Which PBL?

Today I attended a whole-day symposium on ‘learning and teaching in collaborative environments’, aka the LATICE program at QUT.

At the start of the day I was really excited to hear some of the speakers referring to the new learning rooms in the uni as ‘PBL rooms’. I had previously known these rooms as ‘collaborative work spaces’, or ‘CWS rooms’, but I was all too happy to change my terminology – how handy, I thought, to suggest PBL as a recommended pedagogy for such rooms!

Unfortunately, as the day went on it became clear that most people using the term PBL were referring to ‘problem based learning’, not to ‘project based learning’ (which is my preferred teaching style). I say unfortunately not because I have any beef with problem based learning – I think it’s great, in fact. But PROBLEM based learning is just one way to organise learning experiences.

And the ‘which PBL do you mean?’ problem doesn’t stop there:

PBL varieties


I have written a little before about the nature of ‘play based learning’, and think it’s important to draw on ALL of the above PBL models in a balanced teaching approach. I’m open to hearing how this may not be the case in other disciplines/faculties, but in the Education sector we certainly have to be across all three approaches.

The issue of nomenclature here is far from trivial. As frustrating as it is, I think we may need to complicate the cute ‘PBL’ acronym to enable practitioners to distinguish between the approaches. I could suggest:

  • PmBL (problem based learning)
  • PjBL (project based learning)
  • PlBL (play based learning)

…fully realising that this just looks clumsy to some!

Any other suggestions for a way forward on this?

See, problem– and project– based learning differ importantly in the sense that a learning project should not have a pre-determined outcome, whereas a learning problem often does (imagine here a student working through a well-worn math problem). The difference between project– and play– based activities is also important, as learning projects do get assessed, whereas play is supposed to be low stakes and, well, playful.

One thing is for sure – we simply ought not go on giving presentations where we drop the ‘P’ term without qualifying which one we mean!

So…which PBL do you mean when you say PBL?

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  1. #1 by Malyn Mawby (@malynmawby) on July 12, 2013 - 6:07 pm

    Nomenclature is an issue even within those major categories; although BIE seems to be winning the PjBL stakes with its definition gaining traction.

    I have a preference for PjBL of the 3 PBLs you mention although I do not strictly adhere to the BIE definition. I actually go by industry definition of project which is what I know (from experience) and is understood outside of the education sector. This is why I’ve ‘dropped’ using the term – I don’t want to confuse anybody! It works for me….if anybody asks to find out more, I usually point to BIE or Bianca’s blog.

    • #2 by kmcg2375 on July 12, 2013 - 8:24 pm

      Thanks for the insights Malyn. I wonder where I could find a non-BIE definition of PjBL. Not that I feel like I need one, I just wonder if there is another accepted model out there. My gut says that using the ‘industry’ version of a project is definitely using projects ‘in learning’, but not project ‘based learning’. For me this doesn’t imply a hierarchy, but is just a distinction.

      The idea of BIE “winning” the PBL claim troubles me. Again, not because I don’t advocate their work – I do, fervently! But I see this as a bit of a mission in marketing, or dare I say ‘branding’. PBL has also meant problem-based learning for a loooong time…I’d hate to see this disappeared out of the conversation because one organisation has successfully staked a claim on an acronym. You know?

      Or is it a case of ‘might is right’?

  2. #3 by Simon Job on July 12, 2013 - 6:43 pm

    In Western Sydney, there’s another one… Positive Behaviour for Learning.

    • #4 by kmcg2375 on July 12, 2013 - 8:25 pm

      OMG acronyms killing my life!

      Now, those folks should know better – PBL already means too many things, someone needs to pass them the memo 😉

  3. #5 by Rich Lambert on July 12, 2013 - 10:28 pm

    And another one: Product Based Learning. I’ve posted about the same thing on my blog. At my school we do CBL: Challenge Based Learning. But of course they are all different versions of the same thing: Inquiry Based Learning. So maybe just go with IBL!

    • #6 by kmcg2375 on July 13, 2013 - 11:50 am

      That’s interesting Rich – I was flirting with the term ‘Challenge Based Learning’ (aka the ‘Mythbusters’ approach!) earlier in the piece, but found it hard to find any materials that weren’t tied to Apple/iPad use. Some ppl here in Australia saw it as just a sneaky re-branding of Problem Based Learning…wonder what your thoughts are on this?

      I completely agree that these are all varieties of INQUIRY Based Learning. They all start with a question to interrogate, rather than a set of knowledge or skills to absorb/practice. Thanks for the comment.

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