Project Based Learning in the IB PYP Inquiry

I've shared a lot about project based learning with our Instagram IB PYP community and how it fits into our student-led inquiry framework. Many have asked me if it offers fidelity to the inquiry process, to student agency and to transdisciplinary learning.  With this post, my intention is to share my perspective based on my experience and hopefully bring some clarity as to how project based learning fits seamlessly within the unit of inquiry.

There is a common misconception that PBL is not as rigorous or as organic a form of inquiry-based learning. I say, that depends on:

  • *Our understanding of an inquiry-based project
  • *How we implement the process
  • *How we differentiate inquiry
  • *How we support student's voice within the project
  • *How flexible we are with plans
  • *How open we are to multiple strategies
  • *How we view structure in the learning environment
View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Susan Powers (@pypteaching)

Before we dive into what a project based learning experience may look like within the PYP classroom, lets consider first of all the common benefits with student-led inquiry and project based learning.

1.A Transdisciplinary Approach

When we consider our transdisciplinary approach to planning and teaching, we are able to identify the concepts and skills that are our conduit for transferring content knowledge. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have found project based learning fits most seamlessly as a means for delivering maths and grammar to my students. Those are both common challenges for authentically fitting into our transdisciplinary units of inquiry and often become stand alone lessons. With this reminder that a transdisciplinary approach to learning is actually concept and skills focused, then it may make it easier to bring those otherwise challenging subjects into context.

Stand alone teaching is absolutely necessary as we explicitly teach the skills, purposefully introduce new concepts and teach strategies for putting it all into practice implicitly.

2.Concept based Learning

You can find a whole collection of concept-based maths inquiry resources here.

Keeping in mind that concepts bring context to the content we are teaching and our goal is to bring authenticity to learning, let's consider the following central idea as an example:

Decisions affect economic systems and impact societal consumption.

Within this theme from How We Organise Ourselves, we looked at the concepts of economy, systems, organisation and  interdependence through the lenses of form, function and connection.

3. Student Voice

As part of our groundwork and co-planning, the children identified the  

 big ideas through the provocation and connected them with business success. This led to many inquiries as to what success may look like within local businesses and which factors and systems influenced the decisions. As they brainstormed action plans, starting a business became the popular choice and thus our inquiry was born. We now had a project to undertake and a gelato business was the name of the game!

As the facilitator, it is my job to ensure that the content is aligned with the concepts throughout the inquiry.

Our maths concept at this time was fractions. And, as Im sure many of us know, teaching fractions goes on forever in those upper grades! Forever! I now had to integrate my maths strands into our inquiry. Knowing the direction that the children were leading the inquiry helps tremendously. Using their questions, allowed my planning to take shape through the concepts of our unit.

Concepts bring context to content.

The maths inquiry became a project to plan and design a business. This was the conduit to present the new content and to put it into practice together with prior knowledge and understanding.  You can link to another article about co-planning the inquiry at the end of this blog post. Guiding students through the concepts.[/caption]

4.Guide the Children in Transferring their Knowledge & Understanding

My Aims: The children will understand the concept of interdependence between location and economy in relation to business success.

  • Using their understanding of fractions (common, mixed, improper, decimal, operations & percentages), they will compile a business plan.
  • Research skills will be demonstrated through data analysis and note taking.

The Objectives:

  • The object of the activity is to plan and develop a business plan for an ice cream/gelato business located in Italy. (We were in Italy)
  • The children have to analyse data and calculate inventory, pricing, locate produce etc. using their knowledge and understanding of concepts with fractions.
  • Using their data and research, they will then write their business plan.
  • They can then plan and design their store front using the templates or their own creations

We are offering differentiated, structured content and guided inquiry to support the children as they transfer their understanding, making meaning for themselves but not by themselves. 


5. Focus on the Process Rather Than the Product

This goes back to our transdisciplinary approach: skills based learning experiences are a prominent focus throughout project based learning and the inquiry process itself. As real world problems and issues are explored, these 21st century skills or the Approaches to Learning Skills, come into play. Think along the lines of these higher order skills that relate to Bloom's that are all the focus of the project below, focusing on the concept of ADAPTATIONS through a research inquiry into THE topic of DINOSAURS. 

  • Creating
  • Evaluating
  • Analysing
  • Problem solving
  • Synthesising
  • Applying
  • Understanding
  • Remembering

Back to the Maths: With a balanced mix of guided inquiry and structured learning, the children investigated their lines of inquiry, all derived from our co-planned questions. Here are a few:

  • What industries connect with the gelato business?
  • Where are these industries situated?
  • How does the geography of the country impact these industries?
  • How do these industries manage distribution?
  • What does the industrial and economic demographics look like across the country?
  • Where might we successfully establish a gelato business? Justify the location based on the above.
  • What will you need to consider regarding budget?

Notice how the concepts are found throughout these questions: choice, systems, organization, interdependence, economy etc.



As the children become wholly engaged in their project, the learning naturally takes shape as they are then able to apply the new skills whilst building upon prior skills, incorporating the strategies taught for the current  maths concepts they are learning in an authentic and meaningful way to support their project and ultimately demonstrate their progress and understanding through the process of the inquiry. The graphic organisers and data that I provide the children, supports their thinking in a structured way. The front loaded data directly connects with the children's questions and lends itself to further investigation, or going further, as some inquiry cycles call it. The on-going reflection allows for direction and re-direction as necessary. And the end result may not always look exactly as we had planned from the beginning. As long as the outcome fits the overall conceptual understanding through the content that we covered, the children's curiosity will add to the real-world learning that is taking shape throughout. Dont get too caught up in the outcome. Appreciate the richness of learning within the process. There are many ways to assess inquiry-based projects. And within the PYP it largely revolves around a collective conversation through reflection from the students and the teacher of the skills and the concepts. You can find out more about assessment of the inquiry and inclusive assessment in this article, Assessment Strategies for the IB PYP. 

Students construct the assessment. (@ Andrea Usher)

Additional Inquiry Based Maths Projects

I have many inquiry based maths projects that I have integrated within my upper grades' units of inquiry AND used as stand-alone mini-inquiries. (Sometimes you just have to approach the single subject through its own project.)


  Each of the maths projects focuses on maths concepts in connection with related concepts from our transdisciplinary themes. Click on the links below to browse the collection and see if any might fit with your programme of inquiry.




50% Complete

Be sure to subscribe to for practical strategies, hands on ideas and classroom ready tools for your inquiry-based classroom.