Learning not Teaching: Challenge-Based Learning
Challenge-Based Learning is an approach to learning which encourages pupils to find stuff out, without the teacher getting in the way. It allows the students to cover the existing content of school courses, but sets an open question which requires significant research and discovery by students before they can decide upon a solution.
This is a move away from the traditional model of teaching, from the “sage-on-the-stage” towards a “guide-on-the-side”approach. It takes some organising and much thought in getting it set up, but in lessons, the pupils do the work and the teacher becomes much more of a monitor of their learning than the sole source of information.
It should be multidisciplinary, but I have started it as a single subject process so that I could work out all of the bugs and build a better workflow before getting other subject teachers involved!
In my classes, I confess: pupils were often bored and I was exhausted. No matter how funny or engaging or interesting I imagined my lessons were, the focal point was me rather than them. I was well organised, I had many piles of photocopied notes to distribute and my LOs were faithfully displayed on the old-school whiteboard. But as I did more, they did less, passively sitting through lectures about the differences between Private Limited Companies and Public Limited Companies. I allowed myself to continue in this manner under the false presumption that teachers must work hard if the pupils are to learn anything. Actually, the truth was that for any year group, if I was speaking for more than 15 minutes on any topic, I began to realise that I was talking to myself.
I found my epiphany through some soul searching and a couple of books about education. One was “The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook” by Jim Smith and the other was “Creating Innovators” by Prof Tony Wagner. For those who haven’t come across the book, The Lazy Teacher is not, in fact, lazy, but redirects the focus of lessons from the teacher to the pupils. They work, they discover, they learn. The teacher organises, directs and assesses. Creating Innovators is all about innovating our way out of the economic doldrums and high levels of youth unemployment and underemployment. Creating these innovative humans still requires academic excellence, but needs us to break out of the blinkers.Once we have scaled Bloom’s Taxonomy (yes, we still need them to pass those GCSEs and A levels), we need to help young people to become ‘idea machines’. They need to be better at finding creative solutions to big problems, better at collaborating with others on these big problems, they need show initiative (and determination) when circumstances change and be able to communicate more clearly. These skills cannot be properly developed working in isolation. Young people need to get used to working in teams on big problems that have fuzzy borders and no single “right” answer.
How to Use CBL?
You start with the context you need to cover. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Get a list of topics from your Scheme or Specification, and start there. Now you have to reverse engineer a list of questions to find those “answers”, and finally write an “Essential Question”, which is the title of the project. The Essential Question (or EQ) should require a solution which the pupils must ponder, research and decide upon before reporting back. You may want them to write a report, or present, or make a short video! The EQ should be “open” but will generally lead to them finding out the stuff you wanted them to learn anyway. Some schools take more risks than this, but for nervous beginners, play safe!
Is Challenge-Based Learning like Project-Based Learning?
Challenge-Based Learning is similar to Project-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning; I have adopted Challenge-Based as it tends to be associated with educational technology and has some support from Apple in this regard. I realised that I will need help on this journey and I hope that Apple will be able to provide excellent resources to support the successful implementation of the system.
Is it any good?
There are many positive reports about student engagement and progress coming from the USA, for more than a decade: such as Blumenfeld et al, Thomas and Savery , although there is a need for more recent quantitative research and analysis to increase its credibility. In the UK, the picture of CBL / PBL is encouraging, in pioneering schools such as Stanley Park in London, but lacks hard data to support it.
My own experience is that there is little to fear from trying just such an approach. What is striking is that the pupils seems to learn faster and they learn more than they would have covered with the teacher delivering it all. The open-ended nature of the Essential Question (aka the title of the challenge) means they often ask more relevant questions than would have been suggested by the teacher to address the problem. They are refining how they search for information and how they use it. They are looking for inefficiencies in how they carry out their tasks each lesson and trying to find workarounds. They are playing their roles responsibly and there have been very few arguments.
They are learning more. They are developing their skills more. And I am doing less.
[Bio: Sam Sinclair is Head of Business Studies at Bangor Grammar School and a part-time Specialist educator at iTeach UK. For for information on Challenge-Based Learning, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org]