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  • Writer's pictureLidia

Is Project Based Learning, Inquiry?

Inquiry-based learning and project-based learning are two approaches that educators can use to engage students in authentic learning. When I first began teaching I knew I wanted to take a different approach to teaching than what I had experienced and what I was taught during teachers college and other schooling. Project based learning is where I began and it is what brought me to the world of inquiry-based learning.

What is the difference between project-based learning and Inquiry?

Inquiry-based learning is centered around an essential question. This question reflects student interest and in some cases is created by students. There is a focus on the process of discovery while learning while engaging in an inquiry. Students engage in exploration, observations, and questioning at the beginning of the learning and use their self-made questions to move forward in the learning and inquiry process. Inquiry-based learning has various levels of entry which include; Structured, Controlled, Guided, and Free Inquiry. The different levels of inquiry are a scaffolded approach to inquiry in the classroom.

Project-based learning on the other hand is generally started with the end in mind. PBL has an end goal of producing or creating a product of some kind that reflects learned concepts. In some cases, a teacher will provide their students with a "problem" or a "challenge" that needs to be solved. Students are given the end "goal" and work towards that final product. They will then create or engage in several learning opportunities that teach students the "Need to Know" items. The product and challenges students are presented with can reflect real-world problems and they can work to develop solutions.

While planning a PBL there are FOUR things that teachers can focus on; PURPOSE, PROCESS, DOCUMENTATION, and PRODUCT. The diagram above states the different prompts for teachers to think about when they are planning their PBL.

SO IS PBL, INQUIRY? In short… YES. As I mentioned above there are different entry points for inquiry-based learning. With each level of inquiry, there is a gradual progression of student leadership.

Student agency, student VOICE, and CHOICE are always at the center of an inquiry classroom. As students become more familiar with the inquiry process the role of the teacher changes and soon enough, students are running the show! At the beginning stages of the inquiry classroom, Structured Inquiry is the entry point for learners, both teachers, and students. Check out my blog post entitled "Beginning your Inquiry Journey!" to read more about the beginning stages of inquiry in the classroom.

When it comes to PBL, the students have the opportunity to investigate a teacher-presented question through a prescribed procedure, and can receive explicit step-by-step guidelines at each stage. The end goal of all the activities and lessons presented during learning are to lead to a predetermined outcome or product!

What is the main difference between inquiry and project-based learning?

  • PBL students are given a problem to solve and follow a process that is led by the teacher. It is a very structured approach to learning, but is still designed and created with the students questions in mind. When it comes to PBL you know all the steps you are going to take and where you are going with the learning from the beginning. The end goal is generally product based, meaning students are working towards creating or developing something that reflects learning.

  • INQUIRY: students interet, passion and questions drives all learning, learning is a reflection of what they want to learn more deeply about. There is a process that is followed but it is guided by the students. Your end goal is not necessarily a "product" but rather an actionable goal. How are students going to use what they have learned and make a difference? This end goal is designed, created, planned and organized by students.

After reading these two descriptions, you may be thinking, "Those descriptions seem very similar!" You are correct in that statement. I believe that the differences are subtle and the process is very similar, the main point that stands out to me is the overall role of the teacher.

How have I used project-based learning as a starting point for inquiry-based learning?

When beginning with PBL one thing to keep in mind is to teach students Skills, Strategies, and Tools that students will need in order to help them during the inquiry process.

A lot of the STEM activities I do with my students are PBL. I do them with students to work on different skills, some of which are see in the diagram to the left. These are all skills and strategies that students need to be comfortable with before they are able to move to a more free or open inquiry.

The main Skills I like to focus on in the beginning stages include:
  • Problem-solving

  • Creativity

  • Design thinking

  • Collaboration

  • Documentation

  • Reflection

When I present STEM activities to my students, the idea is to foster student voice and choice, providing opportunities to regularly reflect. The activities I have created are setting up an opportunity to explore and problem solve, while further developing inquiry skills.

Check out my Products below on TPT! Click the image to open the Link!

Want some more? Check out Susan Powers! @pypteaching on Instagram and at

Susan is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the PYP and inquiry based learning. She has many products that are inquiry based, project based learning opportunities, many of which have a focus of math! Susan's products show that inquiry based math offers collaborative learning as well as hands on inquiry which requires the students to solve problems, think critically and apply their knowledge different mathematical concepts. Check out some of Susan's products below!

If you want to know more about what comes next, how to create an essential question or how to begin preparing your kiddos for PBL, reach out!

- Lidia

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