What the Heck is the Difference Between IBL and PBL?


A common question among educators is “what is the difference between inquiry-based learning and project-based learning?” Or, “what’s the difference between project-based and problem-based learning? How are they similar and what makes them different?” It can certainly be confusing, not only in differentiating between the three, but also deciding which method will work best for your class. Hopefully this article clears up some of that confusion and helps teachers get the best from all three methods.


Active Students

It is common knowledge that students who are more engaged with their learning tend to achieve better in and out of the classroom. It is difficult to engage students in material that seems irrelevant to them. All three learning methods give power to the students and let them take control of their learning to a certain degree. Not only does this allow students to pursue things that are relevant and interesting for them, but it helps them develop soft-skills; things like collaboration, self-regulation, and organizational skills. All three of the mentioned approaches to learning are influenced by Jean Piaget and his theory that a student-centred approach is the most conducive to authentic real-world learning. While there are many similarities between the three, there are a few key differences.


Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry learning almost always begins with a question, called an “essential question”. There can be more than one, but ultimately, this is what kicks off inquiry learning. Some examples of “essential questions” include:

  • How can we protect our oceans?
  • What makes a great leader?
  • How do our senses help us understand the world?
  • What can art teach us about culture?
  • How do humans affect their environment? 

Download a free PDF of these questions, and 396 other inquiry-based questions using this link!

The essential question should cover multiple curriculum outcomes, and allow for multiple learning paths for students to take. The question should be flexible and inspire student curiosity. Further questions should be asked by students, and they should feel motivated to explore them in-depth.

Inquiry learning starts with lots of questions

Once an essential question is chosen, the teacher’s job is to facilitate students in discovering the answers. To some degree, it is important to plan milestones for students, set goals with them, and provide some structure; this can be achieved through anchor charts to keep students on track, reflection journals so that students can record their progress, and also through regular meetings with students to check on their learning and unpack new knowledge and questions.

Some of the benefits of inquiry-based learning include:

  • Increased engagement:
    When students have ownership of their ideas and receive regular support and encouragement from their teachers, the benefits are astounding. One of those ways is an increased level of engagement. For example, this may look like attentive listening, improved organization skills, and frequently being in a state of “flow”
  • Stronger connections:
    Inquiry learning is incredibly flexible and far-reaching. In fact, you can touch on several subjects in a single session. With a focus on “big ideas”, students’ questions lead to knowledge acquisition in several subject areas. When students go through the inquiry process they discover connections between subjects they hadn’t imagined existed; this can be hugely beneficial for students trying to understand the interconnectedness of concepts.
  • Building curiosity:
    Replacing simple observations with asking questions about what they see, feel, and hear around them shows curiosity blooming. Nurturing students’ natural curiosity sparks further questions and engages students. Inquiry-based learning provides ways for students to find meaning and fascination in their work.
  • Skill development:
    During inquiry-based learning, teachers and educators need to go beyond information accumulation and focus more on seeking appropriate resolutions to questions and issues that are important for their students and the world around them. Consequently, nurturing the development of inquiry skills, as well as the attitudes or habits that will help students make sense of their learning, is crucial. Some of these skills include critical thinking, skimming and scanning, self-reflection, and collaboration.

Related Reading:

4 Of The Most Common Problems with Inquiry-Based Learning and How to Solve Them

20 Guaranteed Ways You Can Tell Inquiry-Based Learning is Working


Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning involves a longer-term approach to teaching and learning where students solve real-world problems. In this approach, the goal is for students to produce a tangible, meaningful product. While this approach also begins with a challenge or question, the goal is a bit different. The focus is more on the output of the learning journey – in other words, what students produce through extensive investigation and the application of skills often found in STEM subjects.

The essential elements of project-based learning include fostering student voice and choice, providing opportunities to regularly reflect on learning, and setting an appropriate level of challenge. Furthermore, project-based learning requires students to create a public project that demonstrates their understanding of the information they’ve gathered.

project-based learning in action

STEM Skills for Project-Based Learning:

  • Problem-solving:
    This includes making sense of problems as they are presented, and working to propose solutions or products. The solutions or products should match the problem being solved, and create positive change.
  • Creativity:
    Students need to look at and propose possible solutions to a problem, and use several different approaches, including “out-of-the-box” ideas, and ones that demonstrate creativity and ingenuity.
  • Design-thinking:
    One of the most important STEM skills to apply to project-based learning is design-thinking. This is a method whereby students research potential solutions to the problems presented, create prototypes, test, redesign, and tinker as they move closer to creating a workable solution.
  • Collaboration:
    This soft-skill is crucial when diving into project-based learning; students should understand that big challenges are rarely solved through individual efforts. Being able to work as a team is very important, and is a crucial skill to develop.

Space for Creativity

The aim with project-based learning is for students to gain and develop their knowledge and skills through practical applications. They need to work collaboratively and methodically to respond to a complex problem they feel connected to. Project-based learning is often linked with social studies, art, and historical topics. It combines collaboration, research, and design-thinking to find viable solutions; it also has the benefit of being incredibly thought-provoking and creative. Students have many options for how to showcase their projects, and it can be a lot of fun to see ingenuity and innovation come alive!


Related reading:

Social Justice Project Ideas for Your Classroom

Meaningful and Impactful Project Ideas for 2021


Problem-Based Learning

With problem-based learning, students solve an authentic real-world problem through investigation, discovery, and engagement. It is based on the complex problems encountered in the real world, and therefore offers students a unique chance to contribute to something meaningful and relevant in their lives. It is important that students see the value in their contributions, and problem-based learning is an excellent way to foster this confidence.

In my opinion, problem-based learning offers students more relevant advantages in today’s world. For instance, through problem-based learning, students need to make sense of the overwhelming abundance of information available to them; through actively engaging with the problems facing them and their futures, students develop a plethora of skills such as organizing information and connecting it to important issues in their world.

Traditionally, students are given the information they need to know, then they are asked to memorize it, and apply it to a problem they are assigned. With problem-based learning, students are given the problem first, then asked to identify the information required to solve it, then apply it to solve the problem. Again, the role of the educator is to provide materials and guidance that facilitate student learning. This is also similar to scenario-based learning, wherein students learn situational, decision-making, and critical thinking skills.

Assessment of Problem-Based Learning:

Assessment of problem-based learning works similarly to the other forms of learning mentioned. Evaluation tends to focus on:

  • Engagement with the topic:
    Successful students are the ones who ask questions, engage in dialogue with their peers in order to deepen their understanding, conduct research, and pose ideas regularly
  • Making connections:
    It is important in problem-based learning that students make connections between what they’re discovering and how to address the problem they have been tasked with. For example, how might geometry and physics be useful when addressing the problem of housing shortages or homelessness?
  • Future thinking:
    Thinking about the implementation of ideas in a future setting is an important consideration when working with problem-based learning. We wrote about writing stories of the future in a previous post, as well as a follow-up post, worth checking out for futuristic project ideas

Final Thoughts

There are many similarities between the three learning methods, however there are a few key differences. All three of them allow students to pursue things that are relevant and interesting for them while also helping them develop a variety of soft-skills. The differences and similarities of the above-mentioned three methods of learning can be summed up nicely in this venn diagram: (available for download here)

venn diagram showing the differences between inquiry, project, and problem-based learning

Further Reading:

How Inquiry Learning is Redefining Schools in the 21st Century

Your Complete Guide to Using Scenario-Based Learning in the Classroom

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