New Visions for Public Schools

Thinking Outside of the Classroom: The Promise of Challenge-Based Learning

Like most teachers, Zach White Stellato has some students who have a hard time paying attention in class.  But during their recent "Dangerous Intersections" presentations at New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math & Science II in the Bronx, he noticed something about these students: "They came alive."

New Visions charter schools take the approach that students learn best when they are engaged in a meaningful challenge. Towards that end, the schools have launched a curriculum that integrates real-world challenges -- such as making recommendations to a local elected official on ways to improve intersections that put pedestrians at risk -- into every subject area. This "challenge-based" curriculum gives students the chance to discover new knowledge and develop their skills in an authentic context.

Preparing students for the 'real-world' has long been a well-established goal for high schools, but traditional curricula have often missed the mark.  Zach says that although teachers try to challenge the kids to answer 'real-life problems,' it's hard to make something 'real-world' when it only exists within the classroom.  "Kids know," he says.  "They know when something is contrived for the sake of the lesson, and they know when it's real."

So how do you make it real?

"It's this notion of an 'authentic audience' and an 'authentic product,'"explains lead instructional coach, Kami Lewis Levin.  The goal is to have kids create something that can exist outside of the "bubble of the classroom," and to do so in a way which helps them understand how these concepts can be applied once they graduate.

But designing challenges is often a struggle for teachers.  "What we're seeing in classrooms is that teachers' challenge questions are something like, 'Write a complete sentence.' That's not a challenge."  Kami, with the help of her team of coaches, pushed for more.  Kami and her team want teachers to create a challenge that has "a real-world application and is engaging, so the kids actually want to come to school and figure this stuff out."

A second goal is to create challenges that are tied to the world outside the classroom door. For that, the charter schools turn to New Visions’ director of community engagement, Jennie Soler-McIntosh.  Jennie and her team have been connecting teachers with professionals in the community who can help them design smarter challenges.  "It was never planned!" she says of the remarkable level of instructional collaboration.  "But it's a model for the goal, which is authentic student learning."  Ultimately, Jennie explains, "we want the schools to be embedded in the communities, and we want the community to see our students as resources."

For Kami, community engagement "is this idea that if we're creating authentic challenges which are applicable to the real world, then we need to bring in real-world professionals to help us crack these challenges."

In Zach's 9th grade science class, he challenged his students to use the physics concepts they had learned to explain why certain New York City intersections were dangerous, and then to suggest improvements.  The students looked on Google maps, visited the intersections to measure the reaction time and velocity of cars and pedestrians, and finally were ready to present their diagrams.  But rather than simply present them to each other or to their teacher, they were able to present to Shawn Marcias from Transportation Alternatives, the city's leading transportation advocacy organization, and New York City councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo.

Far from nervous, the students eagerly explained their findings to the guest judges, adapting with each suggestion that was made and contesting each concern that was raised.  Understanding the physics was only half of the challenge--the students had to be able to present their work and defend their conclusions, and they couldn't wait to show that they had accomplished both.

To Zach, this act of presenting and defending is what sets a challenge-based curriculum apart, because they are able to do so for people "who understand it in real-life terms."  Having an audience comprised of more than just their peers brings something out in the students.

"One student in particular has really struggled during the year, but came alive during the presentations," Zach recalls.  "He had at least four or five other students around him captivated."  When given this kind of opportunity to defend their work, "some students really show what they can do and the potential they have.  He's just one example of a student who has had academic and behavior difficulties, but for whom the challenge-based curriculum really seems to work well as a motivator."

The original intention of the challenge-based curriculum, and the idea behind community engagement, was to give the kids an opportunity to develop a skill, and to understand how to use that skill outside of the classroom.  But interestingly, what has become more important is the way in which these professionals are influencing the students: "they're serving as community role models," says Jennie.  "They look like the kids, they come from the community," she explains, "and what our kids really need is to see people who look like them so they can say, 'If they can do it, so can I!'"

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