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.

2 thoughts on “Project, Problem, Challenge”

  1. Sonya,

    Sorry for the superficial comment but I had to say I love what you are doing with The Noun Project here. Your visuals are artful and thought provoking. I am such a huge fan!

    1. I am all about the superficial 🙂 Actually, I don’t think of graphics as superficial. I love them. I wish more people would use them. I love seeing kids respond to them. And I think it makes you really think about what the crux of the thing is that you are trying to say. Now I just need to work on creating my own!

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