This is a problem. I must inquire…

Around the world education lives in the past. Sure, there are pockets of the present emanating out of a few schools, but by and large education worldwide is being disseminated to students in much the same way it was 100 years ago. A teacher teaches, there are textbooks (sometimes online now), children work on problems or questions and then everyone goes home. This doesn’t mean there aren’t good parts of what we have been doing, and there have been changes to the way we do the old things. Few teachers (I know) stand and lecture and most engage students in more kinesthetic learning methods. Videos, images and powerpoints feature regularly in lessons.

This works for some students however, but not for all. To provide a good education to the whole class, engagement really is the key. Students learn best when they enjoy what they are doing. I have long been a proponent of giving students choice in what they do to help foster intrinsic motivation. One of the excellent ways to do this is through project based learning.

In project based learning (PBL) students are given an overarching theme, called the driving question. Students learn by attempting to answer this question, being forced along the way to learn content.

An example of PBL that I am currently developing to teach about climate change and renewable energy. Starting from a driving question students develop their own research questions which gets them to learn around the topic. The focus in this unit is in part the content, but also the research skills, presentation skills and communication skills it takes to be an effective scientist at IB and beyond.

One of the hallmarks of PBL courses is a highly developed plan of what is going to happen. PBL is rarely just giving the students seven lessons to create something whilst the teacher sits back and does little. The teacher is very actively engaged with the students on their projects, monitoring progress and helping them with ideas, skills or content.

As an example in Physics, Imagine giving a normal unit on mechanics. You might look at linear motion, circular motion, momentum, energy transformations and so on. These are concepts which we see in almost everything. Imagine we wanted to run this as a project, we could have a driving question such as:

Do amusements in theme parks really abide by the laws of Newtonian Physics?

Im not going to argue this is a fantastic question, but it has a few things going for it:

  • Its about theme parks. Many students like theme parks. Even if they dont like roller coasters it is ambiguous as to whether its coasters, or smaller rides, or arcade games. Some theme parks even have rides based upon film.
  • The physics they need to look at is Newtonian Physics, so we have narrowed it down even further to Newtons three laws. This is the point of the project, to have them learn these three laws.

The sub question a student then chooses to investigate could be:

Why does the Kingda Ka not launch off the top of the track when it goes over the hill?

How could you not be enthusiastic about a project when you are dealing with this beast of a roller coaster!

In terms of my lessons I can run it in a few ways:

  • I could run my classes as normal, but get students to apply any physics we learn to their particular question.
  • I could get them excited about the idea, start them off and help them get organised, then allow them freedom to work. I am there as a resource. This is much more research based.

Our student has selected something they are interested in and so now they are more motivated. Moreover they are now either HUNTING for knowledge within my lessons, or developing research skills to answer their question. In the former example, everything we then do in class causes their brains to ask the question “Does this apply to my question, and if so how?”. Throughout the course their class activities can revolve around using the information they learn to build a presentation which answers their original question. In this manner you do not necessarily lose teaching time (a common complaint is that PBL takes a long time… and whilst it usually does take longer than straight lecture (for example), it doesn’t have to!), and the students are focused upon their topic throughout. The final product can be something like a blog which they write as they go along, with the added benefit of getting their project published. Students commenting on one another blogs is a good way to improve the quality of the published work, and to give formative feedback on one another work – furthering the learning of that content. Alternatively students could make a poster, infographic, computer simulation, a video, a podcast – anything!

This kind of learning, where choice is a critical component of the process is also evident in challenge based learning (CBL). Developed by Educators employed by Apple in 2008, challenge based learning is very similar to project based learning in terms of how it is run and where the learning comes in. Students are still working towards goals they have chosen themselves. Unlike in PBL however, CBL has an actionable solution. In terms of impact upon student learning, studies have shown CBL to be an effective learning strategy for students, and in some cases have had a very positive effect  upon the local community.

We can list a whole bunch of this kind of pedagogy (including Zombie-Based-Learning), but at the end of the day all of these fall under the umbrella of inquiry. This is the goal of education – we want students to be inquiring, and to know how to learn for themselves. We want students to leave our classrooms with the knowledge of how to get knowledge, and the skills we develop in inquiry based learning puts our learners in the driving seat.



Boss, S. (2010, April 22). Perfecting with Practice: Project-Based Teaching. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from

Larmer, J. (2014, January 6). Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from

Zombie-Based Learning – PBL Geography in a zombie apocalypse. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2017, from

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1 Response

  1. Alex, thanks for this terrific post that supports student choice, student led inquiry, and an informative analysis on CBL. Your advocacy of student choice resonates with me, as a librarian. Often, teachers are too strict about what they deem appropriate book selection for their students. I cringe. Taking away a student’s choice to simply select a book that interests them is the same putting handcuffs on someone. I think this same scenario can be applied to what students learn in school. More choice and more freedom = more engagement. At the same time, I understand that fundamental skills need to be taught. Finding that happy medium is probably the measure of a great teacher.

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