know that if you head to, you can grab yourself a free physical copy of my book. All I ask you to do is to cover postage and handling for me. And I will ship that out to you and it'll come probably within a week. I imagine from when you order it and you can get a free copy. I just asked you to cover postage and handling, which in Australia is about $12. So please come and get yourself a free book, for work, less, teach more.

Dan: (01:00)
Today, as I said, we are looking at inquiry based learning and project based learning. And I've had experience with a bit of both of these. I mean I was introduced to inquiry based learning when I read the book, dive into inquiry, which is written by Trevor Menzie. I've since actually interviewed Trevor a couple of times on my podcast. But if you want to see me chat to him about inquiry based learning and how to do that head over to episode 47 of this podcast, and you can catch me interviewing him there, or I'll put a link below this video, if you're watching this on YouTube and you can click that to go and watch that YouTube video. Now, I also have some inquiry based learning background through the reading of Understanding by Design, which is really focused on an inquiry based learning kind of approach, but it does that through the whole backwardsdesign process for backwards programming, backwards unit designs, starting with the end in mind type stuff. That's all understanding by design. I've actually interviewed Jay McTighe as well. There's three episodes, I think for an interview with Jay McTighe, one of the authors of that book, and would be fantastic for you to go and listen to those as well, to get more of an understanding of the understanding by design framework.

Dan: (02:14)
But yeah, I didn't just read these books, I then applied them. So when I read understanding by design and Trevor McKenzie's book, dive into inquiry, I have since then actually used the understanding by design frameworks and processes to create inquiry based learning units for pretty much all of my classes ever since. And I love this approach.

Dan: (02:37)
The only time that I've used anything slightly different to inquiry based learning actually is when I've used, project-based learning. I was introduced to that by one of my friends, Kelly Pfieffer. She is a teacher. She, I think she's still out at Dubbo Distance Ed in Australia, New South Wales. I interviewed her about project based learning all the way back as a long time ago in Episode 10. So please go and check out that episode if you want to. I also interviewed Tom Markham, who she put me onto and she told me he's the godfather of project based learning, he is really one of the early guys to come up with this kind of way of teaching. I interviewed him in episode 19. I even brought him out in 2017, I think to run a workshop for everyone. And I do hope to continue to run similar workshops going into the future. Now that COVID is really opening up here in New South Wales and Australia for us. So we can start to get back to face to face learning again and networking. You know I love face face workshops. The I've also created a bunch of PBL units. I've done it for year 11 PDH. I've done it for other years as well. And I love that approach as well. They're both really fantastic approaches.

Dan: (03:48)
They're actually quite similar in a lot of ways. So I'm going to start by talking about their similarities before I talk about their differences, but they are both fantastic approaches for how to teach students, particularly when you're looking at preparing them for life beyond school and developing all those learning skills and stuff that students need. So let's start off with the similarities. So the similarities are first and foremost, that they both are kind of designed around these driving questions and sometimes some sub-questions to help really focus the learning or to drive the learning forward. So both approaches, project based learning and inquiry based learning requires someone to come up with this driving question that kind of encompasses everything you need to learn throughout the unit or throughout the series of lessons that you're doing. And sometimes that's then broken down into some sub-questions to help the students to kind of achieve something before they get to answering the big question at the end.

Dan: (04:46)
The second thing is are both approaches are very student centered. They, these approaches can be teacher created. Like I can do a teacher coming up with a project or a teacher coming up with the whole inquiry process and then running the students through that. You can do them both by co-creating it. You can sit down with your students and both come up with driving questions and come up with projects and that kind of stuff together. Or you can actually do ones that are completely,student centered, where the students are coming up with the questions and the ideas and everything. And then they're helping you match it up to the outcomes or to your standards if you're in America or something that's what they, you can do either of those. So you can, they're very student centered. You can do that by designing it as a teacher, co-creating it, or having the students create units by themselves, and then just making sure that that's matching up with what needs to be taught. So there are two similarities so far, so both using driving questions and both very student centered.

Dan: (05:43)
The third thing is that they have a period of inquiry and research that are conducted by the students along with some form of explicit direct instruction. Now, I know a lot of people think that if you do inquiry based learning or doing project based learning that there is no direct instruction from the teacher. Now you can kind of design it for that to be the case. But generally speaking, when I'm talking about here, when I talk about explicit direct instruction, it's kind of that, you know, when you get down with one or two students and you're helping to reexplain something, or you're helping them to really find what they need to do next and sometimes you can be sitting down with four or five and you can reteach something that they haven't quite understood from the readings and their research that they've done. And so they both allow for that to happen.

Dan: (06:29)
And generally speaking, like in the units that I've done, I've used particularly videos that I make like this one, for example, I'm making a video and I'm also recording a podcast at the same time, but yeah, I would record stuff and then give that to the students. And they can then access that when they need it, which is really cool. I'm really big on flip learning, which I'm going to make another video talking about how flip learning and inquiry based learning and project based, learning all go together. But at this point, we're just talking about project based learning and inquiry based learning. So both of them have that room for explicit direct instruction. And both of them have this extended period of time where the students are doing lots of the inquiry, lots of the research.

Dan: (07:06)
So they're going through a process where they need to learn the information that they need to create their project or learn the information they need to answer their driving questions. And that's where both things are very similar. They both have this inquiry and research based thing. So they also have both very student centered and both have driving questions. That's three things.

Dan: (07:27)
And next thing, number four is that they both have a process of review. So that means that basically, as you get towards the end, there's this process where students will give you a draft or give you a prototype or give you like a model of what they're planning to create. And there's this whole review and feedback kind of process that's going to happen. Sometimes that will actually involve someone external to the school coming in and providing the students with some feedback as well. Particularly if you're doing something that's actually going to solve a real world problem, particularly that happens in project based learning can also happen in inquiry based learning. But yeah, project based learning is generally about solving problems and stuff and creating projects. And so that review process is really it's built into both. So they both have this whole thing.

Dan: (08:14)
And towards the end where there's lots of review both of them have a showcase at the end as well, where the students are showing off their work. We're not showing them off, but displaying their work. They're explaining their work to other people that could be done through, you know, a walking gallery. It could be done through presentations. The students give, it could be, you know, a night that's held with the students, presenting all their learning and what they created or what they've done to answer their questions, all that kind of stuff can all come at the end. And often even after showcase, then there's some kind of celebration of the learning that's been happening. So there's lots of things that they have in common. There's these driving questions, the student centered, they have a period of inquiry and research. They both have a process of review that's happening and they both have some sort of showcase thing that happens at the end to really have the learning put into and before an authentic audience.

Dan: (09:05)
Well, let's bring up this table that compares the differences between project based learning and inquiry based learning. So we're going to start with project based learning and work our way through here. So project based learning is completely centered around the project. Yes, it's student centered, but it's also project centered. So the students are creating something and it is this thing that they're creating that is used to address the standards you're teaching or the outcomes that you're after. And it's all about the project. The students go through more of a design process as well here. So rather than going through an inquiry process, which is what we're going to have for inquiry based learning here, we have a design process, because the students are generally creating something. They're going to think of how this is going to be designed. How are they going to solve the problem? Often the question is a problem with project based learning, because it's kind of stemmed off of problem based learning, which is very similar things. So project based learning there very focused on the project and it has this design process, which you know, is a design refined, get feedback, try again, you know, that a lot more testing and seeing if things work and if they don't work going back to the drawing board type process for project based learning.

Dan: (10:22)
Inquiry based learning on the other hand, inquiry based learning is all about the inquiry, right? It's what it's based on and inquiry is about asking questions. And so for me, this is specifically student centered curiosity, where students are asking lots of these questions. Now there is this driving question that could have been come up with by the teacher, but there's always an inquiry based learning this concept or this culture that's set up where the students questions are very much valued. They get put up on wonder walls and stuff like that. The students get a chance to answer them and they discuss how they answer them. And it gets celebrated. The, this learning that's done through curiosity and all being based around inquiry and asking questions. There is always room and time for students questions for seeking those answers as well. Everything in inquiry based learning revolves around these questions, particularly around the driving question and then maybe possibly around the sub-questions and more questions can ways be added to the inquiry as it unfolds. So if you start off with a particular driving question and maybe three sub-questions as you're going through and doing the research with the students and they're coming up with questions, they might have other questions that need to be added to the sub-questions and stuff to make sure that they're better answering the larger driving question, or they might even choose to talk to you about adjusting the large driving question to include some particular key things that I think that, that they think they need to know in order to answer the question better.

Dan: (11:52)
There's often in inquiry based learning, there is often a project but it doesn't have to be the case. So you can do inquiry based learning without a project. It really depends on what your definition of a project is to, I guess. But inquiry-based learning generally has more of a final product in the sense of, yeah, they're going to create more like a project or they can write essays. They might make some explainer videos and stuff, which could be like a project based learning tool. And your project is to create the explainer video. But if you're doing essays in project based learning, that's kind of sucky, right? Because you're not really doing a project so much, you're just designing an essay which would fall more into an inquiry based learning kind of process. So while project based learning is more likely to have a physical product such as a diorama or an artwork or something inquiry based learning though it can have that it lends itself as well to creating more of a result of inquiry, right? If you're constantly asking these questions, then what you produce is answers to those questions. Whereas in project based learning, you're more looking at problems that to be solved. And so you're producing solutions to those problems, which generally are more, can be more physical type products and projects at the end.

Dan: (13:11)
So there are differences now for me personally, I prefer inquiry. Just because there is, for me, at least a slightly greater emphasis on students developing their learning skills. That's because inquiry for me is all about the students asking questions. We have the questions that we have and that whole research process of diving into further inquiry and kind of following the rabbit down the rabbit hole kind of process. And so for me, that's kind of what learning is. It's that whole idea of asking questions, finding a solution, raises another question, keep going, keep going. And you're learning more and more and more as you go, which I think is super exciting.

Dan: (13:51)
I'm not hugely sold personally on the whole design process of, you know, putting something and seeing if it works and then trying again and refining it. I get it, I've done it. And I don't mind it, but I prefer the inquiry process. I think the design process is more suited to subjects such as if you're doing stem or steam or something like that, or if you're doing some kind of science and maths kind of thing, where kids are actually creating real projects that involve moving parts or whatever else, or if you're doing something like art, where you're creating a real big physical kind of project at the end and you need to refine and go through the design process. I think that's fantastic. Project based learning is really what you want.

Dan: (14:33)
But inquiry based learning for me is more flexible because it could include a project and kind of be a, almost a project based learning, but still focusing more on the question, right? So I think inquiry is more flexible and it really can suit a lot broader range of subject areas. I also prefer IBL because it allows more time and freedom for the students to be curious and ask their own questions where I find with project based learning. There's not as much time devoted to the students asking and answering their own questions or doing that, that kind of further development of their own curiosity. And I think that developing of curiosity is a fantastic thing that we can do as educators preparing our students going forward into life beyond school.

Dan: (15:22)
Now I particularly like how Trevor McKenzie takes his students. So in his book dive into inquiry, he talks about how he takes his students throughout a year in each term. He slowly scaffolds things and takes students from a teacher led inquiry where the, you know, he's coming up with a question and the resources and helping the students do the learning and creating some kind of answer at the end. And then he slowly scaffolds that to then co-creating things to at the end where he does a free inquiry where the students are coming up with the entire inquiry process, using the understanding by design scaffold that I use to create units of work. He helps guide his students to be able to use that, to create their units of work, which are free inquiry, but are still meeting the standards or inferior in new south Wales, the outcomes and stuff that you need to teach to your students. And I think that the fact that you can do that with inquiry basically, I mean, you could try and do that with PBL, I think is a bit harder cuz there's more moving pieces to PBL, but inquiry based learning for me I think is fantastic. It's definitely my preference.

Dan: (16:29)
Where should you start? Well, because both of them particularly are focused, not just like a project based learning has its project, but it also has a driving question. They always have driving questions, both of them. And so I would really encourage you if you guys starting out with inquiry or project based learning, start by just beginning to create these driving questions that you use throughout each of your units that just capture everything. Like you're looking for a question that's open ended and that requires a student to learn everything in your unit, to be able to answer that question. And so they can be difficult to come up with.

Dan: (17:03)
They require a bit of refining as you go. Sometimes I come up with three or four and the kids then pick which one they like best or they come up with their own to go with that and crafting these can take time. It needs a bit of skill and refining. So if you're starting at, start with that, start by just trying to come up with these driving questions that encompasses everything that your students need to learn. Well, if you enjoyed this and you are enjoying the podcast or if you're here on YouTube watching me, I would love for you to leave a review. In fact, if you're on YouTube, I'd love you to leave a comment and let me know what you prefer, whether you prefer inquiry based learning or project based learning, which one is more suited to your subject area. Let me know in the comments or if you are on the podcast, feel free to shoot me an email. [email protected]. I would love to hear from you there.

Dan: (17:54)
Now, if you are a teacher, if you happen to be in New South Wales and a pdhpe teacher like I am, I am actually running a workshop in September on basically using the inquiry based learning process to create units of work for HSC PDHPE. If that is something that you think might interest you head over to, have a look at that. It's coming up in September. Make sure you register soon though, becasue spaces are limited and it is filling up. If you can't make that date, then feel free to check out my online courses because my online courses also are pretty much all of them actually for PDH focus on this inquiry based learning approach to creating units of work that are super engaging, that help your students develop that learning skill and get them moving forward. So if you can't make the date in September, just go to the store. So, and have a look at any of those online courses, they all further go into this process and how to create inquiry based learning kind of subjects.

Dan: (18:57)
Well, as always guys, I wanna thank you so much for hanging out with me. Thank you for coming and listening with to me today. I look forward to chatting with you again next week until then make sure you hit the subscribe button, leave a review if you haven't yet. And if you teach PDHPE hit up those links to learn more about the inquiry based learning process. You can check out all that stuff there, but otherwise I look forward to chatting to you all again, next week.

Dan: (19:22)
Here's to being an effective teacher.


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