Challenge Based Learning in the Elementary Classroom

This week I’m reading about project-based, problem-based and challenge based learning and reflecting on how those types of learning apply in my own classroom.

Project-Based Learning

The Buck Institute of Education defines project-based learning as:

…a standards based systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.

According to Jane L. David in her 2008 article entitled “What Research Says About Project Based Learning,” only a few studies have actually measured the effect of project-based learning on student achievement. While the studies suggest that project-based learning, when fully realized, can have a positive impact on student learning, they also highlight the challenges to fully implementing this type of learning. These challenges include: time pressures to cover curriculum content, teachers lacking training for managing multiple projects, and lack of proficiency in technology usage.

However, most teachers recognize that when students are involved in projects that revolve around their own authentic questions with the potential to impact their world, students are more engaged, learn more and have the opportunity to practice the skills that they will need when they enter the “real world.”

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning is a type of project-based learning. Whereas project-based learning begins with an end product in mind or an “artifact” to be produced, in problem-based learning students are presented with a problem to be solved. (see this wiki for a more detailed explanation) Usually students assume a role to solve a problem. For example, they could take on the role of a medical entomologist investigating the problem of the West Nile Virus.

A study in 2013 demonstrated that problem-based learning in typical classrooms can help teachers identify advanced academic students who might not be identified through traditional methods such as standardized tests. Students who were previously overlooked as “gifted” were noted to have the traits of advanced students.

Challenge-Based Learning

The most intriguing and interesting research I read about this week was found at Digital Promise: Challenge Based Learning. I learned about an improved project-based approach called Challenge Based Learning. CBL is a type of project-based learning  but it is different from project-based and problem-based in that the problems the students are addressing are current and of global significance (poverty, climate change, sustainability of water, dignity  for individuals with special needs)

In CBL, students:

  • Work in collaborative groups
  • Use technology in daily life
  • Tackle real world problems with a multidisciplinary approach
  • Share results with the world

The CBL Framework is based on three action steps: Engage, Investigate, Act.

Recently, my students completed their Active Global Citizen Projects and at the time I didn’t realize it, but now that I have learned more about CBL, I can see that there were elements of CBL. Now that I know more about this framework, I hope to improve on this unit next year.

Here is how our Active Global Citizen Project fits the framework of a Challenge Based Learning project:


I used the following unit website I created to introduce the students to the idea that children can be change agents in their community. We took field trips, a photo walk, and invited experts on community development to our class to speak.

Parent speaking about Tohe, an organization that teaches art to disadvantaged children
Expert speaking about Tohe, an organization that teaches art to disadvantaged children
Visit to Animals Asia Moon Bear Rescue Center
Visit to Animals Asia Moon Bear Rescue Center


Student photos from community photo walk
Student photo from community photo walk
What do we notice in our community that needs to be improved?
What do we notice in our community that needs to be improved?

We then brainstormed potential community projects and organized into three teams according to student preference. In their project teams, students conducted more research and developed a plan for change in their community.

Brainstorm session
Brainstorm session


After brainstorming, the three challenges the students developed were:

Create a new and improved school lost and found.

Creating posters to hang up around the school.
Creating posters to hang up around the school.

Create awareness for bear bile farming in Vietnam

AGC Investigate

Create awareness for respect and dignity for individuals with specials needs

Tohe Art Exhibition
Tohe Art Exhibition

The students then took action. One group organized the school Lost and Found so that it would be more accessible. They created posters so that students would know where to find the lost and found and posters directing students in where to put recyclables. They then presented their project at our elementary assembly using the following slide show they created.

The group for creating awareness for individuals with special needs organized an art show/photo exhibition for our school community.

Nem Painting


Student Photo Exhibition to highlight great things in our community and things that need to be improved.


Students organized a snack sale to raise money for Tohe.
Students organized a snack sale to raise money for Tohe.

The group creating awareness for the dangers of bear bile farming created the following video using Adobe Spark. This group worked the most independently with the help of my assistant teacher. I personally had never used Adobe Spark but offered it as one of many options for presenting. I was surprised they chose this tool but was even more surprised at how well they were able to navigate the tool. 

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 6.23.33 AM
Click the above photo to link to the video

Finally, the students presented their own speeches about issues that they felt concerned about. This was linked to our reading and writing workshop “Change the World” unit.



2 Replies to “Challenge Based Learning in the Elementary Classroom”

  1. Hi Michelle,
    Its amazing to see how challenge based learning has motivated elementary students to come up with plans to change the community. All ideas are remarkable such as creating new lost and found for school, to raise awareness for bear farming and for children with special needs. Challenge based learning indeed develops critical thinking and problem solving skills. I found another useful video that explains challenge-based learning for elementary students. Hope that’s helpful link to

  2. Hi Michelle,

    I really enjoyed learning about the different elements of Project, Problem, and Challenge based learning to happen in your class. It’s always exciting to reflect on new learnings and realize your already using elements of it. 🙂 I thought the way you implemented challenge based learning in your Active Global Citizen Projects was great because you kept it within manageable terms for your students, while still maintaining and supporting their academic choice. I am curious if you used any digital tools for the brainstorming sessions. Mindmup (link to and Padlet are great tools for capturing their ideas in real time. You unit website is great! The essential questions make it clear to students (and parents) what they will be focusing on.

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