Even the best researched and packaged solution dogmatically applied will result in failure because it does not take into account the people involved and understand the nuances of each context.
Do you 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.
(Your Organization) Based Learning
By Mark Nichols
When I introduce Challenge Based Learning (CBL) to a new audience one of the first questions will inevitably be – how does this differ from project, problem, and a bevy of other x-based learning approaches? Historically I have stayed away from directly addressing these comparisons as I thought setting up an “us vs. them” approach is not a productive way to begin a relationship or learning experience. I believe that inquiry, problem, experiential, service, project and challenge based approaches share positive core concepts and that all of them these approaches live comfortably under a rich historical umbrella of progressive approaches to learning. Second, I feel that the real issue is developing a framework and structure appropriate for each context and 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 to meet the challenge of discovering, creating, and evolving a teaching/learning framework that meets the needs of their specific context. One size rarely fits all – this is the same for the institutional level, as it is at the classroom. CBL can help decide why you have some dots, connect the ones you need, find or create effective new ones, and say no to ones that will not be helpful.
Having worked in a variety of unique communities that historically lived in the trailing tail of the bell curve of achievement, I have experienced a multitude of pre-packaged, research-based solutions that as advertised will result in improved test scores, reading abilities, attendance, etc., etc., etc. Yet, for the most part, they did not live up to the sales pitch, and the reason is they miscalculated (or did not even take time to acknowledge) all of the variables in the equation. They assumed because these approaches worked in other areas that after a full package of professional development and a full rollout of materials they would work in my districts and schools. Through these experiences came the clear realization that every community, district, school, and classroom are unique and probably the least productive thing we can do is to apply pre-conceived, pre-packaged solutions dogmatically. Even the best researched and packaged solution dogmatically applied will result in failure because it does not take into account the people involved and understand the nuances of each context. This does not mean that these resources are by definition negative; it means that they may be inappropriate or ill-timed for the community they are being applied to.
If we want schools to improve, then we need to start talking about ownership. The process needs to be owned by all of the local stakeholders (from students to community members). Instead of having things done “to them” we need to move to doing things “with them” and eventually owned by them. Adopting and implementing pre-packaged solutions, especially ones that require lock-step implementation does not create ownership. At the worst it causes resistance and apathy – “what is it this time?” and “Just wait, this too shall pass.” At best, even if it does get some traction the money will run out, or the leadership will change, and these reforms will fade away or be replaced. Instead of pushing other people’s solutions we need to take the time to accurately identify and investigate the challenges facing the communities and schools. In this equation, the community must be seen as equally as important as the schools. How many years we have thought if we “fix” the 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, include all the stakeholders, and include time to ask questions, review the history, see the big picture and create a shared understanding and vocabulary. Once the challenges have been identified that should be thoroughly investigated. Only after this in-depth inquiry can solutions be considered. This process will result in a shared vocabulary and ownership over the process. More than likely the solutions that evolve from the investigation will not be “one size fits all,” but a mashing up of available solutions (or a creation of innovative solutions) that reflect the stakeholder’s unique needs and goals. When solutions come in from the outside, without the time to ask the question “why are we doing this?” there is a pretty good chance they are not going to last very long. When solutions are based on an in-depth investigation, and the answers are created by the stakeholders, there is a higher chance of ownership and sustainability.
So, where does Challenge Based Learning fit into this model? It is meant to be a free and open framework for developing ownership while identifying and solving authentic and contextual challenges. Although a framework, it is not a dogmatic model and is designed to work with other appropriate approaches leading to a customized plan. The goal is to find the (insert your organization’s name here) based learning that will define goals, build ownership and create the best possible learning environment for your stakeholders. There is no rush to implementation or indoctrination, but rather a focus on the process to make sure everyone understands the landscape and gains a sense of empathy for all of the stakeholders. It is rooted in an inclusive multi-view perspective questioning approach that works to bubble up all of the 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 in the form of ugly surprises, finger pointing, and blame. If we start with the hard work of fully understanding the context, stakeholders, goals, and language up front, 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 of course they always will, 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 local stakeholders.
So what is different about CBL? CBL has proven to be a robust framework for helping to build a diverse and inclusive learning process, builds empathy and understanding and ultimately results in better and lasting solutions that are owned by the local stakeholders. But don’t take my word for it, try it and see if it works in your context. Work with all of your stakeholders to adapt, adjust, mash it up and develop the (insert your organization name her) based learning framework that matches the needs of your context and is owned by the stakeholder.