Challenge Accepted

Investigating Challenge Based Learning through the lens of the IB PYP.

Teaching in the
Primary Years Program for an IB school has allowed me to experience first hand the values of inquiry and collaborative projects. Although since my teacher training I admit that the nuances of project-based learning (PL) and problem based learning (PBL) had begun to blur together in my mind, reviewing them reminded me that they formed the foundation of many lessons in my repertoire and those of my fellow teachers.  Jon Banules shared some great examples of his experience as a teacher at our school. Although our adventures in COETAIL might label them “past innovative learning strategies”, this unit was my first introduction into challenge based learning, or CBL. Being someone who thrives on something new, I endeavored to develop my understanding of how this might also fit in our program of inquiry, and as a tool for a technology or literacy coach. If you’d like a primer, here’s where I started learning  about CBL, and in true CBL style, you might rather use your own informal learning skills to check it out (wink, wink; I’m told sarcasm doesn’t fly on the internet).

CBL in the PYP

Just as PL and PBL, CBLs philosophy fits right into an inquiry based curriculum model like that of the IB PYP.

Bear with me here, I didn’t mean to charge into this post throwing acronyms around. Check out some of these principles that create the framework of the PYP Curriculum:

Essential elements: Five fundamental elements are designed to underpin student academic, social and emotional needs to support responsible independent learning of how to understand and function in the world. Knowledge, Concepts, Skills, Attitudes and Action represent the avenues students might use to approach learning when exploring new questions.

Pedagogical approach: Support student endeavors by providing provocation with new experiences, guiding students to draw upon their prior knowledge, and creating opportunities for reflection. Collaboration is key to this experience.

Action and Assessment: Essential to provide information about student learning, teachers gather evidence of formative and summative tasks to document understanding within the essential elements, meaning that assessment is determined by the learning journey and not only a final product. The development of positive attitudes and ability to take responsible action are as important as concept, knowledge and skill mastery.

(via The IBO online curriculum overview and their publication Making the PYP Happen)

Now let’s contrast that with the framework for CBL (CBL Classroom Guide, Apple Inc., pg. 4):


The “Big Idea” and “Essential Question” represent inquiry in its first stages. Any of the essential elements (and likely more than one) can find a home here, and the pedagogical approach of the PYP considers this step indispensable. Both models suggest similar strategies in examining world events and circumstances for concepts that involve multidisciplinary knowledge appropriate to the learners.

The CBL Classroom Guide states that “The Challenge turns the essential question into a call to action”, which is both an essential element of the PYP and part of student assessment. Guiding, through questions, activities and the provision of resources is the primary strategy of the PYP pedagogical approach. Just enough structure to allow students to reflect upon and learn from their mistakes (and maintain your teacher sanity).

Solution and implementation draw upon the skills, attitudes and action elements to create a product or process that addresses that challenge. This is where CBL most parallels PBL and likely cannot exist without multidisciplinary knowledge to bring the other elements together. Projects like these might exist at any point throughout the PYP, but it is most represented by The PYP Exhibition, an extended collaborative project in the final year where students inquire into real-life issues and share these with the community through an action project.

Evaluation and Assessment in the PYP look at the continuous journey of learning, something that works well within a challenge or project, and CBL is quite specific in putting much of this in the hands of the students and planning for it in the beginning. This is a focus that I think works well within the PYP but is less explicitly stated, something that some teachers are uncertain how to employ effectively or fear may not produce reportable summative results. Putting student self-assessment in the forefront of planning “The Challenge” seems an crucial step towards CBL summative assessment success in the PYP. As for formative, that integrates well with Publishing student reflections, a step that takes the archetypical student Inquiry Journal and shares it with others. The Publishing steps exist at the end of the CBL framework, but align best with the PYP when used throughout the learning process. The key element for CBL here is making it public. Responsible action with evidence and audience, sounds like a perfect fit for the PYP, which might need to leverage some technology to make all of these things come together.

CBL in the Technology Coach Toolkit

Technology in the PYP is intended to provide opportunities to transform learning. An integration model is best suited, where students are enabled to investigate, create communicate, collaborate, organize and be responsible for their own learning and actions while pursuing inquiry rather than focused on a specific skill or tool. Both the CBL Classroom Guide and The Role of ICT in the PYP advocate for leveraging technology to support student learning in a real-world context. Publishing, rather than private journals or turned-in assignments, is a poignant example of how they relate. As a technology coach and integrator, CBL seems the perfect model for engaging and relevant knowledge and skill development as long as the students are empowered to choose the technology most appropriate for their challenge. That also presents a challenge as a coach, as such a breadth of skill and tool possibilities within a class is difficult to plan and prepare for. Situations such as these (the PYP Exhibition is a great example) can be flipped to learn with students and model informal and self-directed learning skills. These opportunities are important and represent what I expect is CBLs greatest asset to technology integration and learning in general.

Using CBL as a coach isn’t straightforward. It demands collaboration with teachers across disciplines within the challenge or unit, and pre-planning toward potential outcomes and student self-assessment steps may be essential to success. Yet I believe the same applies to the PYP, and just like PL and PBL, Challenge Based Learning is right at home in both its toolkit and mine.

What are your thoughts on CBL in the PYP? Does it seem as appropriate for your discipline, and how could a tech coach better serve you and the needs of your students during a project or challenge?

I’d love to hear in the comments below.


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