Brianne Gidcumb | September 2015

Rooted in Inquiry: Problem Based Learning

If you’ve followed my articles over the past year, you’ve noticed the topic of project-based learning has been a frequent one. With the release of our brand new Project Based Learning in the Arts Mini-Course, as well as the free Project Based Learning download, I think it’s a great time to share a bit about what brought me on this journey into PBL, and what I think is absolutely key to any educator’s journey.

Implementing PBL for me has been extremely rewarding, not only for me but my students. If you will indulge me, I would like today to share my mission and vision for project-based learning and the arts in the hopes that it might help you, wherever you might be in your experience and implementation of PBL!

I taught elementary general music in a school district that began exploring the application of project based learning several years ago. It was fascinating to see general classroom teachers find problems and challenges in our community that could be addressed as a means to teach standards, particularly science standards. That grew into a district-wide initiative that required all teachers in all contents to engage in problem-based teaching methodology. Problem-based learning is a subset of project based learning that is rooted in learning experiences centered on real-world problems and challenges, particularly those that are community based.

Problem-Based Learning Initiative

In its infancy, there were several things about this problem-based learning initiative that I felt to be ill fitting for the general music classroom. First were the strictures of the process. The set of prescribed steps, including a period of research as well as a formal presentation to a panel, were incredibly difficult to facilitate with limited time and resources in 25-minute music classes. Another issue was finding a “problem,” a real-world, community-based challenge to present to students.

When challenges and problems present themselves in an authentic way, it is wonderful to capitalize on them, but inventing a problem for problem’s sake led to unnaturally framed PBLs. And finally, when engaged in a strict problem-based learning process, my music students were not engaged in the one thing that is most important to their music education- making music. Instead, their time was spent researching and preparing for presentation.

With all that said, I remained hopeful that there was a way to make implementing PBL work for arts contents. It gave me cause for reflection: What were we trying to accomplish through problem-based learning? What was the benefit to students? What is truly essential to such an approach? If we take the problem-based learning approach back to its roots, we find inquiry, engagement, and discovery. Once we step back from the pieces of the process and really look at the big picture, we find that problem or project based learning is really about teaching standards by allowing students room for discovery, creativity, and critical thinking.

It is a shift from the “sage on the stage” manner of teaching, and no more are we spoon-feeding information to students. We are allowing them to take ownership of their own learning by giving them voice and choice, and thereby increasing engagement and making learning meaningful.

So What?

Project based learning and the arts are a great fit for several reasons: first, they are both based in process. There is value in process-based learning, and if we allow our definition of the PBL process to be open enough to include the artistic process, there is great potential. Second, a “project” can be anything- a presentation, a product, a performance, a work of art- anything that, through its creation, leads students on a path to discovery and engagement in learning.

And finally, allowing for flexibility in the creation and delivery of framed driving questions or inquiry-based challenges can allow for higher fidelity to standards than finding real-world challenges and problems- they just might not exist for every standard, in every content. But if we can frame our standards in inquiry, we still achieve the engagement and process-based discovery that benefit students.

None of this is to say that there isn’t value in problem-based learning- when it is authentic, it is an incredibly valuable approach. However, PBL is more than just something we can say we are doing in name only. We need to ensure that our implementation of PBL (project or problem based) is rooted in fidelity to standards and aimed at authentic student engagement.

Want more? Check out our Project Based Learning in the Arts Mini-Course!

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: