Brianne Gidcumb |February 2015

The Umbrella of Inquiry: Problem, Project, and Passion-Based Learning

The Umbrella of Inquiry: Problem, Project, and Passion-Based Learning

Inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning, passion-based learning, the list goes on. Where do we begin? 21st century learning initiatives seem to fly in from every angle. How do we keep them all straight, and how do we decide on the right approach for our classrooms, our contents, and our schools? What they all have in common is all of these methods focus on process, rather than solely on content, allow students to make authentic discoveries, and thereby make learning more meaningful.

Problem-Based Learning Initiative

This year, my school district implemented a system-wide Problem-Based Learning initiative. Problem-Based Learning is, in part, characterized by “prescribed steps” (Buck Institute for Education). Presentation of an ill-structured problem, definition of the problem, generation of “knowledge inventory,” generation of possible solutions, self-directed learning, and sharing of solutions. When students engage in this problem-solving, they draw on their own knowledge, and in the process of devising solutions for the problem, authentically develop new understanding.

In our inaugural year of implementation, I observed that this model of Problem-Based Learning, when fixed in its prescribed steps, might not work for every content area. For every problem, for every age, for every standard. So, how can we expand our model to allow students to reap the benefits of this type of learning?

When we mandate the use of a particular model of teaching and learning system-wide, rather than offering it as an effective tool to be used in authentic settings and for authentic purposes, we marginalize the power of that model. Just like any effective educational approach, it only works when it is authentic and based in standards. Rather than applying a prescribed Problem-Based Learning model in my general music classes, with limited time, resources, and technology, I believe the best way to incorporate this brand of teaching and learning is to rely on inquiry as the umbrella under which other models fall.

Let’s look at this umbrella term of inquiry-based learning, as well as its subsets of project, problem, and passion-based learning.

Inquiry-based learning: 

Inquiry-based learning is a process through which questions are generated and students explore these questions in-depth to gather knowledge. This type of learning is authentic and, often, intrinsically motivated, as questions can be developed from students’ interests, perspectives, and experiences. The process is cyclical, meaning that as students move through the process of answering the question that has been posed, they will generate new questions, ask questions, create hypotheses, construct new knowledge, and share discoveries.

Project-based learning: 

In project-based learning, students design or create a project (written, oral, visual, multimedia) for an authentic purpose. Students may be solving a real-world problem or may be investigating an answer to an open-ended question. In this model, discovery is a result of the project itself rather than the project being a result of the learning.

Problem-based learning: 

Just as in project-based learning, students may investigate and solve a real-world problem. The Buck Institute for Education considers problem-based learning a subset of project-based learning. Procedures in problem-based learning are more formally observed, as stated in the prescribed steps above. In problem-based learning, students identify what they already know, what they need to learn, and then apply newfound knowledge to their solution to the problem.

Passion-based learning: 

In passion-based learning, students apply the inquiry process to a topic about which they are passionate. This may take the form of a Genius Hour, where students spend one hour a week pursuing an inquiry project based on something that motivates them. Through this “passion project,” students utilize research and organizational skills, read nonfiction text, develop writing and presentation skills.

The inquiry process is the tie that binds each of these learning models together. By allowing ourselves to wander from these subsets to the foundational process of inquiry, we can ensure that we remain focused on authentic learning, based in standards, and grounded in and fueled by student interests and curiosity.

About the Author

Brianne is a former music educator from Chicago and current graduate class instructor with EdCloset’s Learning Studios. She earned her Masters degree in Music Education from VanderCook College of Music and has over a decade of experience in the elementary general music classroom. With her experience in the performing arts, Brianne is dedicated to building connections between the arts and Common Core Standards, 21st century learning skills, inquiry and project-based learning. In addition to her work with EducationCloset, Brianne is a yoga instructor in the Chicagoland area. You can also find Brianne here: