Inquiry based learning versus project based learning: what’s the difference?

Learning through discovery has always been fundamental to education. The best answers are, of course, those that students uncover for themselves, rather than those they memorise from others.

These days, certain labels are often applied to this kind of learning, including ‘Inquiry Based’ and ‘Project Based’. While these are relatively recent, the underlying principles are much older.

Indeed some in education feel the labels are more or less the same thing, and find distinguishing between them hard to pin down.

So for this week’s blog, we take a look at what those differences are – in order to help teachers get the very best from both.

What is Inquiry Based Learning?

Rather than presenting known facts or a ready-made solution, this educational technique always begins instead with questions, problems and challenges.

As a teacher, your role is to pose the initial question to your students, then facilitate them in discovering answers. Ideally – and in order to meet the true definition of Inquiry Based Learning – that process involves them asking further questions.

Inquiry Based Learning is often used in scientific subjects, where there’s likely to be a definitive answer for students to reach, often through a process of elimination, testing and trial and error. However it can equally be applied to any subject.

What is Project Based Learning?

While this technique also begins with a challenge or question, its remit tends to be wider.

If Inquiry Based Learning is about discovering an answer, Project Based Learning is about exploring an answer.

The aim here is that students gain and develop their knowledge and skills through working extensively to investigate and respond in detail to an issue that’s engaging and complex, rather than clear-cut. For that reason, Project Based Learning is often used with literature, social and historical topics. It’s also – in terms of outputs – a great opportunity for your students to create visual or multimedia material.

What do the two have in common?

Sometimes it’s important to step back from defining the nuances between the two, and remember the key thing that they share. Both are about emphasizing the teaching and learning process, not just the content and the knowledge.

Using either or both of these methods will help your students to become independent thinkers, who can gather information on their own, question and interpret it, and then form their own evidence-based conclusions. In the modern knowledge-based world in which we now live, life skills such as these have arguably never been more valuable.

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