How Challenge Based Learning Transformed My Classroom and Boosted Students' Confidence – Digital Promise

How Challenge Based Learning Transformed My Classroom and Boosted Students’ Confidence

September 28, 2022 | By

In 2021, Digital Promise and Ciena launched the Ciena Solutions Challenge, a global design challenge inviting middle and high school students to design solutions that address the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals within their communities. This blog post is part of a series in which educators from around the world share their experiences facilitating the Ciena Solutions Challenge with students. Featured below are lessons from educator Greg Zapasek who facilitated the Clean the Oceans, Invasive Species, Ocean Clean, and Quality Water student project teams at Notre Dame High School in Ottawa, Canada.

“Greg, there is an exciting opportunity that has your name written all over it.” At least I think that’s what I heard when my principal, Jean Paul Cloutier, asked if I wanted to be a part of the Ciena Solutions Challenge, which leverages the Challenge Based Learning framework in 2021. I tried to imagine the pedagogy in practice, and after reading up on it, realized it’s something I was already doing—enabling students to take control of their learning.

Alt Text: Students standing around a table taking notes on a piece of chart paper.

Students collaborating on their Ciena Solutions Challenge project. Photo credit: Greg Zapasek

During the early days of the pandemic, there were protocols at my school that isolated cohorts of students to limit the number of people they were exposed to per day. This meant that students would be limited to two classes a day with double the class time (different from the regular four-period day). My challenge became keeping my students engaged in longer classes. As a result, I found myself spending time conversing with students about topics that left the curriculum expectations of the course and entered into self-directed learning. A lesson such as identifying linear relations would morph into a research project evaluating the value of bitcoin. Students would turn to their phones, not to scroll through TikTok videos, but to look at stock values as they played virtual stock market simulators. I was trying to find activities that my students could participate in, as opposed to passively absorbing information. The benefit of being given the challenge of “pivoting” from the norm allowed for experiments that built student confidence.

“The attitude of asking whether ‘am I doing it right?’ changed to ‘check out what I am doing.’ This increase in student confidence gave me goosebumps. I try to reenact this as I continue to use Challenge Based Learning in my classroom.” – Greg Zapasek

Two students sitting in front of computers, one looking at the other's screen which has a photo of hands filling a bottle in a sink.

Prototyping during the design cycle of the project.
Photo Credit: Greg Zapasek

Getting Started with the Ciena Solutions Challenge

This school year, I started the Challenge Based Learning teaching practice with my teacher handbook, a website full of resources, and a team of mentors at Digital Promise and Ciena, and a personal mantra, “Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Challenge Based Learning means sharing an idea with students and allowing them to interpret it into an actionable goal. Sink or swim, my grade 10 introductory business class was going to experience that.

Starting with some basics on business etiquette, I offered students an opportunity to practice how to communicate with organizations via email, how to interview, and how to address themselves on the phone—and that opened the floor to what it meant to be an activist. We spoke about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and students individually decided on an initiative that they wanted to learn more about. Encouraging each other to join their cause, the class broke up into smaller groups and created proposals which illustrated their action plan, required resources, and estimated timelines. At no point did the words “success criteria,” “rubric,” or “assessment” show up. What did happen was that students built up the courage to communicate with community partners, initiating fundraising campaigns and activating the school population to be aware of community issues. To whatever degree these students demonstrated actionable change, they were the ones in the driver’s seat.

T-Shirts with "Education for All" printed on them.

Student-designed sweatshirts for an Education for All awareness campaign. Photo credit: Greg Zapasek

Embracing the Role of a Coach

As the classroom teacher, my instincts to react or intervene in student-led actions needed to be tempered in order to enable students to learn that a goal might be too big to attain or that some community partners wouldn’t respond according to timelines. Failure was a part of success and students needed to learn perseverance to achieve that. My role as the educator felt more like that of a coach, collaborating with students and offering support as they participated in their challenges. This did not mean I was standing at the sidelines. Each of the groups consulted with me regularly, and at times it felt very much like a line up at a deli counter. I believe students realized they needed to determine their own solutions to their problems while waiting for me to get to them. I think this situation made for the most authentic student outcomes.

Sticker with graphic designs, including whale, waves, anchor, and two people.

Clean the Oceans project sticker campaign by @whalebabess. Photo Credit: @whalebabess

“If you allow yourself to let students engage where they find interest, they won’t just be working in your classroom, they will be thriving.” – Greg Zapasek

Self-Directed Learning Helps Students Thrive

At the end of this term, student actions included: a community shoreline clean up, an invasive species public service campaign, prototype water filtration bottle, fundraising campaigns for ocean rehabilitation, quality education public awareness campaigns, and even a preliminary version of a video game. In the end, students independently found ways to create goods and services to get their messages to the larger community to make change.

Aside from an almost constant series of conferences with students regarding their progress and feedback, assessment organically found its way into this classroom. I interviewed students about their experiences and asked them to speak to expectations that they felt were met and to quantify how well they demonstrated that learning. Even students who failed to meet their goals still managed to speak to the learning they achieved from the experience. This provided me with the affirmation that Challenge Based Learning works.

Whether you are already encouraging students with Challenge Based Learning on a slow day, in a mini lesson/unit task, or even invested in a semester long capstone project, if you allow yourself to let students engage where they find interest, they won’t just be working in your classroom, they will be thriving.

Learn more on the Ciena Solutions Challenge Website

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