CBL in the Elementary Classroom

Getting Students to Care

"CBL facilitates connections — deeper relationships that evolve between classmates and myself as co-collaborator on the learning journey. It is these connections that help kids see that they matter, that help them care."

"How do I get my students to be engaged and care about learning?" This question confounds educators in schools around the world each and every day. Challenge Based Learning (CBL) offers a solution to this puzzle for students of all ages. Although the original focus of CBL was working with junior and high school age students, with the proper scaffolding Challenge Based Learning can be effectively used in elementary classrooms.

As a former 5th grade teacher, I can attest to spirit of curiosity and questioning, the quest for innovation, and desire to change the status quo which is evident in students this age. Unfortunately, when these skills are neglected they diminish at an alarming rate as students progress through their schooling. CBL offers a way to encourage and cultivate these critical learning attributes in our elementary and middle school students.

My initial CBL experience started with the Digital Divas: an after-school group of preteen girls interested in technology. CBL made our work together more meaningful by providing an authentic purpose and context to our technology use. With the Digital Divas, CBL was the catalyst for transforming the group from a fun, creative pastime to deeper learning experiences that benefit our entire community. The Divas have used the CBL framework for a number of challenges including Recycling, Tolerance, Exercise, Healthy Eating and Sustainability. Just ask the young ladies and you will quickly witness that it isn't enough just to "play" with technology... it is all about how to use it to make a difference in our world. This is the driving factor for the ongoing work of the Digital Divas and CBL provides the perfect amount of support and structure to help us reach that goal.

Next, my husband and I joined forces on a CBL project in his Elementary Physical Education classes. Working with 5th and 6th grade students we used CBL to change the health habits in our families and community. During the first challenge, students changed a habit in their families to become healthier and documented the effects. In a second round of CBL, they took the responsibility for health and fitness beyond their family and created solutions for improving the health and fitness of the greater community. Watching the joy of young students go through the process of discovering learning was the most rewarding part. In numerous instances, students continued implementing their solutions long after the project's culmination at school... proving what they learned through CBL mattered to them.

To put CBL to the true test, I applied it to the regular elementary classroom. Working with a 4th grade reading teacher, students identified problems in their community and formed teams to create solutions for them. A diminished love for reading, a lack of technology integration, and the transcontinental pipeline were three issues around which student teams created solutions. Students' reading comprehension skills evolved as articles from the newspaper and the Internet were gathered as Guiding Resources. Survey creation, interviewing, and even Internet searching skills all were developed throughout the course of the challenge. As the student teams created their solution presentations and accompanying video reflections, they all firmly believed that their solutions truly would impact our community. This new way of thinking about learning coupled with the skill of asking good questions has carried over into other subject areas and classrooms as well.

In all of the above cases technology was a critical component, not an after-thought or an add-on. An iPod touch serves as a recording device when students do interviews of community members. Photo Booth serves as a reflection and project management tool so that my time as teacher can be better used to work with student teams. Students use iPads to create media on the go and fully capitalize on otherwise wasted time to be used for learning.

How can I teach content and do CBL? As Frances Snyder, Educator of the Gifted at Oneco Elementary School has said, "Since Common Core K-5 is chalk-full of standards that focus on strategies rather than specific content, incorporating them into a CBL challenge becomes quite natural." CBL offers a mode for students to be active participants in the process of matching up Guiding Questions, Activities, and Resources to the standards. Thus, in the process, they are better able to articulate what they are learning and why. Another way to approach it is to use the standard as the challenge to the students. "Demonstrate mastery of this skill in something that matters more than just a letter grade."

Students of all ages possess a strong desire for their learning to matter. If there is relevance and purpose to what they are doing, they are more willing to master the math or labor over the language skills required for an effective solution implementation.

Some key success factors that I have found for implementing Challenge Based Learning with elementary and middle school students include:

  • Utilize a collaborative workspace with a minimal learning curve. For me and my students, Edmodo has provided a great platform on which to collaborate on CBL projects.
  • Spend extra time initially on questioning skills and strategies, brainstorming, and organizing ideas. Utilize both high tech (graphic organizing software and apps) and low-tech tools(Post-it notes and chart packs).
  • Increase the structure when planning for elementary classes — frequent checkpoints, required guiding activities for all students, and daily journaling(blogs or photo journals work well).
  • Create peer-to-peer networks for teaching tech(in-house student experts or a "train-the-trainer" model so that all your time isn't consumed in tech support).
  • Demonstrate the global stage — Don't just assume that students know people are watching — plan the audience — show hit counters and visitor maps; use a partner class down the hall or across the country to review and provide feedback for content created through CBL.
  • Increase the importance of the planning stages of media creation- storyboards, script writing, shot-lists, etc.
  • Don't underestimate the power of human experts as guiding resources. Students are so quick to Google and often stop there. Some of the best sources of information can be found in parents and community members. 
  • Survey creation, data collection, and interview skills need to be taught, not just implied. Learning these key skills can take place in an authentic context when used in students' CBL projects. 
  • Finally, don't go at it alone. CBL offers so many opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. Partner up with other teachers or request help from adult mentors with your student CBL teams. Join the CBL online community to connect and share resources with educators from around the world.

The ultimate byproducts of CBL in the Elementary and Middle School classrooms are the relationships that are nurtured and culture of creativity and innovation that is developed in classrooms that utilize CBL. Students begin to see that taking risks is essential for innovation. They learn the value of taking an active role in the process of learning, not a passive one. They witness how asking good questions can get lead to deeper understanding. School becomes more of a community of learners — with real purpose and relevance — and this carries over into other classrooms and situations both in and out of school.

Most importantly for me as an Elementary/Middle School teacher, CBL provides connections. First, kids can connect to the content — "Why do I need to know this?" Second, they are able to better connect with their community — breaking down the walls that exist between the classroom and the real world. And finally CBL facilitates connections to each other — deeper relationships that evolve between classmates and myself as co-collaborator on the learning journey. It is these connections that help kids see that they matter, that help them care. And it is in this, far more than any textbook or assessment we may deploy, that we can truly transform education.