What’s the Difference Between Project- and Challenge-Based Learning,...

Project-Based Learning

What’s the Difference Between Project- and Challenge-Based Learning, Anyway?

By Stephen Noonoo     Dec 27, 2017

What’s the Difference Between Project- and Challenge-Based Learning, Anyway?

Here’s a quick exercise for those in education: What do the letters CBL stand for?

For many, competency-based learning might have been the first thing to pop in their heads. But others might have considered challenge-based, community-based or even case-based learning.

The fact that three letters can mean so many different things raises an obvious question: Have we reached peak “based” learning?

“There are so many acronyms that are pretty closely related,” explains Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise and a former director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. (Cator’s organization has tried to brand CBL as challenge-based learning.)

Leaving competency-based learning aside—which focuses on ensuring students achieve mastery over a particular skill or standard before moving on—many of these strategies, like problem-, project- and inquiry-based learning, center on so-called “active learning,” where students, not their teachers, drive much of what they do in class, through individual or group projects centered on research, problem solving and collaboration with peers and outside experts.

Each “base,” however, has its own take in how best to engage students. Inquiry-based learning, for example, teaches students how to ask better questions, and then go about figuring out the answers. Community-based learning encourages students to find and solve local issues. And the related place-based learning sees students explore the history and culture of their own region.

The concepts inherent to active learning are not new. Researching the topic for a book, author John Larmer, the editor in chief at the Buck Institute for Education, a project-based learning group, traced them back as far as architecture schools during the Italian renaissance. More recently, he says modern understanding of the terms owe much to the work of education reformer John Dewey in the 1920s, followed by a handful of innovative schools in the 1960s. During that decade, McMaster University pioneered the problem-based learning approach with its medical students.

“We think they’re two sides of the same coin,” Larmer says of project- and problem-based learning. “It’s just, do you design the project around solving a problem or is the project something else, like investigating a controversial issue or producing a book of student poetry?”

Taking Action

All the different flairs of “-based” learning may have a long history in education. But only recently have they entered the mainstream dialogue, thanks to ready access to technology for research and data collection, along with the introduction of new state and national standards, such as Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards, which put greater emphasis on problem solving over fact memorization.

Even still, “a lot of schools still think they can’t do project-based learning because they don’t have time,” Larmer says. “Many schools are still wedded to the test scores, drill and kill.”

The problem might boil down to a misunderstanding of what active learning actually is, and how it can encompass an entire curriculum, even when teachers rarely deliver traditional lectures. Larmer chalks some of it up to the “negative stereotypes” he says project-based learning has acquired among parents and older educators, who recall disastrously-managed group projects and build-at-home dioramas.

Case in point: models of the Spanish missions created by generations of California students (or, at least their parents).

“We say that is not project-based learning—that’s what we call a dessert project or a side dish because the main content is still taught traditionally,” Larmer says of diorama-like assignments. “In a real PBL environment, you’d introduce the unit and then ask: Where would the 22nd mission go if you were the Spanish in 1820? It’s a real-world situation kids are placed in and they would learn about the Spanish and Native Americans through their research.”

Project-based learning leaves teachers with a lot of latitude for designing both hypothetical and real-world activities, which is where it diverges somewhat from its counterparts. According to Cator, challenge-based learning got its start in the early 2000s during her tenure at Apple, when the education team was looking to design something that helped students tackle real-world problems with meaningful use of technology. These projects—or challenges if you like—aren’t idle class time exercises, or speculative or historical, but rather a way for students to find and solve a real issue and take action.

“Many times students will solve a problem in a classroom, and the final project will be to just talk about their solution,” Cator says. “We wondered: What if students actually can implement or prototype their solution to the problem?”

Cator cites Carroll Magnet Middle School in North Carolina as a school that has embraced the challenge-based ethos. There, students have successfully turned their campus into an eco-school complete with a butterfly garden, promoted composting to reduce waste and tackled gender equality and awareness through drama. Along the way, projects shifted focus, goals evolved and students reassessed their objectives on an ongoing basis.

“Schools are trying to really engage students, and there’s a lot of research on the importance of engagement and motivation for learning,” Cator says. “How do you engage students? You present them with a real challenge they care about.”

As for getting started: Larmer acknowledges that any change to active learning will be a major change for everyone involved. “Teachers need to know it’s a shift. They might have to give up some control,” he says. “There’s a stereotype where you turn students loose and come back in two weeks and make a presentation. We think the teacher has an active role in facilitating learning.”

Both Digital Promise and the Buck Institute offer frameworks, tips and professional development opportunities for schools to get started. Larmer suggests schools find a fit that works for them and then take another step, such as starting a book discussion between administrators and teachers, attending a workshop or taking a team to visit a local school to see the concepts in action.

“I think schools are more capable because they have access to the tech tools that help them solve these challenges,” Cator says. “Those technologies make challenge-based learning more possible; students can just do this work, they don’t have to sit and wait for a teacher to tell them the information—they can look it up, find experts who know something, or watch YouTube videos describing how to build something. Those are the resources we can leverage more and more for learning.”

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