A Marriage? Challenge Based Learning and Collaborative Group Learning

When designing a Curriculum which,

fully activates the processes across the Socialised-Learning Continuum, supports the application of the principles within each process stage of the Socialised-Learning Continuum and facilitates the application of a Collaborative Group Learning Pedagogy,

it is my belief that, in both its structural and applied (pedagogy) forms, it must be Collaborative, Connected, Challenging, Authentic in nature and driven by Concepts and Problems. Above all the Curriculum must be learner-centric and a educational route towards a Liberated Learning capacity.

A number of Curriculum approaches exist globally. Many would fundamentally fail to achieve the goals outlined above either due to their structural constraints but more likely due to their underpinning philosophies being at odds with the philosophies of liberation inherent in the vision of education these articles collectively champion.  Many, with reorientation, offer tried and proven approaches which align well with the ultimate aims of Collaborative Group Learning. Such Curriculum are epitomised by the International Middle Years Curriculum, the International Baccalaureate, High Tech Highs Project Based Learning (being applied here in London at School21) and Expeditionary Learning (which I recently observed in action at XP School in Doncaster).

In this article I want to present and discuss Apple’s (yes as in the IT Giant) Challenge Based Learning (CBL) as a model for Curriculum which I feel could help engineer and facilitate the processes, goals and aims discussed in this collection of articles.

I have drawn extensively from the Challenge Based Learning community to construct this article. 


What is Challenge Based Learning?

Challenge Based Learning is a collaborative learning experience in which teachers and students work together to learn about compelling issues, propose solutions to real problems, and take action. The approach asks students to reflect on their learning and the impact of their actions and publish their solutions to a worldwide audience.

As is highlighted in this opening statement, CBL promotes a process and structure of learning in tune with those of CGL.

It is clear that CBL seeks to mirror the 21st century workplace and it does this by promoting a Curriculum which make sure participants:

  1. Work in collaborative groups
  2. Authentically use technology commonly found in the workplace
  3. Tackle real-world problems using a multidisciplinary approach
  4. Develop practical solutions to these problems
  5. Implement and evaluate the solutions in conjunction with authentic audiences

The promotion of collaborative groups naturally reflects something I hold dear. However the CBL community have no stedfast rules to how these collaborative groups are constructed and seem to allow groups to reform from Challenge to Challenge. I believe this approach limits the effectiveness of CBL and CBL would be enhanced by applying the principles of CGL outlined within these articles (6, sustained, heterogeneous).

A real-world problem can stimulate increased interest, heightens engagement and gives value to the learning. Above all it makes learning authentic taking it out of the silo of a classroom and giving the development of KUS practical application, which is of course the reality of the ‘adult world’. An authenticity which prepares todays learners for tomorrows demands on so many levels.

Multidisciplinary approaches, facilitated by the a real-world problem, again promotes authenticity. The ‘real world’ is not a closed system where we apply KUS from just one discipline to solve problems of life, it is an open system where the messy ‘real world’ requires a messy application of KUS from so many disciplines to traverse the obstacles of life in its broadest sense. As such a Curriculum should model this very real way of learning and application and only through such a multidisciplinary approach can this be truly achieved.

I really like how CBL furthers this by ensuring every student produces, applies and evaluates a solution to the posed problem. A number of Curriculum will feature 1,2,3 but not go as far as 4 and 5. The creation of a solution, again mirroring the ‘real world’, makes education more than just knowledge consumption and regurgitation. Knowledge generation, solutions of practical worth, gives increased value to this Curriculum. Blending CGL and CBL has the potential of creating diverse solutions from diverse thinking, thinking made stronger through the application of CGL principles of group construction.

The community draw attention to the need to

  1. Connect standards-based subject matter to 21st century content and skills; thus requiring considerate mapping of subject Knowledge, Understanding and Skills across the Curriculum.
  2. Recognise that the teacher’s role is that of project manager, mentor; and, as I see it ultimately a resource.
  3. Let students determine the direction of their research and solution; thus fostering a capacity for Liberated Learning. 
  4. Enable students to have the opportunity to act on their solutions; giving the overall endeavour authenticity and moving education from knowledge consumption to knowledge generation. 

As I have written in a previous article new Curriculum approaches and pedagogies which seek to facilitate Collaborative learning processes require teachers to think and work differently. The CBL community recognise this highlighting that the task of the teacher in this new capacity is to work with students to take multidisciplinary standards-based content, connect it to what is happening in the world today, and translate it into an experience in which students make a difference in their community; a community which I feel scales up from local through regional, national to the  global. Accomplishing this goal necessitates teachers to give students structure, support, checkpoints, and the right tools to get their work done successfully, while allowing them enough freedom to be self-directed, creative, and inspired. Naturally the extent of ‘freedom’ should increase over time and as learners develop in competence with power moving from teacher to the learner; liberation.

The CBL community reflect on the evolution of the teacher role: Early on—when you introduce Challenge Based Learning to your students and set up the challenge—you are actively guiding the process by making decisions, communicating information, teaching skills, and answering questions about how the process works and what is expected of your students. In the middle stages, students take charge of planning and researching their own work and you serve primarily as a mentor working alongside the students, helping them through the rough spots and keeping them on track. In the later stages, students are deeply engaged in their own work while you monitor the mastery of required knowledge and skills through appropriate assessments. Finally, you will transition into the role of product manager supporting the students as they implement, evaluate, and publish their solutions and results.

I have reflected on this evolution within my Socialised-Learning Continuum approach where the shifting role of teacher, power, control and self-regulation is facilitated at each process stage from the Group towards the Liberated.

What are the Procedural Processes of Challenge Based Learning?

Challenge Based Learning begins with a Big Idea and cascades to the following:

  • the essential question;
  • the challenge;
  • guiding questions, activities, and resources;
  • determining and articulating the solution;
  • implementing the solution;
  • evaluating the results;
  • publishing the solution and sharing it with the world.

The Big Idea exists at a Conceptual level, for example Resolution, Conflict, Justice, and is then explored via the negotiation of a relevant Challenge, which is presented initially as a Driving Question and a community focused problem to be investigated. Such a question needs to be complex, requiring Foundational and Non-foundational knowledge to be drawn upon alongside a synthesis of skills from a  diverse range of subject disciplines.

Reflection, documentation and informative-formative assessment are an important part of the process at every stage as they reinforce learning, an importantly inform next steps and provide evidence of learning (collected and recorded in some form of portfolio). Self, Peer and teacher assessment should be applied throughout to facilitate the above.

Due to the CBL emphasis on exploring topics from many angles and through the lens of multiple disciplines teachers from different disciplines should work together. This not only enhances multidisciplinary approaches, provides the right level of discipline expertise/support while respecting and modelling the CGL approach of working in groups. To facilitate this form of teacher collaboration it is not just the Challenge and problem which need to be multidisciplinary but also we need to recognise the need for physical multidisciplinarity. Timetabling of staff, the design of teaching spaces, the application of technology, providing time for collaborative planning, evaluation and assessment, all need to be planned to enable this important aspect of CBL. Any school wishing to implement something akin to CBL must recognise and tackle these challenges.

Throughout the challenge the students, collaboratively and individually, must be provided with the opportunity to create a variety of products or, as I prefer, artefacts, which include:

  • a challenge proposal video,
  • a set of guiding questions,
  • research plans and results,
  • solutions with beta testing plans and evaluation parameters,
  • a solution video,
  • student journals, and
  • individual reflection videos.

Such artefacts provide evidence of thinking and the means to formatively and summatively assess learning as a process and its outcome. Also through portfolios it provides the evidence of progress for all stakeholders. The quantity and depth of products will depend on where the students enter the process and the length of the challenge. I believe that it is important that at the beginning of the challenge, teachers and students should work together to define the products and determine how they will be assessed, co-creating criteria guided by existing standards. This potentially increases understanding of requirements, buy-in and authenticity, when defined as personalisation.

Assessment, which I believe should be as feedback and feedforward, should be scheduled and should be regular. While CBL puts much of the responsibility in the hands of students, this is one area where the role of teacher is vital; mentoring, monitoring and managing. Examples of some prompts the CBL community use during these checkpoints are:

  • What part of the process are you working on this week?
  • What new knowledge or skills have you acquired this week?
  • What has been your biggest success this week?
  • What has been your biggest challenge this week?
  • How is your group doing as a team?
  • What are your top priorities for next week?

Summative assessment should take a variety of forms to meet the needs of the particular situation. With CBL a summative ‘event’ is built in with the completion and implementation of the solution. The solution will be tested in the real world and students will receive immediate and direct feedback, not just from peers and teacher but also from the authentic audience of that solution.

The Solution, Implementation, Evaluation Stage of Challenge Based Learning.

Using the research findings, gathered throughout the activities of the Challenge, students identify and consider a range of supported solutions before selecting the one that will be implemented. This key element of CBL is what makes it unique to other zeitgeist Curriculum. The solution they choose may involve

informing and/or convincing family, peers, or community members about the need for change;

specific actions that can be taken to address their challenge on an ongoing basis;

school or community improvement projects;

and other activities.

I think it is important to encourage the students to be creative in designing and carrying out their solutions and to document their activities. Naturally the desired levels of complexity present within the solution would be increased with the development of a learners KUS competency.

After identifying their solutions, the students will implement them, measure outcomes, reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and determine whether they made progress in addressing the challenge. When implementation is complete, students share their work with the rest of the world. I think this stage is a real strength of CBL. Quantitively and qualitatively evaluating the solution, ‘doing science’, with others gives the final outcome real value to the community while taking ‘real world’ learning to an increased level of complexity; a level most don’t experience until Postgraduate research.

Throughout the project students document their experience using audio, video, and photography. Near the culmination of the challenge, students build their solution video and record their reflections. The three-to-five minute solution video should include a description of the challenge, a brief description of the learning process, the solution, and the results of the implementation.

Students are encouraged to keep individual written, audio, or video journals throughout the process. As a culminating event, students can be provided a series of prompts for final reflections about what they learned about the subject matter and the process.

These solution videos, reflection videos, and any supporting documents should be shared with the world through web-based communities. It is also ideal to have a public event with all of the participants at the school or in the community to celebrate their efforts and thank those who have assisted. This could evolve into a Celebration of Learning, a wonderful learner-centric alternative to the stale Parents Evening.

The model of Curriculum presented here in the form of CBL aligns well with CGL and with minor tweaks, in particular the application of Collaborative Group construction, could be the basis of an exceptional Curriculum applied at a range of ‘academic levels’ here in the United Kingdom.

As ever keen to here peoples thoughts on this reflection.

Further information about Challenge Based Learning can be found here:






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