Figuring Out Problem Based Learning

Let me set the stage for you: I’m in a Project Based Learning (PBL) coaching session with a High School math teacher who is in her 3rd year of implementing PBL. She has created and implemented at least four PBL experiences for her students each year. Her students are engaged in her content, motivated to take on challenges and solve authentic problems, and, she’s at a point where she wants to do PBL all the time! Oh, and did I mention she teaches in a Special Education program for high school students? So she asks me, “How can I get my students interested in the rest of the standards but on a smaller scale than PBL? I still want to use real-world problem solving in my class, but I don’t want to always do long projects!” Eureka! This was a coaching moment that felt…well…transformative.

Where did we go with these questions? Even though I knew Problem Based Learning (PrBL) was where she needed to head next on her PBL journey, coaching is about letting them get there on their own (with some probing questions on the coaches part). “What is inquiry?” “What does inquiry look like in math class?” “What role does inquiry play in problem-solving?” Our next step was to define inquiry-based learning and then we looked for resources with shorter cycles of inquiry that were based on real-world math problems. Guess what? We kept finding references to PrBL.

So what’s the difference between PBL and PrBL? Both are cycles of inquiry that begin with hooking student interest in the content through an entry event, challenging problem or question, and a process of finding out what they “know” about the topic, and then, what they “need to know” to solve the problem or answer the question. Both are student centered and move back-and-forth between individual and team work. Formative assessment, scaffolding instruction and literacy tasks are components of PBL and PrBL.

The biggest differences are in the number of standards assessed and the amount of time devoted to the “unit”. A PrBL experience is usually 1-4 days and assesses a few standards. PrBL places the emphasis on the processes that are learned through three or more authentic problem settings. A PBL experience is usually 2-4 weeks in length and assesses more than 4 standards. There is one scenario and the emphasis is on the end products. Many PBL “units” are integrated, while PrBL is typically used with a math curriculum. Two great resources for more information are a blog on the emergent math site about the myths of PrBL and Robert Kaplinsky’s Frequently Asked Questions on PrBL.

During PrBL training, math teachers explore several of their colleague’s websites to deepen their understanding of PrBL. Dan Meyer introduces us to “The Three Acts of a Mathematical Story” which is a simple framework for taking the math we see in the real world and converting it into an inquiry-based learning task. For examples of 3 Act Math tasks by grade level, visit When Math Happens. Another collection of real-world math activities is Yummy Math. By far, the most exciting find for math teachers is emergent math’s curriculum maps for PrBL.

Now, math teachers are ready to try PrBL. They’ve figured out how it is different than PBL and they’ve found examples to use in their classrooms. Check out the resources and come to one of our PrBL workshop sessions to collaborate with other math educators (May 2nd or July 29th or August 5th during our annual conference: Making Learning Happen @PBLNY 2016). See if you can figure out PrBL!

Keim_Joanne_SMALLJoanne Keim

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