Written by Kailey Rhodes

The three P’s of learning can sometimes trip us up: “What is the definition of each?” “Am I unknowingly doing one of them?” “I’ve never thought about that third one…” “I do that all the time!” “I’m actually doing both at once?”

Let’s go through an overview of each of these pedagogical approaches, and discuss resources for each. Keep in mind that at times, depending on the nature of the instruction, an instructional endeavor could be both project- AND place-based learning, and so on.

Problem- and Project-Based Learning

“Project-Based Learning” (“PBL”) involves designing student learning around a sustained, real-world project. This usually includes an interdisciplinary approach, one that might involve research, mathematical computation, scientific exploration, writing, multimedia production, and other mediums of learning and expression. Potentially the most confusing part about PBL is that Project-Based Learning is different from “Projects.” Check out this helpful chart from Teachthought.com, and keep in mind that Projects are outcome-driven, and Project-Based Learning is process-driven.

As “PBL” can revolve around creating a “tangible product, performance, or event,” that end-goal can also be to solve a problem, whether real or simulated by the teacher. Thus, the difference between Project-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning boils down to the end goal, while the process for both remains the same. Getting caught up in the distinction is unimportant!


  • Students truly understand the purpose of their learning as it relates to a clear objective and is developed organically, closely mirroring the problems we encounter in “real life.”
  • We can naturally connect previously disparate subjects together in instruction, highlighting how we need both Math and Writing to solve this problem, or how the Arts and History are seamlessly connected.
  • Depending on the nature of the project, it may be an ongoing pursuit, offering more and more opportunities for learning as it evolves over time, whether it’s with the same group of students or in a couple of years.


  • True PBL means that the teacher is encountering “real time” issues as they arise. This means that all aspects of instruction cannot be planned and may require teachers to respond to students’ inquiries as a project develops.
  • Projects may involve multiple stakeholders that intertwine internal and external resources. Teachers may have to secure participation and permission from administration, community members, parents, and others in order to carry out an authentic project.
  • As the word “Problem” suggests, the search for a solution can at times be frustrating and difficult, requiring that the teacher relinquish the pressure to have all the answers.


  • Your school has a small plot of land behind the middle school building that isn’t being utilized. Let’s devise a use for the land (eliciting suggestions from students), argue what’s best (a mini playground? A picnic area? A garden? A small grove of trees? Something that you, the teacher, haven’t thought of?), write letters to the stakeholders, apply for grants for materials, brainstorm sustainable ways to make our idea happen, and actualize our vision.
  • Our community’s water supply was compromised due to high flooding last year. In order to prevent a similar situation from occurring in the future, should we re-design our reservoir? Should we come up with a less expensive but more widespread way of filtering water? Which is more economical? How can we present these solutions to city hall?


Place-Based Learning

Place-based learning (sometimes referred to as “PBE,” “Place-Based Education”) focuses the opportunity for learning on the cultural, economic, environmental, geographical, and community aspects derived from a specific location. Focused on anthropological and field-based studies, students immerse themselves completely in the “web” of what it means to address issues specific to a particular location. While place-based learning can focus on solving a community problem or proposing a solution, it can also be used to achieve a deeper understanding of our people.


  • Students can interact with the community around them, enabling them to dive deeper into the cultural ecosystem that they themselves are part of.
  • Interdisciplinary connections are effortless: connecting with community members, investigating the history of a place, establishing the scientific understanding of the area, discussing political choices, reading local literature… all of these aspects of ‘place’ are important to understanding our environment.


  • Place-based learning can depend on transportability, resources, and willingness to take students beyond the classroom.
  • Some teachers and communities may not see their environment as “worth” exploration, and may have to explore a bit on their own to find intricacies to investigate. Even investigating the local public transportation system can be place-based learning!


  • Students from Grapevine High School and Timberline Elementary School visited the GHS Ecology Center to investigate the region’s pond water and its connection to the spread of West Nile Virus.
  • Amherst Regional Middle School explored the diversity of the local community and, through interviews, students collected stories of cultural belonging and immigration in order to create a book, The City of Stories.


Other _______-Based Learnings You May Hear About!

… and you thought it stopped there! There are many other ____Based Learning’s out there, some of which might work for you, some of which you may already do, and some of which you may have never heard of!

  • Play-Based Learning: Play-based learning is typically associated with early childhood education, and it carries heavy pedagogical questions and connotations.
  • Game-Based Learning: This is problem-based learning, with a twist! “Within an effective game-based learning environment, we work toward a goal, choosing actions and experiencing the consequences of those actions along the way. We make mistakes in a risk-free setting, and through experimentation, we actively learn and practice the right way to do things.” – New Media Institute
  • Service-Based Learning: Very similar to problem-, project-, and place-based learning, service-based learning’s goal is to focus on bettering the community.
  • Studio-Based Learning: As students grow and become creators, studio-based learning attempts to balance the subjectivity of creativity and the objectivity of curriculum.

…and even…

Zombie-Based Learning: Yep… you read that correctly!


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