Response to Kelli: What comes first in PBL?

The post below is a response to Kelli McGraw’s blog post ‘Pedagogy or assessment – what comes first in PBL?’ 

It’s a really great post that deserves a read. Kelli is grappling with the ‘how to’ of teaching at the tertiary level when trapped within a rigid framework of summative assessment. Her dilemmas are, unfortunately, my dilemmas as well. I don’t think my reply answered her question fully but that’s OK cos I don’t claim to be an expert on anything, especially not how to teach at a tertiary level. I did find that as I replied to her questions I was capturing some ideas about education that are perplexing me right now. So to save me time writing it again as a stand alone blog post, I thought I’d just post it here for y’all. I’d really like to get some Challenge-Based Learning advocates to help out with what it is, how it works, why it’s different to Project-Based Learning etc.

To Kelli:

It’s interesting isn’t it – the whole assessment as driver for pedagogy? It’s what I would say most English teachers in NSW have been ‘trained’ to do via PD sessions led by the likes of Karen Yager and Prue Greene. When planning a unit of work (and for most of us now this is a ‘conceptual planning model’) the instruction is to design the assessment first and then create the rest of the ‘learning activities’ to lead up to this assessment. It’s not overly a bad model, if done well and in the spirit of assessment for learning – that is the final assessment is a product that students ‘work towards’ with the aid of feedback (peer, self and teacher) throughout the unit leading up to submission of task. BUT serious, serious problems are encountered when the assessment us poorly crafted – essentially it is a task that is simply an ‘assessment of learning’ that is clear to the teacher (as it is typically written in teacher-babble with an impenetrably babbly marking criteria) but not clear to the student and more often than not is simply a veiled HSC-style essay task. Basically the students spend 5-7 weeks ‘working towards’ an analysis essay … if they’re lucky they’ll get some feedback on a draft, so they might ‘learn’ to write an essay analysing (more like technique-vomiting) a text or two.

So what then is informing pedagogy? The HSC. A big surprise? No.

I just wrote this but then had a think and I don’t think it’s right but wanna share it anyway: So whether you’re using challenge, inquire or project based learning it doesn’t matter so much. What matters is the assessment because this will drive your pedagogy. Designing a great assessment is damn hard to do … I haven’t mastered it and don’t imagine I will anytime soon.

Hmmm … your pedagogy will influence your assessment style. (Notice how this point is contrary to what I just said … thoughts in action often are, lol) If you choose an inquiry/constructivist approach to teaching like those you have identified above, then this will shape the types of assessment you set. (ASIDE: The problem is the heavy emphasis on ‘program writing’ that we have in NSW – everywhere probably. I find it inherently problematic to put down on paper exactly what will be taught each lesson for four or five weeks … life is evolving daily with amazing and disturbing things happening on both a micro and macro level – we should remain flexible and open to change. A program is a static construct that forces teachers to ‘stick to the program’ and not diverge from the path – look, great teachers will diverge, program or not, and I know how helpful these programs are to new teachers and to ‘checking’ we’re all being good teacher citizens following the syllabus etc … but I find them annoyingly limiting.) Assessment for learning (feedback) is critical to all inquiry learning – if not included then the teaching approach is flawed. There is no gain in letting students flail around trying to ‘inquire’ without receiving feedback (self, peer, teacher). Project-based learning is very much about the scaffolding I think – getting the students to set goals, plan and reflect on learning is central. The un-packing of the project occurs by assessing throughout the project – beginning (a project plan or initial investigation), middle (product, draft product) and end (presentation of learning/product). It’s easy to see how using this pedagogy necessarily informs your assessment. Our job as English teachers working within the current context of HSC pressure is to work out how a PBL approach can ‘fit’ within the existing assessment schedule. I know I’ve said this before but I think assessment MUST change if teaching is to change.

I guess you left out problem-based learning which is more teacher-directed and unless scaffolded well with embedded ‘expert’ lessons and feedback then it seems to not be terribly effective. It’s great in terms of those ‘soft-skills’ we know kids need, but seems to fail a bit on the ‘knowledge’ stuff.

Because I’m very new to this whole thing I can’t give you any help with the relationship between the three approaches outlined – as I have stated elsewhere, I am skeptical of CBL simply because it has a corporate brand attached (apple) and I find that worrying. I’m sure that it’s a great approach and it appears to have very many similar traits to project-based learning …

I did have a cool site I used to check out that explained the difference between problem, project and challenge based learning … if I find it I will share it with you.

Oh, and I think your last task would be great with a presentation and seems to be a great opportunity for the project-based learning framework … the students would really value hearing about their peers’ lesson plans. One of the really cool things about PBL presentations is the use of questions, get the students to use the ‘I like …’ and ‘I wonder …’ questioning strategy so the presenter is engaged in a ‘defense of product’ discussion.

Sorry for the rant – going to post this on my blog now and see if I can get some challenge based learning advocates to rip me to shreds, lol!


7 thoughts on “Response to Kelli: What comes first in PBL?

  1. Heya 🙂 Thanks for the cross posting. I think this is an important conversation to have, so I’m going to cross post my reply comment over here too!

    To Bianca
    :I am still not 100% behind challenge based learning, because I don’t have a deep knowledge of what it is. But it seems to give a name to a special set of rules in project based learning. i.e. there is a ‘project’, in the broad sense, but it is not presentation based and you can’t progress in your personal learning sequence until you meet designated challenges.

    One example from my own schooling that comes to mind is of a very innovative Maths teacher I had in year 8 and her approach to assessment and learning as a challenge. There was a chart on the wall of the topics you had to master along the top and all our names down the side. You could choose to study whichever topic you wanted, there were no rules about the order, just the number you had to complete each term. That’s right – this was how we learned all year.
    In her class, because we were G&T kids, she made 80% in a topic test the ‘pass’ mark. So that was the challenge – study hard enough until you thought you could take the test for a certain topic and get at least 80%.
    We could reattempt the test three times and then we had to have a meeting/tutorial with the teacher.
    There was a big emphasis on peer tutoring – if your friend had already passed a topic test, they were encouraged to tutor you to help you pass. Groups of friends chose to do the same topic as each other so they could sit together and talk while they helped each other out. Sometimes it felt like ‘cheating’…but peer tutoring often does, imo! It is so firmly ingrained in us that we’re not supposed to get help with out work. Wow, huh?

    So that example – it’s not a project, not a problem, and not an inquiry. But I think maybe it was challenge based learning…and it was my favourite experience of learning in Mathematics, bar none. That’s saying something!

    • Well that is freaking awesome – what a cool teacher! Would have left her free to do valuable 1-1 as well. Was there times when she did that ‘whole class interactive’ method to ensure you all weren’t ‘learning errors’? I guess with the peer-mentoring you would be getting that just in time correction anyway.

      Yeah, I get that this method could be labelled ‘challenge’ based .. but I think the actual CBL is more like ‘you must make a car that can go on land and sea but you only have four pretzels, a tub of butter and four wheels’ kinda thing – no? lol!

      • Well, that certainly would be a challenge! Very ‘Tournament of the Minds’! But, I think of a challenge as being a ‘project’ in the broad sense, but one that is:
        a) more product focussed (whereas Projects are about the process as well as the product?) and
        b) more high stakes, in that it combines assessment AS learning with assessment OF learning. The students ultimately have a challenge that they have to meet, and I assume will; be graded in relation to how well they met the challenge (hence the bigger emphasis on product over process, though surely process is in there too, and could also be assessed).

        I wonder – if we conceive of ‘challenge’ broadly too, in the sense that asking students to complete something really difficult will be a ‘challenge’ for them…does that help? In that sense, exams could also be cast as ‘challenges’, and that might add an important ‘assessment AS learning’ element to what are usually summative-only tasks?

      • NB: I didn’t forget ‘Assessment FOR learning’…rather, my point is that CBL isn’t geared that way really. Perhaps that is what makes PBL different? The focus on assessment FOR learning rather than OF learning; the focus on process, as Malyn suggests below (can’t wait to dig through her links – thanks Malyn!).

  2. My idea of Challenge-based learning is that the process and outcome challenges students to do something further, perhaps outside the school. Perhaps participate in the 40 hour famine after a unit on poverty, or plant trees to increase biodiversity. I see it as a special kind of PBL that isn’t just a poster, a diaorama or video product, but results in an action that addresses a problem. Kind of like PBL on steroids, with an authentic, real- world application.

    • That is interesting, because I already find that the requirements of providing an ‘authentic audience’ and an allowance for ‘project presentations’ in the Project Based Learning approach has the potential for ‘real-world’ action. But you have proposed Challenge-based as a ‘special kind’ of ‘Project’. That’s a very workable solution, I think 🙂 But how about this one as an alternative:
      Let’s call ‘Inquiry Learning’ the big umbrella that organises all of these approaches. i.e. “Enquiry-Based Learning inspires students to learn for themselves, bringing a real research-orientated approach to the subject.” (
      Then we could see all of the ‘X-Based Learning’ approaches as suggested patterns for pedagogy and a particular kind of assessment. So, in Project based learning I will be engaged in and assessed on the making of a Project (this could be in the ‘real world’ such as contributing to a community garden or Library program). In Challenge based learning I will be engaged in and assessed on how well I meet a challenge (this particular approach might be the one that most easily affords community outreach…who knows?). In Problem based learning I have to solve a problem etc.
      I don’t see any of these approaches as being inherently better than another – but I think that professionally tailoring the learning approach to the students in question is going to become an increasingly important skill for teachers. As we are seeing here, trying to understand the relationship between pedagogy, assessment and bigger theories of learning is no easy task!! 🙂

  3. Since you ladies cross-posted, I’m not quite sure where to respond. Well, here I am though so staying here.

    I pondered the same question as Kelli except from my real world projects experience. I framed the same question as differentiating a process-focus (pedagogy) to a product-focus (assessment) approach to PBL. Neither is right or wrong but that either can be used depending primarily on what the PBL is for and also the skill of the teacher. I argued that process-focus might be easier to adopt for first-timers. Read more here

    I define projects as – purpose-driven work, of a desired quality, and requiring resources (time, effort, tools, money). Purpose can be to address requirements, problems, opportunities or all of the above. By this definition, it kinda encompasses IBL and CBL – if I sound tentative, it’s because I am. I don’t know enough of the latter. However, I do know that a project can be inquiry-based leading to a recommendation for example (like #Gonski?) and certainly to fit a challenge like to “get fit” which may not require a presentation at all.

    And I certainly advocate assessments for and of learning in PBL to happen periodically, not just at the end. I posted on this under Task and Time Management. Basically, chunk the project into meaningful chunks to allow for progress-tracking and feedback.

    Another point that Kelli raised is the asking for help thing. I find this more true in western societies, and I’m not really sure why (probably need to be a sociologist). Anyway, I think PBLs provide the perfect context for this because project teams ideally should comprise of a team of experts collaborating such that the sum is bigger than its parts. I’ve also blogged about it: PBL and Collaboration.

    That maths teacher is pretty awesome – I wouldn’t have thought to do that. Then again, I’ve never had a G&T class. This model seems suited (and obviously worked for at least 1) to G&T kids who are generally self-motivating and better self-concept, i.e. I doubt that any of those students actually had 3 goes at mastery test.

    Having said all that, I fear I haven’t really added anything to the conversation. For that, I apologise. Still, it’s good for me to know that educators I regard highly grapple with similar issues.

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