I’ve always been a fan of super heroes. I guess that’s why I became a teacher; I aspired to make a difference in the lives of others. This past weekend, I took my wife, Lorrain Croy, to see The Avengers. Wow! The movie was great, and I couldn’t help thinking about the similarities between the path of assembling The Avengers, and implementing challenge based learning.
As much as I want to be an Iron Man, a Thor, or The Hulk, I’ve come to realize my job is more akin to that of the character Agent Coulson, the unassuming SHIELD Agent who appeared in each of The Avengers’ individual prequels, and whose job it was to assemble this team of extraordinary heroes. (Agent Coulson, pictured to right with eye-patched Nick Fury/Samuel L. Jackson in the background.) His gift? He had the vision of what could be if only they could be assembled together.
My students are the heroes. I’m like Agent Coulson, the mild-mannered assembler.
The Avengers and students involved in Challenge Based Learning both need:
1) An Authentic Challenge: The Avengers could train all day if necessary. Captain America could go through punching bags like Will Ferrel goes through Doritios. (Sorry Will.) Nothing great happens without an authentic challenge. Students can tell when something is made-up. They know if what they do really matters or not. Challenge Based Learning (CBL) is about students working to make a difference. What they do needs to be meaningful. Challenge your students and teach them how to challenge themselves.
2) A Genuine Audience: The Avengers were a mess before they had people that really needed their help. They needed a genuine mission. The same is true of our students. In short, they need an audience. A real one. No one gets excited about a worksheet or a paper that is shared between student, teacher, and maybe the fridge. Students need to impact real people with their work. Build that in, and encourage them to respond to real people. This is also where we need the implementation of social networking. Get the students’ work in the eyes of the world. It’s possible. It’s easy. It matters.
3) Overcome Personality Conflicts: When you get a bunch of unique people together you are going to have a little bit of drama. Plan for it. Working together goes through stages, and one of them is unfortunately some turbulence of getting along. When the audience and challenge are real this seems to work out much more quickly.
4) Cool Tools: Some will argue against this, but I think it is essential to have the tools to not just get the job done, but tools to inspire incredible accomplishments. The highest grade my students can earn is ‘Wow!’ The solution for my CBL classroom has been an expanding deployment of Apple devices. I have been so fortunate to offer my students really cool tools and software that help them dream up some amazing solutions and projects.
5) Questions: The Avengers have to sleuth out what needs to be done. The questions they ask guide them along their heroic journey. CBL is made up of a process of learning to ask questions, answer questions, and reformulate new questions to move closer to a solution. In a traditional classroom students answer questions. In CBL the students create the questions based on the topic. Teachers (and students) provide guiding activities that assist the students in their question formation and path toward a solution. Just as each Avenger has a unique strength and weakness, likewise, so do our students. These activities, like training for each unique Avenger, is tailored and individualized for each group or individual. (Examples include, but are not limited to: interviews, research, and experimentation.) The Avengers did not confront just one single problem, nor were they told to go forth and battle. They sleuthed their way to sometimes correct and sometimes incorrect summations, that eventually led to a solution that they had to test.
6) Communication: The Avengers were at their best when they communicated well with each other, and at their worst when they did not. So it goes with CBL. Communication development is vital.
7) Organization: You cannot help but be impressed with both SHIELD and Tony Stark’s compulsiveness with organization. Everything having its place, every place having its thing. The teacher and the students need to know what’s going on in CBL. They need preparation. They need resources. An excellent place to begin is: http://www.challengebasedlearning.org
8) Uniforms are Optional: Unlike a lot of other super hero teams, The Avengers don’t have an issued uniform. The Hulk is lucky to have pants. (Seriously, how can those pants still fit him?) Challenge Based Learning is about recognizing and embracing each other’s differences. Our differences are our strengths.
9) Reflection: If you stick around the cinema after The Avengers movie and wait for the credits to roll by you will be treated to a surprise scene. (Perhaps more.) You will see all of the heroes sitting in a diner eating shwarma. Each Avenger is still battered and scarred from the epic battle finale. No one speaks. Each has a look on their face of reflection on what has happened. We know there will be more super hero movies and more Avengers movies. Room to grow. Just as The Avengers need that time to reflect on what happened, students need time to reflect on what they have accomplished, what they have learned. The refection, just as every other step in CBL, needs to be meaningful.
You, like me, are Agent Coulson. Provide the passion. Provide the opportunity. Give CBL a chance.
lorrain croy “lorrain croy”