Deciphering PPCBL

We throw around acronyms in education. As educators, we must either really like them or really like to name things with long words (sometimes). We use acronyms like UbD, PBA, SAT, SAMR, TPACK, IEP just to name a few. Deciphering all these different acronyms and keeping up with them can be a mind boggling task at times…

Some Rights Reserved by Gianni
Some Rights Reserved by Gianni

There are three particular acronyms that I have used in team meetings or something that I thought I had enough of an understanding of to say that they are pretty much the same thing. The three acronyms are:

  • Project Based Learning (PBL)
  • Problem Based Learning (PBL)
  • Challenge Based Learning (CBL)

I think when I first looked at general definitions when these frameworks were introduced, my thinking was how they are just repackaging the same idea. But, through my COETAIL course, I decided to look at the three acronyms in a different way. I wanted to figure out if there are distinct differences between the three. So, being the mind-mapper that I am, I went to to make a concept map of the three ideas. Here’s the mess I made:

PBL-CBL-PBL_3an1jg4oThis process helped me consolidate some of my ideas and helped me distinguish between the three.


From what I gathered and read, all three frameworks share one major component in common:

  • solve real, authentic problems and to use that experience to acquire content knowledge and apply them

This central idea and how to go about doing this is what differentiates the three frameworks.


I’ll try to go through each framework just highlighting the major distinctions

Project based learning

  • As the name indicates, creating artifacts or projects is an important piece to demonstrate the students’ learning
  • Content knowledge acquired is applied to problem that is posed

problem based learning

  • Teacher participates as a facilitator to support students in their quest to solve a problem
  • The students work in small groups
  • Teaching of the content may not be present
    • Trigger prior knowledge
    • Fill in knowledge gaps through self directed learning

Challenge based learning

  • Students’ solutions are implemented locally
  • Students are continuously reflecting
  • Students identify the problems
  • Collaborate using Web 2.0 Tools
  • Using Data Technology Tools for up-to-date information


From the readings, and my very simplified way to make sense of the three acronyms, there’s clearly a lot of overlap and moving parts. There’s definitely a benefit to using any of these frameworks as opposed to the traditional lecture type lessons. However, focusing and using only one type of learning framework at all times, for all subject areas (especially if you’re an elementary classroom teacher) maybe challenging due to constraints like time, or mixing up learning experiences for students. I think choosing carefully about what real life contexts have most meaning for the students and letting the students come up with solutions would be more beneficial than starting with a mindset that this framework must be used in all units and subjects.


2 thoughts on “Deciphering PPCBL

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful comparison – this will be a great resource for future cohorts 🙂 I agree that sticking to just one might be tough, but maybe taking the key ideas that resonate with you and work for your students would be a good way to start.

  2. Excellent analysis, Akio. I think your observation of the ‘moving parts’ is very useful in planning and facilitating these strategies.

    Incidentally, are you interested in forming the Stop Using So Many Acronyms in Education Society with me? Why don’t we call it SUSMAES?

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