Project or Problem…

This semester I’m working on a project-based-learning (PBL) subject that involves integrating technology and the latest theory / research in PBL.  The problem is PBL ain’t PBL, just like oils ain’t oils.

In particular PBL is now used interchangeably by many educators to mean project, problem, challenge, inquiry and other types of learning approaches.  Now while they may all share similarities they are also different and one should make sure they know what and why they are using a particular approach before sprouting the merits of one vs another.

The Buck Institute for Education ( is a fantastic site that includes a wealth of resources around project based learning.  You can register for free to access them and stand on the shoulders of giants if you are prepared to make the switch, or just dabble in some new classroom approaches.

The most prolific of authors to this site and others on PBL is John Larmer who also articulates clearly the different nuances of PBL in  It is perhaps best summarised by this table from his article and the quote that it is more about “style and scope”.

larmer-pblvpblvxbl-similaritiesdifferences (1)

So by reflecting on this I am definitely more of a problem based learner and teacher than project. Perhaps it is my Mathematics academic focus but I also think it is broader than that. Prior to teaching I was a Management Consultant with L.E.K. Consulting Pty Ltd. Consultants, like business analysts and strategists often deal with messy problems from a business or market and try to find solutions.  The way they mimic this process in training new consultants is through a case-study process.  Essentially this is a problem surrounding a particular company or product and the consultant needs to identify the variables, possible solution pathways and data available.  They then try to arrive at an answer by multiple methods to test the validity of their assumptions or information.  This is often called a top-down and bottom-up approach. Hopefully both approaches will arrive at a relatively small range of values or options and provide a bounded solution.  The medical field is also immersed in case-study learning which is a variant of problem-based learning.

Hence I’m sold on the idea. Having tested it on a relatively small scale with students across all levels of high school I can say, without a doubt, that the engagement goes up and the learning is authentic. It challenges students, it changes or highlights poor habits in both students and teachers but it also opens up possibilities.

In future posts I’ll share what I’ve done with my students and where I’m going next with Problem-BL. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some of my students responses as well. For Maths specific project ideas check out

Lastly I’d hate this post to sound all rosy and glowing about PBL.  It’s not as easy as it sounds. The fact is that it is difficult, messy, time-consuming, and quite challenging to implement PBL and shift both staff and students who are set in particular routines that they feel are working for them.  It’s a case of you don’t know what you don’t know.  If they’ve never had success with a PBL approach then why change? Why risk what they see as currently working?

In the attached paper a research study followed teachers in the PBL-act. It is a hard and authentic look at what does and doesn’t work. Here is the abstract:

Despite the challenges inherent in adopting problem-based learning (PBL) in the middle school classroom, successful PBL teachers are able to find suitable solutions. In this exploratory study we examined the perceptions and practices of five successful middle school PBL teachers regarding the specific difficulties encountered with PBL and the strategies they used to address them. Results suggest that while successful PBL teachers faced multiple challenges when implementing PBL, they created and adapted effective strategies to successfully mitigate the obstacles. Planning approaches included adapting previous units, using a backwards-planning process, and starting small. Implementation strategies included using a variety of grouping strategies and providing greater structure through mini-lessons, daily checks, and access to a list of relevant web resources. Assessment methods included using rubrics to outline project requirements and monitoring daily journals to assess progress. Teachers articulated that the use of these techniques enabled them to engage their students in interdisciplinary content and learning processes that met or exceeded required academic standards. (Ertmer et al., 2009)

Here is the complete research paper here: PBL_Technology assisted_IJEL

So are you going to try PBL? Would you go project or problem? Do you think it should stay in the too hard basket? Is that really best for your students or best for you?


Ertmer, P. A., Glazewski, K. D., Jones, D., Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A., Goktas, Y., Collins, K., et al. (2009). Facilitating technology-enhanced problem-based learning (PBL) in the middle school classroom: An examination of how and why teachers adapt. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 20(1), 35.


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