A key element of CBL is identifying Guiding Questions – not just the ones given to us by an authoritative source but every question we can pull from the most diverse audience we can find. By asking lots of questions, we expand our perspectives, learn how to ask good questions and how the questions we ask impact the direction of our investigation and thinking.

CBL in a Post-Truth World

Sep 27, 2023

By Mark H. Nichols

In light of the sorry state of public discourse, the 2017  Ted Talk What to Trust in a “post-truth” World by Alex Edmans’ is important listening for everyone. In this talk, he gives a concise overview of the pitfalls of making decisions or developing opinions on stories or limited amounts of data. He then provides tips for determining what to trust when forming an opinion. A primary goal of our educational institutions should be providing students with a framework for forming thoughtful, researched, and well-reasoned opinions and making informed decisions. From the current state of discourse, it does not appear that we are doing a very good job.

Challenge Based Learning (CBL) is a framework that empowers learners to engage with authentic and meaningful challenges personally, within their communities, and globally. The Investigation phase of Challenge Based Learning provides the opportunity to develop these skills. In the CBL Guide, we use the dictionary definition of Investigate as “To carry out a systematic or formal inquiry to discover and examine the facts . . . so as to establish the truth” and acknowledge that we are setting an unrealistic expectation. Truth is a tricky idea, and our use of the term is more process-focused than product-focused. In CBL, seeking truth implies looking at the challenge deeply and from multiple perspectives rather than a narrow perspective of preexisting beliefs and ideas. What separates learning from indoctrination is that we explore our world from all angles and, through this investigation, develop informed decisions. CBL provides a framework to develop learners with the skills to seek multiple perspectives, analyze different ideas, determine the quality of the evidence, synthesize and then formulate informed opinions —exactly the type of individuals needed in a “post-truth” world.

A key element of CBL is identifying Guiding Questions – not just the ones given to us by an authoritative source but every question we can pull from the most diverse audience we can find. By asking lots of questions, we expand our perspectives, learn how to ask good questions and how the questions we ask impact the direction of our investigation and thinking. For instance, why and what-if questions result in a very different investigation than how and when questions. Why and what-if questions help us to look deeper, consider other perspectives and confront our biases. Our goal during the investigation is to generate as many questions as possible and from as many different perspectives as possible to develop the broadest possible perspective.

In his book Think Better, Tim Hurson writes about how being comfortable with ambiguity opens up possibilities.

Staying in the question means being okay with the ambiguous. Being okay with ambiguity means being open to the possible.

Productive thinking requires us not to rush to answers but to hang back to keep questioning even when the answers seem obvious.

In CBL, we want the learners to be open to all possibilities and comfortable with ambiguity, as this is where deep understanding, divergent and lateral thinking, empathy, and innovation evolve. Slowing down and asking many questions also allows for full and diverse participation. Without slowing down and creating a safe place for asking lots of questions, we often lose introverts, out-of-the-box thinkers, the shy, the fringe, and the less confident. Often, the most confident, aggressive, focused and loudest individuals drive the conversation and make the decisions. These qualities do not always correlate with the best ideas.

Once we have sufficiently broad and diverse guiding questions, we categorize and prioritize them. Categorizing and prioritizing our questions forces us to think deeper about the type of questions developed and to identify gaps. Through this process, we discuss why certain ones are more important than others. We must consider why we are asking questions and how our questions relate to others’ questions. We also begin to discuss vocabulary and ensure we understand the words we are using and how others are using words. Having done this work for the last fifteen years, it is startling how there is a lack of clarity over key terms, even in the tightest organizations. This lack of clarity over vocabulary is especially true in education, where a considerable amount of jargon changes regularly. Just because we all say “personalized learning,” “authentic assessment,” or “artificial intelligence” does not mean we have the same understanding. Without creating a common vocabulary from the beginning, we assume things that will eventually cause problems when we get to implementation.

With our consolidated, categorized and prioritized questions, we now identify guiding resources and activities to answer them. Once again, instead of taking the word of one source (text, channel, person), we seek to dig deeper and discover various answers to our questions. In this step, we seek not to build a case or prove a point but to explore the questions from various perspectives. At this stage, we are explorers looking at every possibility and recording what we find. We aim to have new perspectives opened, and our preconceived notions rocked. This opens the door to possibility.

With the information from answering our guiding questions, we now have the ability to develop a synthesis. In developing our synthesis, we look for both common themes and interesting outliers. This process may result in new sets of guiding questions that need to be answered to gain the deepest level of understanding possible. The goal is to make sure that we take a 360, macro, micro and 3D view so we notice everything. This is a tall order, and the magnitude of the topic will dictate how much time and effort is put into the process. The key is that we have a process and do not allow ourselves to have unexamined opinions. At the end of the synthesis, we may find something entirely new, we may change our minds, or we may confirm what we believed all along. But no matter what, we have had to examine our thoughts and explore different perspectives. Ideally, we have created ownership over our opinions, developed empathy for those who have different opinions, and opened the door for continually examining our opinions.

In the Act stage, we develop solutions for the challenge based on our Investigation synthesis and implement them with an authentic audience and context. We test it to see what works and what does not. Through this, we determine what works and what does not, allowing us to continue learning and expanding our horizons.

To improve the current state of discourse, we need to nurture a generation of learners willing to ask meaningful questions, critically investigate, include multiple perspectives, develop thoughtful solutions, and collaboratively develop solutions. CBL provides a framework for this work.

What to Trust in a Post-Truth World

Hurson, T. (2010). Think better: An innovator’s guide to productive thinking. McGraw Hill Professional.

Nichols, M., Cator, K., and Torres, M. (2016) Challenge Based Learner User Guide. Redwood City, CA: Digital Promise.

CBL Intersections with Mind and Brain Science