PBL: An instructional strategy or instructional design model?

Yesterday at work I began pondering whether PBL (project-based learning, not problem) is an instructional strategy or an instructional design model. This question reappeared early this morning while I was trying to get my 10 month-old daughter back to sleep. I successfully was able to coax her back to bed, but I couldn’t do the same for myself. I’m left wondering about PBL and what it really is. So in a vain attempt to go back to sleep before I have to get up in just over an hour, I’m going to expand upon my thoughts here and see if I come up with an answer that pleases me enough to put my mind at ease so I can sleep.

My general thought is that PBL is an instructional strategy. Much like any other instructional strategy. Say cooperative learning or differentiated instruction. There are a variety of characteristics related to PBL that make it different from other teaching methods. In short, PBL is one of a number of strategies I can use to teach my curriculum.

Where my dissonance emerges is with the design aspect of PBL experiences or units. I learned PBL from the Buck Institute and always refer to their terms and their characteristics of PBL when I’m explaining PBL or helping someone implement a PBL experience. Where I think I’m being thrown into chaos is with the way BIE has packaged the design aspect for creating PBL units through their project planning form. This form is a nice, compact guide that walks the teacher step-by-step through all the components necessary to make PBL work. Much like an instructional design model, it has all the major players: goals, curriculum standards, strategies, assessments, assignments, etc. However, as I work through the PPF, it feels like I following an instructional design model.

Now it probably feels like I’m following an instructional design model because I am. However, my instructional design model is not PBL, but rather something that better resembles a Dick and Carey or ADDIE flavor. As I’ve thought more about PBL and what it really is, it would seem that PBL truly is only an instructional strategy. But the way BIE has packaged their materials has confused me for some reason into believing PBL was an instructional design model. I’m not sure why this has preoccupied me so much, but it has.

And with that, I’ll go back to bed hold Nora because she just woke up…


3 thoughts on “PBL: An instructional strategy or instructional design model?

    • Hi Stephanie,

      You make a good point about differentiation. It is a teaching philosophy, but isn’t it also an instructional strategy? I’m going to run with something here and I’d like to hear your take on it. Sorry in advance for the long windedness that follows.

      When I think of differentiation, I think of providing flexibility for students to choose their own best way of learning and/or completing a task. I likely am wading in the shallow end of the pool here, but that’s how I learned it during my mentoring classes when I was a first year teacher and I haven’t really spent much time with it since. However, when I think of PBL, good PBL where students learn through the project, I view differentiation as a strategy I can use to help my students learn. They choose the medium that best meets their needs and I help them learn by using a number of different representations, explanations, etc. when needed. So I think inherently differentiation, in the way I’m using it, is a teaching strategy used in conjunction with PBL. But that doesn’t mean I’m using differentiation correctly. When I’m done here I think I’m going to thumb through a book on it, because now I’m wondering a bit.

      I think the philosophy driving everything is constructivism. However, while I agree that differentiation is a philosophy, I don’t think I’d argue PBL is a strategy under its umbrella. My hesitation in doing so is that PBL should be the centerpiece of the curriculum, not one of a number of strategies used to teach students. This isn’t to say that in a PBL classroom other strategies aren’t employed to teach students. In a way I suppose I’m defining PBL as somewhat of a philosophy, and maybe for me it is.

      I do think PBL is influenced by differentiation, as well as teaching for understanding, because without them PBL won’t work very well. But for me the driving force behind PBL is constructivist philosophy, since the main characteristics of PBL is that students are active in the learning process. So there are many different philosophies taking place, with constructivism at the top. But at this point this is really more about semantics, because something like PBL is going to fit into any number of teaching philosophies. We could probably spend all day on that alone, which really isn’t the point.

      So…yes, I agree with you. Differentiation is a teaching philosophy, but I also think it is a teaching strategy. Maybe I should have just said that and saved everyone a bit of reading 🙂 But sometimes you just have to work through it. Thanks for commenting!


    • So, I did some hunting and found the book we used during my first year of teaching to learn about differentiation and came across the following at the end of the first chapter:

      “…a teacher does not see differentiation as a strategy or something to do when there’s extra time. Rather, it is a way of life in the classroom.”

      So I’ll concede that differentiation really shouldn’t be considered a strategy. However, I still feel like it is more than a philosophy, and maybe it isn’t and I’m being picky, but it seems like there is more to the story. Maybe I should read chapter two!

      Thanks for spurring my curiosity!


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