Models and approaches for exploratory learning

In recent decades, in regular cycles, new learning approaches with the extension «-based learning» have emerged. They should meet the requirements of today’s knowledge society particularly well. In this blog post, three key approaches are described and similarities respectively differences are discussed.

Without being exhaustive, the most important learning approaches are:

  • Problem-based Learning or Case-based Learning
  • Project-based Learning or Design-based Learning (Learning by Design)
  • Enquiry-based Learning (Inquiry-based Learning) or Research-based Learning

What are the similarities among these learning approaches, collectively referred to as exploratory learning environments? And what are the differences?

Exploratory vs Expository learning

All exploratory learning environments return to the idea that learning takes place in concrete situations. It should also be based on the knowledge and experience of the students. Historically, there are various precursors, such as the educational philosophy of Dewey in the early 20th century or even Socrates in ancient times. The starting point of all exploratory learning environments is a problem situation. A central feature of exploratory learning environments is that knowledge and skills are developed in the process of problem solving. Thus, learning units in an exploratory learning environment start with the confrontation of a problem situation.

In expository learning environments, by contrast, problem situations are also frequently used. However, these serve mainly to apply knowledge after a shorter or longer phase of instruction.


Exploratory vs. Expository learning, © Müller Werder

The central position of the problem situation in the learning process can therefore be referred to as the core of exploratory learning environments. In all the “-based learning” approaches listed above, the problem situation triggers the learning process and guides the student towards a solution space. Student learning in exploratory learning environments can thus be referred to as a self-directed, constructive process. The teacher is primarily active for the purposes of supporting, stimulating and advising.

In contrast, in expository learning environments, the learning process is mainly controlled by the teacher. Here, learning corresponds to a highly receptive, externally guided process. Teachers are mainly active in the sense of directing, presenting, explaining and evaluating.

Additionally, in all exploratory learning environments, cooperation and communication among students is of great importance. Through substantive discussions and conflicts, the students deal with different perspectives. They form new relationships between concepts and rethink as well clarify their own points of view. In some exploratory learning approaches, such as problem-based learning or project-based learning, learning in small student groups is even considered an integral part of the learning approach.

Differences between approaches

Because of the centrality of the problem situation in exploratory learning environments, their structures can also be used to differentiate the various explorative learning approaches. Decisive is the openness or closedness of the problem and solution space.

In the first type, the situation and solution space are well structured. This type can be referred to as problem-based learning or case-based learning. The problem situations are appropriately structured by the teachers. A potential solution space is anticipated and staked.

© Müller Werder

In the second type, the problem situation is structured, but there is a higher degree of freedom in the solution space. This type can be referred to as project-based learning or design-based learning. These usually demand the design and production of a constructive product often under vague objectives and conditions. Still, different design processes with different creative solutions are possible.

© Müller Werder

In the third type, the (problem) situation and solution space are very open. This type can be referred to as enquiry-based learning or research-based learning. In these learning approaches, the problem situation is usually not structured and given by the teacher. However, the students are instructed to construct and pursue their own scientific questions and hypotheses. Thus, the initial situation is very open, or the students must define and structure it by themselves. Accordingly, the solution space has a high degree of freedom.

© Müller Werder

For all three types, appropriate guidance according to the student expertise is offered. Thus, exploratory learning does not correspond to unguided discovery learning. The students are provided with learning process strategies (such as the “7-Step” in problem-based learning) and the teachers support the learning process with adapted scaffolding techniques.

Join the discussion

What are your experiences with the above mentioned learning approaches?

What are their benefits? Their challenges? And how can we improve them?

At the PBL 2016 Conference, June 16th/17th in Zurich (CH), international experts will demonstrate and discuss the learning approaches in detail. ==> On Problem-based Learning (Prof. Henk Schmidt), Project-based Learning (Prof. Annette Kolmoos) and Enquiry-based Learning (Prof. Gabi Reinmann). Please join the conference and the online debate!

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