Inquiry-Based, Project-Based, and Student-Led Learning: Are they different?

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A question that gets asked a lot is, “What are the differences between project-based, inquiry-based, and student-led learning?”

With so much educational terminology that gets thrown around anymore, it isn’t a surprise that teachers are confused with what is what….and what it all means for them and their students.

Though there are some pieces of them that are different, there are a lot more similarities and at the end of the day, the message of each one is very clear towards student learning outcomes. So with all this gray area, how do you define inquiry-based learning?

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With so many educational theories that are constantly projected upon us from various different places on any given day, it is easy to get confused in knowing what each one truly means…and if they are interchangeable.

Honestly though, and this might be a little surprising, but these particular terms are pretty much one and the same with their own spin on it.

What does that mean? Well, let’s break it down with the definitions of each one and then see how they overlap…and what that means for your classroom.

Project-Based Learning:

Looking at this, it is easy to see that “projects” are the focus of this model. What exactly does that look like, though? According to the Buck Institute for Education (if you don’t follow them, do yourself a favor and do so. They have some GREAT information on Project-Based Learning!), “Students work on a project over an extended period of time – from a week up to a semester – that engages them in solving a real-world problem or answering a complex question.”

Getting the students to buy-in is the biggest piece of having them LEARN and not just REGURGITATE (more on that idea in another post). If they have something relatable that sparks their curiosity, they are more likely to take their learning to another level (without even realizing it…it’s a beautiful thing!).

Inquiry-Based Learning:

The buy-in factor of Project-Based Learning sounds a whole lot like “inquiry”, doesn’t it? That’s because according to Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s post on Edutopia, “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 the objective of mere information delivery. Nevertheless, despite its complexity, inquiry-based learning can be somehow easier on teachers, too. True, it’s seemingly easier because it transfers some responsibilities from teachers to students, but it’s really easier because releasing authority engages students.”

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So I would be willing to make the argument that inquiry-based learning leads to project-based learning; and ladies and gentlemen, this is ALL student-led learning.

As I mentioned in my post here, student-led learning is putting the responsibility of learning on the student.

The teacher is not the “sage on the stage” telling them exactly what they need to know and anticipating that the student spitting the information back to them is representative of actual learning.  

The teacher is the FACILITATOR. They are responsible telling the students, “Look, here’s the concept that we are going to study…here are all the i’s that we need to dot and t’s that we need to cross via the curriculum and the standards….but how do YOU want to do that?

This method works, pure and simple, because of human nature.

Think of your own interests. How many of us have lost the love or passion for something….or straight up just never gained interest….because we were forced to look at it from a specific perspective or it was presented in a way that just didn’t do it for us?

Now think about things that you are passionate about….SOMETHING sparked your interest at some point. It might have been because you stumbled upon it or maybe because it was presented to you in a way that made you want to learn or do more.

In a world where content is literally at our fingertips, shouldn’t we be presenting it to our students in a way that makes them want to dive in and THINK about it as opposed to merely having the ability to Google it or YouTube it and call it a day?

A GREAT book that looks into student engagement and how we can help as educators is Teach Like a Pirate (ad) by Dave Burgess (follow him on Twitter here. I promise you won’t be sorry! Also, check out the book on Amazon here (ad).

If you haven’t had an interaction with him before, you are in for a treat. He is probably one of the most passionate, awe-inspiring leaders in education that you will see in the field.  

He has a series of books, but the explanation for Teach like a PIRATE says it all: “His book offers inspiration, practical techniques, and innovative ideas that will help you to increase student engagement, boost your creativity, and transform your life as an educator. You’ll learn how to: • Tap into and dramatically increase your passion as a teacher • Develop outrageously engaging lessons that draw students in like a magnet • Establish rapport and a sense of camaraderie in your classroom • Transform your class into a life-changing experience for your students This groundbreaking inspirational manifesto contains over 30 hooks specially designed to captivate your class and 170 brainstorming questions that will skyrocket your creativity. Once you learn the Teach Like a PIRATE system, you’ll never look at your role as an educator the same again.”  

Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of the book!!

For my history friends out there, you will understand my analogy that Project-Based Learning and Inquiry-Based Learning are two halves of the same Student-Led Learning walnut.

For those not historically savvy (but if you’re curious, here is what that means), these concepts all overlap into one idea: motivating a student and sparking their curiosity will lead to more educational and knowledge gains than any other mode of instruction.

Again, if you’re skeptical, give it a try. You’ll be floored at how well it works. Thanks for reading.

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