Challenging the Base

“Challenge Based Learningis an engaging multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning that encourages students to leverage the technology they use in their daily lives to solve real-world problems.” This statement begins an outline of outcome-focused learning that Apple is promoting and supporting in an effort to revolutionize the way we do education.

From Orange Co Register

The concept of challenge-based learning really does challenge the basic assumptions of our current educational system. We have an idea of what these kids should know by the time they exit high school and, by-golly, we’re gonna make sure they learn what we think they should know. No wonder they’re not engaged in this process.

I asked my daughter, who is in her first year of high school if she thought that what she was currently studying in school was relevant to her life and future work. “Not really,” she said. “Well then, what would you study if you could choose?” “Art, humanities, social studies, science, math that is actually interesting and applicable.” “So how is that different from what you are doing now?” I asked. She responded, “The math is not applicable; we’re not doing humanities and not a lot of writing in English, just reading; and science class goes too fast and we’ve only done, like, one or two hands-on experiments.”

After briefly discussing the concept of challenge-based learning, I asked her what she would be interested in doing.

“I would create a piece of art; a large wall mural that would show some of the problems in the world so that people could not just ignore them… like showing the difference between the wealth of countries and the hunger and stuff. Ideally people would take action (after seeing it) and do things beneficial to the world. I would work harder at this project than I do at school now because it’s something that I actually care about.”

Changing the world through art? Yes, it is possible. Books and movies and even paintings have managed to change and challenge society’s view of the world.

Elsa explained that math would be incorporated to her project as she used scaling to size for translating her planning paper to the wall, and making sure everything fit in the space that she was given. She would have to budget for the costs of materials and the right amount of paint, etc. Although she didn’t yet realize it, she would also have to negotiate the politics and economics of finding an available and appropriately-placed wall on which to display her artwork. She would also have to construct a sturdy but moveable scaffolding to allow her to work on her large-scale work of art and this would exercise her skills in geometry and physics.

Photo credit: Mike & Doug Starn on Metropolitan Museum of Art Flickr Read more: The Roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Sprouts a Bamboo Forest | Inhabitat - Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building

Her proposed projects was beginning to have the needed attributes of a challenge-based learning experience. As Apple details in their outline, the project should include the following:

  • Multiple points of entry and varied and multiple possible solutions
  • Authentic connection with multiple disciplines
  • Focus on the development of 21st century skills
  • Leveraging of 24/7 access to up-to-date technology tools and resources
  • Use of Web 2.0 tools for organizing, collaborating, and sharing
  • Focus on universal challenges with local solutions
  • Requirement that students do something rather than just learn about something
  • Documentation of the learning experience from challenge to solution

One of her challenges might be how to engage a larger number of mural-viewers and spur them on to deeds of change-for-the-better. Perhaps large sections of the mural could remain outlined but not colored in. Prospective painters could earn a chance at painting in a portion by doing something that helped to even the gap between rich and poor or alleviated suffering in one part of the world, in a sort of altruistic Tom-Sawyer type of opportunity exchange. A time-lapse film might be made of the wall as it progressed with links to indicate what charity action each section of the completed painting represented. Viewers could then be encouraged to donate time or money in the various charities represented through embedded links. QR codes could even be incorporated into the design so that viewers with cell phones could connect with charity sites while they stood in front of the wall.[Photo:]

It becomes immediately obvious that the reaches of challenge-based learning go far beyond the walls of the school as students are, by the necessity of completing their project, pushed out into interacting with the community. I can see where many parents would hesitate here and pull back not wanting to risk that kind of exposure for their offspring. Still, they have to leave the nest sometime, and while I would not recommend this type of project for a student in grade school or middle school, most high schoolers can take care of themselves in the real world with a bit of practice and guidance.

Challenge-based learning may be more appropriate for middle and high-school students as it assumes a broader background of knowledge and maturity to formulate a feasible solution to a real-world problem. Project-based learning seems ideal for lower grades, however, as it develops student autonomy and can be accomplished in smaller, more manageable chunks of time and subject matter. Project-based learning encourages cross-curricular integration which increases knowledge retention. Teachers using PBL report that “PBL is a rigorous, relevant, and engaging instructional model that supports authentic inquiry and autonomous learning for students.”

Although I have begun to align my library lesson plans to support and augment the curriculum covered in each of the grade levels, I feel that I can do more in this area. Within some grade levels at various times in the year, the curriculum being covered is woven into all of the subject areas. Students seem to appreciate this integration and immediately comment on it when I have them in the library. They are hard-wired to make connections between all of the things that they are learning and experiencing throughout the day and seem to retain the knowledge better when they do make those connections. And they retain knowledge even better when, as soon as they have learned something, they do it. When I teach students how to find a book on the shelves by the author’s last name, we launch immediately into a relay race where students find books by their call letters and then return the book to the correct spot on the shelf. And if a student is slow to catch onto the system, another student is happy to leap up and help them figure it out. Seymour Papert has it right when he says, “We should be measuring what kids can do with knowledge, not how many right answers they can give to questions.”Accredited Online Colleges Blog

When children return home from school, they are often asked the question, “What did you learn in school today?” My husband remembers being asked a different question everyday…. “Did you ask any good questions today in school?” Now, students might consider the following: “Did you find solutions to any important problems today and what did you actually do to help solve the problem?” How would the world be different today if we all actually acted on what we know?

4 thoughts on “Challenging the Base

  1. Great blog – your daughter sounds smart! CBL reads like such a great idea, but presumably has to involve and paradigm shift in the way a school operates and views education. I guess so few schools do it, that those that do are fairly well known (High Tech High). Whereas I can see how PBL can easily dovetail to how most schools operate, I really struggle to envisage how CBL can work alongside the most school systems, as opposed to instead of. If most schools tried CBL they would have to set limitations and boundaries on the students that would completely defeat the whole purpose. That’s why I struggle to see CBL taking off in any but a few specialised schools. Time will tell, though…

  2. Ruth, I really enjoyed reading about your daughter’s art challenge…really interesting idea. As you point out, it reflects many of the components of CBL. She may have a career as an educational consultant in the future! ☺ I agree that CBL is geared for upper grades, while PBL works well in elementary and middle school. With my elementary background, I am an integrationist by nature. Do you feel that your experiences with curriculum integration as an elementary teacher, in many ways, reflected PBL characteristics even though we didn’t use that terminology? Meeting Standards Through Integrated Curriculum, an ASCD publication by Susan M. Drake and Rebecca C. Burns, contains an interesting section which highlights PBL as an important part of an integrated curriculum. (
    The final question that you suggest is such an important one. “Did you find solutions to any important problems today and what did you actually do to help solve the problem?” It resonates with me as I begin thinking about my final CoETaIL project, which is planning a PBL requiring students to carry out a “call to action” from a persuasive essay. Both CBL and PBL offer students such rich and authentic real-world experiences. Thanks for your awesome post and be sure and tell Elsa how impressed I was with her art project idea!

  3. Like Adam and Jaime said, I thought your daughter’s ideas were great. And I am willing to bet she was really excited just talking about the possibilities.

    I think it will be people like a librarian who will really help cross-curricular PBL/CBL experiences happen. Who else knows what is going on in all levels and subjects? I’m interested in seeing how you envision your role in this type of environment.

    Again, thanks for your post.

  4. Ruth,

    I really like how you and your daughter have approached CBL together. As a teacher, I thought first of how I could bring CBL to the classroom. It is clear from your post that the students have a good idea of what they would like to do and how it could be beneficial. If only we would consult with them more often. The other point that I took from her project idea was that good CBL does not require large, humanitarian projects, the momentum for which may not be repeatable in a given school year. Using the mural as an example, a student could do more than one of these in a year or this could be the exclusive work of a quarter or semester. What would be the best way to begin to transition a school community to embrace CBL and scale back on external exams?

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