A Post on Behalf of John Mergendoller, BIE Executive Director:
Hi Kathy, good to hear from you.
As for your question, it depends upon who you talk to.
At BIE, we believe that project based learning is the umbrella term incorporating problem-based learning and project learning—as well as many other descriptions of teaching and learning that individuals/organizations coin (inquiry based learning, anchored instruction, simulation based learning, etc.). For us Project Based Learning is the big tent, and there are more similarities among the “learnings” that fit in the tent than there are differences.
From our point of view, Problem Based Learning is a subtype of Project Based Learning because it is built around a carefully defined problem or scenario. It’s roots are generally traced back to medical education in the 60’s when Howard Barrows decided to see if he could make medical education more engaging by presenting medical students with carefully constructed simulated patients an asking them to diagnose what was wrong with the patient and proscribe treatment. Barrows gave the medical students copies of lab results, descriptions of what the patient said and how s/he looked, xrays and the like and asked them to decide what should be done next (lab tests? drugs? specialist?). To make these decisions, students generally defined “learning issues” and assigned different learning issues to different members of the group. Barrows was there to guide the deliberations, ask pointed questions, etc.
Problem based learning is alive and well—you can download high school economics and government problems from the tools section of our website or find others by googling problem based learning. Generally these problems require students to assume a specific role (student council trying to raise money for the school, UN advisors to a governing body of a newly formed nation) and solve a carefully specified problem. In general, problem based learning is base on a scenario (you are the student council and you need to . . .) and is much like a simulation. In contrast, project based learning usually involves creating something, or addressing a real world issue. There are hybrids, of course.
Project learning is, from my (and probably BIE’s) point of view, an unneeded and confusing term. The ORACLE educational foundation began using this term several years ago. GLEF also switched to Project Learning from Project Based Learning. Milton would have to tell you why. The Project Management Institute Educational Foundation also adopted project learning. But let me tell you, no one else has. I get Google alerts weekly on “project based learning” and “project learning.” The words, project learning, appear very infrequently on the web. When they do appear, it is generally in the context of a description of “Project Learning Tree” (a good organization) or a blogger who writes, “the goal of our project is learning what . . .” As far as I can see, only GLEF and OEF use project learning to mean what the rest of the educational world calls project based learning. And that’s why I said the term is unneeded and confusing.
I hope this is helpful—feel free to follow up if you’d like to explore this more. And, at the risk of seeming vain, it might be useful to take a look at the beginning of the “Pervasive Management of Project Based Learning” article which is downloadable from the research section of the BIE website.
There we try to define project based learning (which you can call project learning if you wish) and talk about some of the complexities inherent in attempting such a definition.