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Project and Challenge Based Learning: Making Students Think Like the 21st Century

Posted by Michael Hosford
Michael Hosford
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on Friday, June 15, 2012 in K-12 General Interest


Are you always looking for new ways to create meaningful experiences for your students?  Are you constantly trying to come up with lessons that involve students collaborating and thinking critically?

These two styles of teaching, Project Based Learning (PBL) and Challenge Based Learning (CBL),  are great for bringing your classroom into the 21st Century.  Not only do these require students to work together they also require students to solve problems, communicate and learn about the same topics that you’ve been lecturing about for years.  By the end of this blog article you’ll have the background and resources you need to go out and plan your own PBL or CBL lessons.


Project Based Learning doesn’t seem like something new, but in some ways it is.  The idea of giving students a project to work on is something that teachers have been doing for years.  However, in this style of teaching the project that is assigned is the method of teaching.  Rather than the project as a culmination for the unit the project is used as the unit.  According to the Buck Institute for Education “As Expeditionary Learning Director of Instruction Ron Berger puts it, in this kind of instruction the teacher covers the main course of study in the usual way, and then a short “project” is served up for dessert. But in 21st Century Project Based Learning it is the project that is the main course.”

Experts say teachers should plan a PBL unit by coming up with a project idea and a driving question for the unit.  Sample PBL lesson planning papers can be found here.  The project should include some type of critical thinking, collaboration and different types of communication.  It’s important that you come up with clear processes for students to revise and reflect on their work.

Another major feature of PBL is that the projects should be published or presented some how in a public way.  This could be an assembly or formal presentation, posted online, or maybe the presentation plays on the school district’s cable access channel.  Whatever the presentation method it is important to have a public audience.  Experts also suggest allowing for a variety of presentation styles for your students.  There is nothing worse than sitting through 30 projects on the same topic presented in the same manner.

Use these resources for more information on PBL:

PBL Do It Yourself

PBL Rubric

PBL Lesson Plan Ideas



Challenge Based Learning is in many ways a much newer teaching model.  In a lot of aspects it is similar to Project Based Learning, but it goes to an even higher level.  This teaching model truly does prepare students for the 21st Century workplace because it forces them to collaborate and think critically about real world issues.

As a teacher the idea is to take standards based content, connect it to something that is happening  in the real world today and then translate that into an experience for students to make a difference in their community.  So the big idea is to challenge students to learn while impacting their community.  Again, this type of teaching model does not require the teacher to lecture on topics, but rather facilitate the students as they work through the challenge.

Teachers begin by helping students come up with an essential question about a topic.  Students work together to gather information and research related to the essential question.  Working together they work towards a meaningful way to answer the question and impact their community.  Again, just like PBL this should not yield 30 presentations on the same topic, but rather multiple solutions to the same problem.  Students are learning about the topic through real world applications, rather than through a textbook or worksheet. This classroom guide does a good job of explaining all of the aspects of CBL.

Watch this video for the basic idea behind CBL.

Some other resources on CBL:

Apple’s CBL Guide

The New Media Consortium CBL Guide


Check out some of the many resources out their available on PBL and CBL and plan some lessons for next year that will get your students engaged and collaborating!



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