Keeping Focus on What is Important in Student-Centered Learning

I initially approached this post from a perspective of trying to tease out the nuances of problem-based, project-based, and challenge-based learning.  My first plan was to comment on the differences between them, and provide examples of each that I have incorporated in my own practice. However, I did find myself questioning some of the examples I was going to provide – were they more project-based, or problem-based?  I found myself increasingly caught up in the minutia of trying to categorize what I do, and give each a nice, neat label. Ultimately, my general dislike to trying to over-categorize the world (especially something as broad a “learning”) won out, and I switched gears to write this instead.  

I wrote in my previous post about the limitations of models, both in science and methods of educational technology integration.  I find that if one over-focuses on the model, then the danger is that one could “miss the forest for the trees”, so to speak.  I found myself thinking much along the same lines when reading about project-based, problem-based, and challenge-based learning.  

While I did enjoy reading and learning more about project/problem/challenge based learning (mostly because this type of teaching really resonates with me) I couldn’t help but feel that focusing on the differences among them was missing the point.  The real take away from all three of them was that the teacher is no longer the center of the classroom, and that students are working on tasks which require higher-order thinking skills. All three of these instructional models share the same important core features, and it appears to me that there are far more similarities between them than there are differences.

I wondered if anyone else shared my confusion, and a quick search yielded multiple articles and videos designed to help sort out the difference between these models.  

In the video above, problem based learning is portrayed as a subset of project based learning.  This confused me, as it was my understanding that project-based learning should result in a product/artifact upon completion, while problem-based didn’t.  Yet if this was true, how could one be a subset of the other? This only helped to confirm my opinion that the important thing is to focus on the similarities between the two, rather than the differences.  

The above video from Pear Tree Education does explain the differences between the two quite well, but what I liked about this video was that it also demonstrates the many similarities between the two PBL acronyms.  (see minute 3:30) I’ll list here the similarities between project and problem based learning, highlighted in the video:

  1. They are both epistemologically constructivist.
  2. In both, learners are active, not passively absorbing information.
  3. In both, teachers are mentors and guides in the learning process.
  4. Both have learners focus in higher order thinking skills
  5. Both are usually done (but not always) in small groups.
  6. Both problem/project based learning focus on the PROCESS of learning rather than the content.  
  7. And finally, both incorporate room for reflection on the part of the learner.

These similarities seem far more compelling and important to me than whether one method produces a product (project-based), while the other (problem-based) doesn’t.  

Finally, I was glad to read that the folks over at Edutopia found sorting out the two PBLs somewhat problematic as well, and had this to say at the end of their article:  “So the semantics aren’t worth worrying about, at least not for very long. The two PBLs are really two sides of the same coin. What type of PBL you decide to call your, er . . . extended learning experience just depends on how you frame it. The bottom line is the same: both PBLs can powerfully engage and effectively teach your students!”  (Underlines added by me for emphasis.)

(Photo Credit: Greg Vojtko [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. URL:

An Example from Grade 8 MYP Science

In my grade 8 MYP science class, my colleagues and I recently completed a project based learning project in our unit on heat and heat transfers.  This was a culminating assignment, in which students were asked to design their own insulated “coffee mug”. (The “coffee mug” was, in reality, a 400 ml beaker)  Students were given a list of possible insulating materials, but we also decided to tie in some mathematics, and give students a budget constraint. So, each of the insulating materials had a unit cost, so students had to not only balance what materials they would use, but how they would keep their mug design within the required budget.  Finally, each student got a change to test their “mugs” in real life, but measuring how much (or little) the temperature dropped after 10 minutes. (Each mug was scored by dividing the temperature loss by the cost, and the lowest “score” was the winner, meaning that the winning design lost the least heat per unit cost.)

In summary, it was a resounding success, and student engagement was very high.  By allowing students to created and test a mug of their own design, the problem/project became personal, and they took ownership of it.  I witnessed several students chatting and debating about the project at recess one day. I know some students were doing research on their own at home because they showed me articles they were reading, or websites that they were using to investigate the possible insulating materials.  Of course, not all students demonstrated such enthusiasm or personal motivation, but many did, and that is the important point. The project was a success, and I plan on running it again in the coming years. Student engagement in the project was high, which I feel was a result of students’ natural desire to try and solve problems, and exercise creativity while doing so.  Plus the element of friendly competition between classmates also helped.


When I have conversations with other teachers, I find that many of them feel the same way I used to about these approaches.  Many of us recognize the value in such an approach, however, we also realize that plans can go wildly awry sometimes. In an inquiry-based activity, students can decide to take their learning and ideas in a direction that the teacher had not anticipated.  Ideas or projects that seemed good at the outset might turn out not to work nearly as well as planned, leading to the feeling that time has been “wasted”.

I myself had similar concerns in the past, especially since some of my courses (IB Diploma Chemistry) are externally assessed, and content coverage is key to student success on these exams. In this article, Joshua Block identifies and summarizes five key practices for making the students, rather than the teacher, the center of the classroom.  Although I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in project/problem based learning, I do feel more comfortable with it, having slowly introduced it into my practice over the past handful of years.     

Please share any resources or articles related to best practices in putting students at the center of the classroom in the comments.  Also, please share your ideas/opinions about these learning models, and any significant distinctions that I may have missed. Thanks for reading!  

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