The Different Hues of Inquiry-Based Learning: Problem-, Project-, and Challenge-Based Learning

“Inquiry-based learning is more than asking a student what he or she wants to know. It’s about triggering curiosity. And activating a student’s curiosity is, I would argue, a far more important and complex goal than mere information delivery.”

What the heck is inquiry-based learning? by Heather Wolpert-Gawron on Edutopia


Problem-, Project-, and Challenge-Based Learning are all frameworks of inquiry-based learning. The main goal of these frameworks is to engage students in deep thinking in order to discover and make sense of information, ideas, concepts, and real-world problems and their solutions.  In all of them, the inquiry is facilitated by the teacher, and the students work with various degrees of independence and direction according to what is more suitable to the context of the inquiry and the needs of the students. At the heart of these and other similar frameworks is always the student. The video below summarizes the key ideas behind inquiry-based learning.



Although very similar in nature, there are clear differences between these three frameworks. I will use the following acronyms to refer to the frameworks in this post: PBBL (Problem-Based Learning), PJBL (Project-Based Learning), and CBL (Challenge-Based Learning):

  • At the end of the PBBL, the students come up with a solution to a problem which not necessarily will have to be a product in itself. For example, the students could write the solution down in their notebooks. In contrast, in both PJBL and CBL, there is a clear product at the end that is meant to be shared in some sort of way. The way this product will look like is an inherent part of the inquiry in PJBL and CBL.
  • All three frameworks start with a real-world problem or question, but in CBL, this problem or question that is turned into a challenge, not only needs to be real but also must be of global importance.
  • PBBL often can be single-discipline oriented, whilst PJBL and CBL are trans-disciplinary.
  • In PBBL students can work independently all the way through or some collaboration can occur. in PJBL and CBL, collaboration is always present and an active component of the experience.
  • Some sources argue that another difference between the models is the use of technology, which is always present in CBL and it’s a feature of this framework. I disagree with this claim, as in this day and age, technology not only facilitates gathering and organizing information, but has the potential to bring closer the ‘real-world’ to the students by allowing connections with organizations, experts, live experiences (e.g. live camera in the African savannah or in the ISP), therefore it is naturally used in all of these frameworks, not exclusively in CBL.


My Classroom

I recently launched a unit with my Grade 8 English LA Phase 3 students that follows the principles behind Project-Based Learning. In this unit, the students will inquire into social responsibility, and how by adjusting our language to the audience and purpose we can encourage others to take action and make a difference in the world. In other words, we want the students to explore various ways to tailor texts (written, spoken, visual) to persuade others.

As a provocation, the unit started with the students completing a quiz on Quizizz based on Hans Rosling’s Factfulness questionnaire. After we debriefed the answers and looked at what kind of outlook the students had on the world based on their responses (positive/negative), we discussed how despite many advances, there is still a lot of work to do in the world. Then, the students moved on to explore Dollar Street, a website that compiles photographs of the lives of different families around the world, all categorized by their level of income. Using what they saw on this site and what they know about the world, the students generated a list of current global issues, ranging from wealth and gender inequality to war and destruction of our natural resources. This was a shared list from which each student came up with their Top10, and from those, they are going to choose one or two to investigate further and focus on the rest of the unit.

During the unit, the students will inquire into:

  • the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • different initiatives, big and small, around the world tackling the goals
  • a variety of persuasive strategies
  • how persuasive strategies are used in different text types, for different purposes and different audiences
  • language to express urgency or demands

At the end of the unit, the students will create in groups a campaign to advocate or take action on a current global issue. They will create visual texts (their choice – e.g. infographic, presentation, podcast, pamphlet, etc.) to support their campaign, and they will pitch it to the class. The students in the class will assume the role of investors who are looking for their ideal cause to support. Each student will be given an amount of ‘money’ that they will be able to donate to the cause(s) that they find most persuasive. Once all the groups have presented their pitches, the money will be counted and the most persuasive pitch will present at one of the school assemblies.

The students will be assessed on their oral communication skills through an interactive oral assessment and they will also complete a Criterion B assessment (reading comprehension).


The Hurdles

There are a few obstacles that I have previously encountered when using PBL:

  • Superficial or unrelated inquiries: this is something that I have found most challenging to deal with. On one hand, I want to promote choice and self-direction, but on the other hand, I have to make sure that the students are guided in a way that they will be able to achieve the objectives of the unit.
  • Finding resources: I have organized resources for the different aspects of the unit which the students will access according to their action plan and what they have selected in their choice boards. Students will also need to find other resources to support their project. Depending on their global issue and the way they will want to advocate or take action, some students might have difficulty finding resources that are appropriate and accessible to them (they are English Phase 3 students).
  • Self-management skills: organizational skills and affective skills are essential to carry out a project like this one. Additional support for those students who are developing these skills will be required.

All in all, Project-Based Learning, as well as the other frameworks that foster student inquiry, benefit the students and enhance their learning, as they provide voice and choice to the students, and promote collaboration, reflection, and critical thinking skills.


Featured image by Tookapic on Pexels

3 thoughts on “The Different Hues of Inquiry-Based Learning: Problem-, Project-, and Challenge-Based Learning

  1. “Superficial or Unrelated Inquiries”. This has also been a big hurdle for me and my students. Even with scaffolding I find that there will still be students who either hyper-focus on the same topic each time (Fortnight. Always Fortnight.) or try to find the easiest topic that they can think of. It can be really hard to guide them into the deeper topics.


    1. This is such a valid point and I wonder if it’s fair to say it becomes increasingly challenging as students get older? High School teachers might really struggle to let go of their content and allow for these Superficial or Unrelated Inquiries because of external pressures. Perhaps I excuse making. I think I am excuse making.

      I just watched a video on Fortnite, I have been avoiding it for so long… wow, 45 million people play that game!


      1. It is a very difficult call to make. There are times where an unrelated inquiry is welcome, but more often than not, you are constrained by the objectives of the unit and the summative assessment that eventually the students will have to complete.


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