When we start with the hard work of fully understanding the context, stakeholders, goals, and language, the result will be a “we are all in this together” and a “we can figure it out” community that sees all challenges as learning opportunities.
The added benefit is that as things change, which they always do, the stakeholders have a framework for adjusting and moving forward instead of waiting for the next pre-packaged solution or wave of professional development.
(Our) Based Learning
By Mark Nichols
When I introduce Challenge Based Learning (CBL), inevitably, one of the first questions will be – how does this differ from project, problem, and a bevy of other x-based learning approaches? Historically I avoided directly addressing these comparisons because starting with “us vs. them” is not a productive way to begin a positive relationship or learning experience. First, I believe that inquiry, problem, experiential, service, project and challenge based approaches share similar core concepts as they stem from the rich history of progressive approaches to learning. Second, I feel that the real issue is developing a framework and structure appropriate for each context and that this needs to be locally owned. Third, I see the CBL framework as a way to help all stakeholders (students, parents, communities, staff, administrators, and teachers) thoroughly explore their unique situations. This deep exploration allows them to address the challenge of discovering, creating and continually evolving a teaching/learning framework that meets the needs of their specific context. One size rarely fits all, and this is as true at the institutional level as at the individual learner level. The Challenge Framework within CBL provides a collaborative process to identify and understand your dots, connect the important ones, find or create effective new ones, and say no to ones that are not helpful.
I have worked in communities that consistently found themselves in the trailing tail of the bell curve of achievement. And during this time, I experienced many pre-packaged, research-based packages presented as solutions to improve test scores, reading ability, attendance, etc. Yet, most solutions failed to live up to the sales pitch. In retrospect, the standard issue is the providers miscalculated (or did not even take time to acknowledge) the variables in the equation. They assumed because these approaches worked in other places and were research-based, they worked in all environments. And that after a complete package of professional development and a full rollout of materials, they would work in the unique urban, rural and reservation districts and schools where I worked. Through these experiences came a painful (and expensive) realization that communities, districts, schools, and classrooms are unique. The most counter-productive thing we can do is dogmatically apply pre-conceived, pre-packaged solutions. Even the best-researched and packaged solution dogmatically applied often fail because we first need to deeply understand the stakeholders, build ownership, and understand the nuances of each context. The resources are not, by definition, wrong. They may be inappropriate or ill-timed for the community where they are applied.
If we want to improve learning, we must focus on ownership (and actully focus on learning rather than teaching, but that is another topic). The process of deciding how to learn needs to be owned by the local stakeholders (from students to community members). Instead of having things done “to them,” we need to do things “with them” and eventually owned by them once the outsiders are gone. Adopting and implementing pre-packaged solutions, especially ones that require lock-step implementation, does not create ownership. At worst, it causes resistance and apathy. It results in “what is it this time?” “here comes one more thing,” and “Just wait, this too shall pass.” At best, even if it does get some traction, the money will run out, the next great thing will arrive, or the leadership will change, and these reforms will fade away. Instead of accepting other people’s solutions, we need to take the time to clearly understand the challenges facing the communities and schools where we work. In this equation, the community is equally as important as the schools. For many years we have thought if we “fix” schools, we “fix” the community; this is a naive and misguided approach when dealing with complex situations. The solution needs to begin by looking at the entire equation, including all the stakeholders, and include time to build relationships, ask questions, review the history, see the big picture and create a shared understanding and vocabulary. After identifying the challenges, we complete a thorough investigation. Only after this in-depth inquiry do we consider solutions. This process results in shared understanding, deeper ownership and better solutions. More than likely, the solutions that evolve from the investigation will not be “one size fits all” but a mashing up of ideas and resources (or a creation of innovative solutions) that reflect the stakeholder’s unique needs and goals. When solutions come in from the outside, without a shared vocabulary and understanding of the “why,” it is unlikely they will be effective or lasting. A sense of ownership builds when solutions evolve from an in-depth contextual investigation. And when the stakeholders create the solutions, there is a much higher chance for sustainability.
So, where does Challenge Based Learning fit? The framework that drives the approach is a free and open process designed to build ownership and increase learning while identifying and solving authentic and contextual challenges. As a framework, it is not a dogmatic model and works with other appropriate approaches and frameworks, leading to a customized plan. For individuals and institutions, the goal is to find the (insert name here) Based Learning that will define goals, build ownership and create the best possible contextual learning environment. There is no rush to implementation or indoctrination, but rather a focus on the process to ensure everyone understands the landscape and gains a sense of empathy for all stakeholders. It is rooted in an inclusive multi-view exploratory questioning approach that works to bubble up questions – including the uncomfortable ones and the outliers. If we do not address these questions early in the process, they will return later to bite everyone through misunderstandings, finger-pointing, and blame. When we start with the hard work of fully understanding the context, stakeholders, goals, and language, the result will be a “we are all in this together” and a “we can figure it out” community that sees all challenges as learning opportunities. The extra benefit is that as things change, which they always do, the stakeholders have a framework for adjusting and moving forward instead of waiting for the next pre-packaged solution or wave of professional development.
The key is to make sure that buy-in and ownership starts from the beginning, includes all of the stakeholders and there is a strong culture of doing things together. This begins with an in-depth internal look and not an immediate jump to solutions. Do we need personalized, project, problem, maker, STEM, STEAM, technology, challenge, college ready learning? Maybe yes, maybe no, perhaps sometimes, perhaps a little bit of all these . . . The only way we can find out is to take time to understand our goals, our learners, our community. Stop allowing outside companies, research and consultants tell you what you need. These outside entities can be valuable assets but only as guiding resources not the all-knowing providers of solutions, even if they can show you the research. History has shown that the jump to the solution, as shiny as it might be, will not solve everything and in a lot of cases lead to new problems. Just because someone else (companies, consultants, research organizations, etc.) believe that they have discovered “the Solution” the pressure to immediately buy-in needs to be avoided. Be skeptical, be diligent, be selfish, be critical – take the time to stop, ask questions and understand what makes your situation and needs unique and then begin to look for solutions. A good process results in a better product that is recognized and owned by the stakeholders.
So what is different about CBL? CBL consists of a robust, flexible framework that creates a diverse and inclusive learning process, builds empathy and understanding and ultimately results in better and lasting solutions that the local stakeholders own. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, try it and see if it works for you and your context.