I would be a brave person to argue against project-based or challenge-based learning from a pedagogical perspective. With buzzwords like ‘trans-disciplinary’, ‘exploratory’, ‘student-centered’ and ‘collaboration’ oozing through every definition to be found (PBL CBL), what is there not to like? It seems almost perfect. Report after report, such as Pepert’s, New Media Consortium’s and Buck’s detail staggering successes using both PBL and CBL in a variety of settings. From inmates in juvenile correction facilities to high-flying students in some of America’s best schools, the results seem to be unanimously favourable.

CBL and PBL, which are two sides of the same coin, seem to share a lot of similarities with the IB’s Middle Years Programme. Comparing the framework for PBL/CBL and MYP below, the structure and keywords share a lot in common. All have the backbone of key ideas, essential and guiding questions, skill acquisition and assessment. Both allow extended use of IT. And whilst the teacher may play a larger role than the student in the development of the key ideas, essential and guiding questions in the MYP, they share a similar education philosophy.

CBL by the New Media Consortium

MYP plan by Frank Curkovic

The MYP is a programme I am getting to know well. In light of the similarities between MYP and CPL/PBL, it stands to reason that they must also share the same concerns. The first is the how easy it is for students to arrive mid-year or even mid-course. My understanding is that in CBL in particular, a challenge can take months or even years to complete. How do students who arrive in the school at unusual times fit in? Second is the issue of comparability. By no means the most important purpose of a school, but certainly a notable purpose, is providing students with the necessary tools to get into tertiary education. Without nationally recognised standardised testing, such as the AP, IBDP or A-levels, are students not being disadvantaged? PBL/CBL enables students to achieve a depth of knowledge, whereas many of the standardised tests reward a breadth of knowledge. I’m curious how the schools that fully employ CBL or PBL overcome this contradiction.

Beyond those concerns, both CBL and PBL seem like fantastic methods of learning. What does come across in the literature is that to be successful, the entire school has to change its ethos to dovetail with CBL and PBL. To be a single CBL teacher in a traditional school setting will not work. Schools like the High Tech High group can be successful because they go all-in. I would love to visit a CBL school to see how it all works. It’s a fascinating development in education.


  • April 30, 2012 - 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Adam, those are some interesting reflections that I’ve been making myself recently. My school is neither MYP or PBL based, and yet I find the concept very compelling and am trying to find a way to put that philosophy more at the heart of my teaching. While at the EARCOS conference in Asia, I went to David Grant’s conference on Project Based Learning, which was related to his work at King Middle School (link to king.portlandschools.org). He went into depth with how it was structured at his school, and how they made it happen. The first thing I noticed was the importance, as you said, of a school-wide philosophy. It seems the key to having true integration, where students and teachers are all “on expedition”. That said, he also said that they have 2 expeditions a year, and that they take up about 2/3 of the year. So the other parts of the year are for the curriculum not integrated into the expeditions (projects). I know that the planning of the projects is organized to integrate as much of the learning targets as possible. However, as for what they do with students who come in mid-cycle, probably the same scrambling that we do with any new student at inconvenient moments during units. Is there really any magic answer to that situation in any scenario?

  • June 2, 2012 - 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I think no curriculum is flexible enough to meet the unique culture of the so-called international schools, where 1/3 of the student body changes every year and many transfer in in December or even April. For that reason, PBL or CBL, MYP, PYP, DP and AP aren’t very effective for structured learning.

    As we found at COETAIL through our discussion, PBL at High Tech High seems to suffice for students from certain socio-economic backgrounds. Also, parents and guardians at international schools seem to have different expectations towards their children’s higher education. They expect their children to go to similar or even better rated colleges than they themselves attended.

    I’ve heard that implementing the whole MYP, PYP and the DP at one school is not ideal, because they are too restrictive to the students to select IB DP subjects. IB and AP are learning for the tests. If the tests are made well, that is not a bad idea. And if PBL or CBL can be included in the way of learning, I think I have no problem with having all.

    The main point here is that, as Adam mentioned, the whole school has to buy into the philosophy since MYP, PYP, IB, PBL and CBP are difficult to do alone.

  • June 9, 2012 - 6:09 pm | Permalink

    In my experience, in a PBL setting, students have a deeper understanding of content required for an exam than those that are taught in a “traditional” (lecture driven) course. Although lecture may be the most efficient way to prepare for an exam, as Andrew Churches talked about in his weekend workshop at YIS, it’s definitely not the path to retention. From what I hear from various friends working on curriculum developments at the IBO, the DP will have more comparable qualities to the MYP in the next re-vamp – i.e., less content driven and more student-centered, which will certainly align more closely with the PYP and MYP. Although education is always slow to change, it’s exciting to see these developments happening in different, more traditional, contexts.

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