Project, Problem, Challenge

There are a lot of terms used in education today. Project, Problem, and Challenge Based Learning are three that are widely used (along with Inquiry Based Learning, Play Based Learning…)

As educators, I think it is important to know what these theories are, how they are similar and how they are different. I also am beginning to move toward the school of thought that says “Pick One”. Many schools I have worked in have tried to make a mash-up of different theories in order to craft their own ‘unique’ version of learning.  While I commend this initiative, I am wondering if it is not better to spend time adopting (and supporting, educating, resourcing) one XXXX-Based Learning theory? My personal jury is still out on this.

What I do know is that each of these approaches to learning definitely has merit and each certainly has its place.  But is that place (or could that place be) in my classroom?  In order to answer this, I first needed to understand the learning theories so I distilled the copious amount of reading on this topic, down into three graphics to show the key components and they way they play out, of each theory.

Project Based Learning is definitely my ‘cup of tea’. I like that the projects are started with the end in mind but that ‘end’ is not articulated by product but by standards and understandings. The role of the teacher appears to be to craft great questions, plan an assessment for understanding, map the project out, and then get out of the way of the students, facilitating their learning.


I can see this working in my class.  It is not dissimilar to what already happens. What I would need to do is to think about how best to use my time: in the planning phase, or in the process phase? My initial thoughts say planning (and reality is probably both) but I definitely like the idea of being a resource to students (and teachers) and to help them with their embedded use of technology within their project.

Problem Based Learning also works for me.  I like that the focus is on the student, that each group of students is supported and that the problems occur early on before much research has occurred. I think solving authentic problems is something that can be lacking in schools and I like the idea of kids working together to solve a problem. I really like that the problem also exposes what kids know and don’t know so each can push through to get what they need from the time made available.


This learning theory was perhaps not grounded enough for me in terms of defining the assessment parameters. However, I can see myself throwing a problem at students such as “We need a new welcome video for potential students to our school” and guiding them through the many elements that task involves. This would certainly eliminate the boredom of everyone doing the same thing at the same time and providing an authentic problem would make the acquisition of the skills of filmmaking more important and worthwhile. I think the group emphasis would call for the use of a collaborative tool like Google Classroom or at the least, Google Drive, so that students and their tutor could be in contact easily and it would be easy to identify (and support) the gaps that become visible as the problem evolves.

Challenge Based Learning was the learning theory I knew least about. Created by Apple and targeted at a high school level, challenge based learning might be recognisable to you in the form of TV shows like Project Runway or MasterChef in which contestants are given challenges, resources, the opportunity to collaborate, tasks with multiple options for solutions and assessment based on product and process.


This is probably the most exciting learning style for me as it seems the most difficult and the most interesting. I see a lot of work in the setting up of challenges, but I also see the massive potential for growth in those undertaking the various challenges. Would this work with younger students?  I don’t know. Perhaps!  We have just finished the PYP exhibition and this is what the exhibition looks like to me so perhaps, yes, it is possible with younger students. Creating playlists of materials to support learning and then equipping students with the skills ‘just in time’ to showcase their learning – this is the type of dynamic and free-flowing environment I would most like to see myself working in.


There’s No One App For That

Back in February I presented at the ECIS Technology Conference in Munich. My session was about how technology will NOT transform education. I thought I was pretty edgy to pick such a topic to share with a room full of ‘techies’ but was happy to see that many people were in agreement with me. My big idea?

Technology alone is not going to transform teaching.

Connected teachers who want to make school different by allowing students agency and freedom over their learning and are not afraid of using technology to flatten classroom walls and move their role to guiding student inquiries.  That is what is going to transform education. And that is what I think good technology integration looks like.

If you were to ask me what my top uses of technology in the classroom were, I would tell you:

  1. Observation. Exposure to events, images, information that would otherwise be out of reach for students. Abseiling into a volcano with a camera on your head, touring the Louvre, exploring London from the tops of buildings, seeing a murmuration – these are things technology allows our students access to.
  2. Collaboration. Inviting expert lecturers into my classroom.  From my favorite, Sal Khan, to a host of experts in their own field via YouTube, the internet and technology allows students to learn from so many different people. Why should I (with zero rythym or essence of cool) try and teach hiphop dance when YouTube can do an infinitly better job?
  3. Documentation of student learning. The ability for students to be able to explain their thinking via apps like Book Creator, Explain Everything or DoodleCastPro is invaluable for me as a teacher to ensure I can hear what each student has to say. In the same way, I find asking students to reflect on their learning by turning on the camera and making a video yields infinitely more information than asking them to write (especially when they are 6 years old). Book Creator is a great way of collating digital resources in one place to be able to observe development over time.
  4. Creation by students. As teachers, if we ensure that our focus is on conceptual standards, HOW students demonstrate their understanding of those concepts should be up to them. Technology opens the door for students to become creators of videos, animations, stop-motion, puppet shows, podcasts, iBooks….the options are virtually endless.


In my role as Learning Technology teacher, I see it as my responsibility to provide options for teachers that push them beyond asking, “Is there an app for xxxx?”.  I try and do that by helping to curate playlists of experiences, videos, and  instructional material based on the conceptual understandings of the unit. But I also try and listen to what the teachers are trying to learn from and about their students and then equip them with the tools to help make the learning visible.

What I have found is that we are most successful in elevating learning through technology when the learning itself is open-ended, grounded in conceptual understandings, and allowing for authentic inquiry from students. If we as teachers, spend our time planning in a way that really allows students to be true inquirers, the use of technology to achieve the outcomes desired by both the students and teachers, is almost intuitive. What it also requires is a re-thinking of the role of the teacher and the desire for the teacher to push learning further, higher, and deeper than before.

In terms of the SAMR model, I don’t think this means we discourage ‘teaching below the line’ or exclusively teach ‘above the line’.  I think it means we look for ways during the planning process to teach in a way that expects technology integration as an integral part of teaching and learning.

In my presentation, I talked about pencils and lightbulbs because I had read the following from The Tech Rabbi:


Revolutionary inventions are not about the invention itself, but whats the invention gives use the ability to do. A truly revolutionary invention should in time become invisible. No longer is it viewed as something special, yet its effects are far reaching.

We don’t plan a unit around the fact that we have pencils.  Pencils are just one tool that the students can use to demonstrate or document their learning. We don’t need to “all hail the iPad”. We need to think about the iPad (or other device) in the same way we think about the lightbulb:

The lightbulb changed the way the world functioned. The world was no longer bound to productivity during daylight, or the length of time it takes your oil lamp to burn up. It was about what you would be able to do because now there was a constant and stable source of light.

What can we do now that we have devices in our classrooms? The Tech Rabbi believes in invisible technology.  And I do too. To me, tech integration means transforming teaching and learning beyond what was previously possible in a way that empowers students and allows them to express themselves and direct their own learning. And there’s definitely no one app for that.