Are we there yet? Challenge Based Learning as the next step on the journey for 1:1 schools

So you’ve implemented a one to one device program in your school and worked with your staff over time to build their capacity. Your staff are utilsing applications in workflows that are integrated across the curriculum. The use of technology in the classroom has shifted from no use, to substitution, to augmentation, to modification and at times redefinition.

What’s next? 

How do you continue to innovate beyond this point and continue growing in your technology initiative?

Earlier this year the OECD’s Future of Education and Skills Project released a progress report on their work. This project aims to help member countries identify what knowledge, skills, attitudes and values are needed by todays students, if they are to thrive in 2030 and beyond. The report challenges schools to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, for technologies that have not yet been invented and to solve problems that have not yet been anticipated. 

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As part of this report they have released a draft list of constructs to be incorporated into future curricula. Some examples of these constructs include critical thinking, empathy, curiosity, justice, mindfulness, proactiveness and trust. A full list of the constructs can be found in appendix two of the report. If these constructs are what our students need to be successful in 2030 and beyond, how do we make this part of our classrooms today?

Challenge Based Learning (CBL) provides a powerful tool to develop the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values encapsulated in the 2030 draft constructs. The CBL framework, and it’s underlying foundations, provide learners with opportunities to work on authentic challenges with real world audiences. Learners begin with the ENGAGE phase, identifying a big idea, and then use essential questioning to develop a concrete and actionable challenge. They then take the time to INVESTIGATE, asking guiding questions, participating in learning activities, exploring resources and analysing information. Finally, they are in a position to ACT, designing, developing, testing and refining a solution with real world application, seeking feedback as they go. During this process everyone is a learner, not just the students but the teacher too, as learners are challenged to exercise agency in their learning.

Case Study: Wandina Primary School

I recently had the opportunity to co-facilitate a day of professional learning at Wandina Primary School along with Sarah Hill from Lumos Learning. Wandina Primary School, located in Geraldton, Western Australia, has a 1:1 iPad program and were recently invited to apply to become an Apple Distinguished School. Far from resting on their laurels, the school was looking to see how they could further develop their technology initiative through the use of Challenge Based Learning.

In this workshop we began with the why, looking at the 2030 draft constructs and connecting them back to current needs in each classroom. We then gave the participants a taster of being part of a challenge. They were given a morning tea challenge, where they were asked to utilise two mystery ingredients, along with a small pantry of other supplies, to create a plate of morning tea for the staff. They had a number of constraints, including not using any heat, and had only fifteen minutes to complete their recipe. Along the way they had to use their technology to research recipes, film the creation of their snack and create a recipe card. This challenge had real world accountability as no other morning tea was provided at the school, what they created was what we would eat!


The staff rose to the occasion, collaborating to meet the deadline and creating a tasty morning tea.


While this was not a true CBL challenge, it gave them a sense of the agency needed by the participants to be successful, and an idea of issues that might crop up along the way if they implemented a challenge like this with students. We then unpacked their experience, reflecting what they had done against the twelve foundations of CBL:

  • Everyone is a learner
  • Moving beyond the four walls of the classroom
  • Learner inspired, learner directed
  • Challenges
  • Content and 21st Century skills
  • Boundaries of adventure
  • Space and freedom to fail
  • Slowing for critical and creative thinking
  • Authentic and powerful use of technology
  • Focus on process and product
  • Documentation
  • Reflection

As a group we then explored an overview of CBL and the different types of challenges we could undertake, depending on the age and experience of the students. We then began working on how we might implement a whole school big idea: Listening. We explored the WA curriculum for connections to listening, so the challenge became part of their program rather than a bolted-on extra. 

We worked in K-2 and 3-6 clusters to go deeper on how this big idea might play out in classrooms and identified potential activities for the investigate phase. We took the time to share our thinking for each year level across the school so all staff could see how a challenge might look in different phases of learning. Teachers had time to begin developing resources to begin their program before we all came together at the end of the day for a final challenge. 

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Our final challenge involved using Breakout EDU kits where boxes are sealed with multiple locks. Participants had to draw on their knowledge of the content we had completed over the day to solve the challenges to open the locks. This competitive challenge brought out new team dynamics and was a powerful way to reflect on the conditions for success needed in a challenge focused environment.


The staff left the day ready to implement their new challenge, and with an understanding of the knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions their students needed to develop to be successful in this space. 

Wandina Primary School recognises that one-off professional learning events are rarely successful in creating long term change and this particular event was part of an ongoing sequence. Staff had already been introduced to the broad concept of CBL prior to this event and their leadership team had led a staff challenge. Sarah and I will be returning in Term 3 to provide coaching support as staff continue to embed CBL in their work.

The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians is now in its final year of implementation, and we can anticipate a new declaration in the near future which will shape our future curriculum in Australia. The recently released Gonski 2.0 report ‘Through Growth to Achievement’ prioritises equipping every child to be a creative, connected and engaged learner in a rapidly changing world. It recommends a greater emphasis on teaching the general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, which include critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability and information and communication technologies capability. 

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When you combine this with the direction of the OECD 2030 report (noting that key ACARA executives are part of that working group) you begin to get a sense of where our future curriculum expectations may be heading. The CBL framework and foundations are a powerful tool to support schools in implementing these curriculum expectations.

Through their ongoing journey of implementing CBL, Wandina Primary School will be well placed to respond to curriculum changes and prepare their students to thrive in 2030 and beyond.

You can find out more about challenge based learning on the digital promise website or through this multitouch book in iBooks.


What Professional Learning Do We Need?

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As a leader, you know the importance of professional learning to the success of any initiative. You recognise the value of having professional learning onsite, close to your organisation’s point of practice, so that learning can be targeted to your context. As you look to engage someone to provide onsite professional learning, what should you be asking for? 

The answer lies in where your people are on their journey with your initiative. I believe there are four, broad stages of professional learning with any initiative, the four ‘I’s. Are your people at:

  • The IMMERSING stage: people who are at the very beginning of the initiative, looking to build a basic conceptual framework of how the initiative works.
  • The INTEGRATING stage: people who have grasped the basics, and now need to connect these with the requirements of their practice.
  • The IMPROVING stage: people who have integrated the basics into their work, and now want to fine-tune their practice to meet the needs of their role.
  • The INNOVATING stage: people who want to push the boundaries of the initiative, measure the effects of new ideas and pioneer new approaches in connection with the initiative.

Each stage requires a different approach to professional learning.


Learners at the immersing stage are seeking basic proficiency. Examples might include how to stand up on a surf board, how to operate a new piece of technology, or what the components are of a new literacy initiative. In short, they are seeking training. 

Training involves the teaching of a particular skill. It’s important to differentiate training from telling, as simply telling someone what to do is not effective in building skills. Learners need to explore new skills through a range of approaches that honour them as adult learners. This could include demonstrations, stories, resource guides, guided discovery, feature scavenger hunts and mini challenges and quizzes.  A good trainer will work with you to create customised learning pathways for your people and support participants beyond the event with a range of resources to refer back to.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Training events that are just ‘show, then do’. 
  • One size fits all training
  • Events with too much content, leading to a sense of being overwhelmed

Questions to ask:

  • What strategies will you use to train the staff?
  • How will you cater for different base level skills and speeds of uptake?
  • How will the participants be supported beyond the event?
  • How will this fit with our context?



Learners at the integrating stage are seeking how to apply their new skills to the requirements of their practice. Examples might include how to use new sewing machine techniques to quilt a bedcover, how they might use new technology to meet the curriculum needs of their class, or where reporting and assessment might align with a new numeracy initiative. They are seeking facilitated support to make connections between the new initiative and their current practice. 

Good facilitation, in the form of workshops, provides opportunities to test assumptions, challenge thinking, make connections and apply learning, first in a safe theoretical environment and then to their own practice. These learning events are characterised by active and experiential learning as learners engage in practical tasks that enable connections between the known and the new. A good facilitator will work with you to integrate the new learning with existing initiatives within your organisation so that strong connections can be made to existing practice.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • ‘Packet mix’ workshops that do not consider the context of your organisation
  • ‘Sit and get’ where participants are talked at, rather than being actively involved
  • No time to apply learning through active tasks and challenges

Questions to ask:

  • How will you provide a safe environment in which learners can test their ideas?
  • What opportunities will there be for participants to connect the learning with their own practice and plan for implementation?
  • How will this fit with our current initiatives?


Learners at the improving stage have successfully integrated the basic components of a new initiative into their practice and are now focused on fine-tuning to meet the particular needs of their role. Examples might include how to incorporate new cooking techniques within a family members dietary needs, how to adapt a technology tool for a learning disability, or how to integrate the initiative with a particular pedagogical approach. They are seeking coaching to refine the initiative to meet their particular needs. 

Good coaching, in the form of one-to-one onsite connections, meets the learner at their particular point of need by working with them to unpack challenges, make connections and design new ways to implement their work. A good coach will work with you to support the learner by analysing needs, breaking down challenges, identifying possibilities and then designing and implementing a chosen solution. 

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • ‘Just do it my way and you’ll be good’ mindsets
  • Support only models with no accountability for progress
  • One off coaching sessions

Questions to ask:

  • What might a coaching session look like?
  • How will you measure and document growth?
  • How will you support the needs of the individual whilst aligning with the direction of the initiative?
  • How will this fit with our organisational beliefs?


Learners at the innovating stage are well versed in the initiative and have successfully fine-tuned the requirements to meet the needs of their work. They are now focused on how they might improve the initiative further. Examples might include adapting the design of a garden bed to get a higher yield of vegetables, adjusting an instructional approach to improve student results in Science or redesigning digital educational content to improve student understanding in History. They are seeking a critical friend to support them in their action research projects. 

A critical friend provides not only encouragement and support, but also timely and candid feedback. High quality critical friends will work with you to keep the big picture in mind, to ask provocative questions, challenge assumptions and seek evidence. They will demand accountability and give constructive critique in order to maximise learning for not just the participant, but also the wider organisation.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Criticism that is not constructive
  • Professional agendas that may unduly influence the project
  • Bringing in a critical friend too late in the process

Questions to ask:

  • What might a critical friend session look like?
  • How will you balance support and pressure?
  • How will you support participants to create solutions that benefit the wider organisation?

Each of these stages are important to the long-term success of a new initiative. High quality professional learning consultants will often provide a combination of these services when they work with you. For example, a full day learning event may begin with immersion through training, then move to integration through facilitation once basic skills have been mastered. Similarly, a professional learning provider working one-on-one with a number of people in your organisation may switch between being a critical friend for those in the innovating stage, to being a coach to others in the improving stage, across the course of a single day engagement.

When considering professional learning for your team, take the time to reflect on where they are on the journey of an initiative. Are they at the immersing, integrating, improving or innovating stage? Understanding where they are ensures you can provide them with professional learning that meets their needs.

I encourage you to have high expectations of your professional learning provider, ask questions to ascertain their approach and make your needs clear, to ensure that your people get the professional learning they need right now.