PBL student showing work to fellow students in the classroom


For the last 25 years I’ve struggled with the implementation of student agency as a primary feature of Project Based Learning.

It appears I’m not alone. Whether it is called “autonomy” or “agency” or “ownership,” the topic is foremost on the minds of educators. Just look at the session titles at conferences such as SxSWedu, or ASCD, or ISTE, or PBLWorks’ very own PBL World.

The frameworks for Gold Standard PBL and High Quality PBL promote the primacy of student agency, as they should. But cherishing a design principle is not the same as effective implementation, and therein lies my struggle.

I have been doing a lot of reading and research over the last six months while writing a new book, Models of Inquiry, Explained that was released in February. I stumbled upon some work from the 1960s that may offer a solution.

Inquiry in the Science Classroom

This work around inquiry, like so many educational innovations, was born as part of the experiential learning movement. The philosophical DNA was of course constructivist and shaped by the work of the inquiry pantheon of Jean Piaget, John Dewey, and Lev Vygotstky. Because it was the ‘60s, there was a little bit of Paulo Friere thrown in for good measure.

The primary driver of what I describe here was Joseph Scwhab, a University of Chicago professor of education and natural sciences, who wrote an influential piece called "Inquiry, the Science Teacher, and the Educator". Schwab called for a joining of what he felt were the two artificially separated realms of science instruction: the lab and the classroom. In Schwab’s view, inquiry should be ranked in three levels:

  • Level 1: The lab manual poses problems and describes ways by which a student can discover relations he does not already know from textbooks;
  • Level 2: Problems are posed by the lab manual, but both methods and solutions are open-ended;
  • Level 3: A student is confronted with a phenomenon, but the problem, solution and methodology are left open.

Schwab’s system was formalized by Marshall Herron, who a decade later created the Herron Scale to evaluate the amount of inquiry within a particular lab activity. In Herron’s model, inquiries were ranked from 0 (confirmation/verification) to 2 (guided inquiry) to 3 (open inquiry).

The work gained adherents, mostly among science educators, over the ensuing decades. In the current iteration of this inquiry ranking system one can see the evolution of the work initiated by Schwab and Herron. Here is what the system looks like now:

  • Confirmation inquiry:Learners are given a question as well as a method. The end result is already known. The intended outcome is that the students confirm the results. This enables learners to reinforce already established ideas and to practice their investigative skills.
  • Structured inquiry:Learners are given the question and the method of achieving the result (of course, already known), but the outcome for students is that they will provide an explanation that is supported by evidence gathered through the inquiry process.
  • Guided inquiry:Learners are only given a question. The desired outcome requires students to design the method of investigation and then test the question itself. This type of inquiry is not as structured as the previous levels.
  • Open inquiry: Learners must form their own questions, design investigative methods, and then carry out the inquiry itself. They must present their results at the end of the process.

Structuring Student Agency in PBL

This inquiry ranking system can and should be viewed as an instrument to structure student agency. What we are really doing here is offering scaffolded levels of student agency over three features of the instructional process:

1. Content: In an ideal world, students would engage in an inquiry that is completely driven by their interests, but very few teachers in the public school system have autonomy over content. Student agency, in terms of content to be studied, is unlikely to budge.  

2. Process: This is where it gets interesting. We are PBL teachers so that is the pedagogical path we’ll follow. However, students can and should be given options on grouping structures, how and when they present, and how they learn content and develop skills.

3. Product. This is low-hanging fruit. Students should be given immense autonomy on how they demonstrate their understanding and what form that demonstration will take.

The typology of inquiry allows teachers and students new to a methodology such as PBL to begin at a low level of agency and proceed to greater levels of autonomy over the course of a semester or year. 

Students, depending upon their experience with Project Based Learning, their developmental level, their skills, and their knowledge in the discipline, assume agency befitting the task and context. Models of inquiry that take a standards-based approach do not advocate full agency for students. Models such as Discovery Learning that focus exclusively on student interests and passions go all in.

The levels of inquiry described in this post bring structure to that gradual, contextual release of control. All Project Based Learning teachers should seek that. A scaled rollout of a pedagogy such as PBL based would be much more likely to succeed if it includes a scope and sequence of leveled inquiries that scaffold agency.

David Ross, Global Education Consultant