CBL and the Common Core

A Common Mission

"I would NOT be where I am, going into college, if it were not for the space, passion, love of life, excitement, knowledge, self-awareness, and general strength I learned (and learned to learn) last school year. I think that this is something I am seeing the effects of more and more as I move into college. I even think of how afraid I was and now I'm scheduling meetings with important people, sending emails to new people, making phone calls — all in confidence.

— High School Student
    CBL Implementation Project

The introduction of new academic standards presents an opportunity to reflect on what and how we teach and learn. The Common Core standards are a state-led effort designed in part to bring consistency to the question of what students should be learning to adequately prepare them for college and the workforce. To date the Common Core standards have been adopted by 45 states and three territories and will significantly impact the national and local educational dialogue for years to come.1

While the Common Core documents adamantly state that the standards do not dictate how teachers teach, they have naturally resulted in important discussions about how the teaching and learning process needs to change to address the "shifts" inherent in the standards. This becomes particularly apparent when reviewing the College and Career Readiness anchor standards embedded within the Common Core. Developing students who are self-directed; demonstrate discipline-specific expertise; comprehend and critique; appropriately respond to their context; and back up their opinions with evidence demands a much more experiential and interactive learning environment than is currently found in most schools. The learning environments supporting the common core's mission of providing standards that are "robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers"2 need to operate much differently than the compartmentalized, assembly line, teacher driven, passive student filled classrooms of today. In the end the success of the common core depends on a dance between content (standards) and process (pedagogy) because a focus on one without the other will simply not result in the dramatic change needed for our children to succeed in school, college, the workplace and the world.

Change is hard, and as the history of school reform has demonstrated, changing the teaching and learning process within schools is extremely difficult. Even though the new standards rebel against the idea of covering the curriculum with an "inch deep, mile wide approach" we have schedules, textbooks, curriculum maps, purchasing cycles, administrators and teachers wired to approach learning this way. Districts and schools will be tempted to simply align existing content or purchase packages and software "aligned" to the standards without fundamentally re-thinking the process. To manage the instructional change inherent in the Common Core different instructional frameworks are necessary. Rich, authentic materials combined with experiential, student driven learning frameworks provide the necessary resources and scaffolding for communities of learners to effectively process and address the standards.

Challenge Based Learning is a free, open and research backed educational framework3 that provides an excellent environment to transition to the Common Core standards and develop students who are prepared to succeed in a rapidly changing college and career landscape. A comparison between some of the key components of both the language arts and math common core documents and the CBL framework is illustrative.

English Language Arts (ELA)

The ELA common core standards are divided into reading, writing, speaking and listening, language, and media and technology. Within each of these areas there are important shifts in how the content is addressed that align with the CBL framework.

A key theme within reading is for students to gain more from what they read. Students must be able to read with the purpose "to build knowledge, gain insights, explore possibilities, and broaden their perspective"4. We can provide them with a series of fiction and non-fiction sources and attempt to directly teach them to do this, but the likelihood of success with a vast majority of our students is minimal. Addressing the skills and strategies is part of the equation, but reading ultimately comes down to motivation and this is a critical advantage of the CBL framework. In CBL the students start with big ideas of interest and then through the essential questioning process contextualize what needs to be learned as it relates to their lives. This process of working from challenge to solution helps the learners connect themselves with the content by hanging it on the hooks that matter to them — their concerns, their passions, their day to day reality. By doing this they set the foundation for all reading that follows. What they seek to read, and what is artfully provided to them by the teacher ("senior learner") will be connected to their reality and passions. With this intrinsic desire in place the focus on comprehension and critical skills are attainable. Even the most difficult reading content is approached in a different way when the student sees that there is a larger purpose than answering the questions at the end of the chapter. Motivation and ownership are critical to creating solid readers. Ultimately the more we read, the better we read, and when we read what we are interested in, we read more.

The ELA writing standards seek to produce students who write "logical arguments based on substantive claims, sound reasoning, and relevant evidence"5 through both short focused projects and more in depth research. Within the CBL framework the journey from developing guiding questions to solutions and then finally to implementation/evaluation provides fertile ground for these types of writing assignments. Once again students are writing about issues and ideas that they have formed a relationship with during the initial CBL activities. At this point they have identified their challenge and begin to identify their guiding or research questions and answers them. For each of these questions there is the opportunity to write about the relevant evidence they discover and why it effectively answers their questions. This initial research and writing is more open-minded and includes multiple perspectives. As students move towards their decision on a solution they are forced to synthesize their research and use sound reasoning to substantiate their solution. The final CBL phase also provides the opportunity for students to demonstrate the ability to support their claims with evidence as they implement and evaluate their solutions. Throughout the entire process the students are expected to document their decision making through logical arguments and relevant evidence.

The CBL framework places a high value on the Speaking and Listening skills identified within the ELA standards. At each stage of the framework the students are expected to be informally and formally participating in speaking and listening to their peers, community members, and experts in "one-on-one, small-group, and whole-class settings."6 The CBL process is predicated on the learners collaborating to "answer questions, build understanding" and solve real world problems. In schools around the world we have seen students carefully and critically listening, synthesizing difficult concepts and clearly presenting their ideas about big ideas, challenges and their solutions to their peers, families, community members, business owners, government officials, conference attendees, etc. These conversations have been on the phone, in classrooms, board rooms, on the street, city council chambers and large auditoriums. The students not only learn how to listen and speak, but also the nuances each context and audience demands. Another very productive avenue for learning how to think and speak effectively is the reflection component of CBL. Students that created weekly video and audio reflections became progressively more thoughtful communicators, a skill that translates into success in school, college and the workplace.

Instead of making media and technology a separate section or set of skills the expectation within the common core is that they are integrated throughout the standards. This is exactly the same expectation within the CBL framework as media and technology assume "real world" roles in assisting students movement from big idea to the implementation of a solution in an authentic context. Students involved in CBL use media and technology to do real work — networking, research, communication, analysis, persuasion. The learners create online communities for collaboration, utilize a variety of technologies and media sources to seek out the information needed, communicate inside and outside the classroom 24/7, analyze and visualize data, and use media to persuade people to join their challenge and inform them about their solutions. Because the learners are addressing a real world challenge, the use of technology is authentic and integrated.


In general the mathematics Common Core makes a fundamental shift from covering lots of content to digging deep and understanding what is important. Hopefully we have finally decided that pushing students through a math curriculum where they only have time to "learn enough to get by on the next test, but forget it shortly thereafter, only to review again the following year"7 produces a large number of students who either hate math, or can only "do" math without truly understanding the concepts, language, and utility. Hating and just "doing" math does not bode well for future success in school or moving towards careers in science, technology, engineering and math. The real world nature of CBL is a perfect environment to contextualize and apply math.

The standards specifically call for students to "practice applying mathematical ways of thinking to real world issues and challenges" as well as applying math to "novel situations"8. A thoughtful and well crafted CBL experience allows a wide variety of opportunities to learn and apply math in real world situations. But once again instead of "contrived real world situations" (e.g. you are a bank teller, etc.) the students are using math to identify, research and solve authentic problems that they have defined and are meaningful to them and their community. When learners see that the math they are learning can be used to solve real problems there is a boost in confidence and motivation.

In CBL students use mathematical models and formulas to determine the scope of the issues they are dealing with and the potential impact of their solutions. The solutions documented over the past five years demonstrate math being used to: complete statistical analysis to make a case for new policies, measure human consumption and impact, improve fitness, develop budgets for personal savings, create business plans and budgets, build portable art studios and structures for reflecting, manage large public events, develop apps for community improvement and help people recover from disasters. In each of these instances students gained mathematical knowledge and understanding while they learned that math permeates science, culture, economics, public policy and the personal lives of their families and communities. Math is power when it is connected to making a difference and solving real challenges. Otherwise it is a series of odd or even problems that students would rather not be doing.

Shifts in Learning

Clearly purchasing curriculum packages and aligning current content is not the answer. There needs to be significant changes to instructional environments and practice to successfully implement the goals of the Common Core standards and prepare young people for success in college and careers. These "shifts"9 will not organically emerge through the implementation of the standards. History shows that the currents of traditional practices run strong and deep as does the culture and structure of schools. To navigate these waters school leaders and teachers need alternative frameworks exemplified by experiential, project and Challenge Based Learning. CBL provides a concrete framework and set of resources for districts, schools and individual teachers to fundamentally "shift" the way the learning community goes about the business of learning. 


1 In the States (2012). Retrieved October 1, 2012 from http://www.corestandards.org/in-the-states
2 Common Core Mission Statement (2012). Retrieved October 8, 2012 from http://www.corestandards.org
3 About Challenge Based Learning (2012). http://challengebasedlearning.org 4 Key Points in English Language Arts (2012). Retrieved October 1, 2012 from http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/key-points-in-english-language-arts
5 Key Points in English Language Arts (2012). Retrieved October 1, 2012 from http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/key-points-in-english-language-arts
6 Key Points in English Language Arts (2012). Retrieved October 1, 2012 from http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/key-points-in-english-language-arts
7 Key Points in Mathematics (2012). Retrieved October 1, 2012 from http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/key-points-in-mathematics
8 Key Points in Mathematics (2012). Retrieved October 1, 2012 from http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/key-points-in-mathematics
9 Common Core Instructional Shifts (2012). Retreived October 1, 2012 from http://engageny.org/resource/common-core-shifts/

Common Core


Mark Nichols

Mark H. Nichols

The Challenge Institute