Do you know your CBL from your PBLs?!?

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn

The above quote could easily be thought of as inspiring Inquiry Based Learning…except that it was said by Benjamin Franklin about 250 years ago. The more things change in education, the more they stay the same!

At my school it has become time to formally institute a new curriculum structure that best suits the needs of our 21st century students. But which pedagogical approach do we go with? Or rather, should the question be, which acronym do we go with? There’s IBL or EBL (Inquiry Based Learning or Enquiry Based Learning, depending on which brand of English you prefer), CBL (Challenge Based Learning), and an awful lot of PBLs (including Project Based, Product Based, Problem Based, Play Based, Passion Based and Process Based Learning!).

Lets make it simpler. In truth, Inquiry Based Learning is more like an overarching philosophy that the other acronyms are specific workings out of. It’s based on the premise of students asking their own questions and seeking their own answers to form their own understandings. It evolved from Discovery Learning, which itself was a response to the traditional idea of a student as a silent receptor of knowledge imparted by the teacher.

Project Based Learning is probably the most commonly spoken about term under this Inquiry umbrella, especially in the US. Project Based Learning is a particular incarnation of the inquiry approach focussed around students completing a project set by the teacher through which they can ‘construct’ their own understandings of what needs to be learnt. Project Based Learning is heavily influenced by Piaget and Papert’s theories of constructionism; the idea that learning is most effective when the learner engages in activities that ask him/her to construct a meaningful product that exists outside their head and can be shared.

Product Based Learning is just now evolving, probably as a response to badly implemented Project Based Learning. It calls on educators to facilitate the students actually producing something for a purpose, that has been designed and refined to perform a task or solve a problem.  In other words, traditional teacher designed projects about presidents or explorers no longer go far enough in preparing these 21st century kids for what they will be called on to do in their professional lives.

In Australia, the term ‘Project Based Learning’ was never really widely adopted, partly due to a more formalised version ‘Enquiry Based Learning’ being so well championed by people such as Kath Murdoch, and the connected concept of Play Based Learning (or Developmental Curriculum) in the junior years by Kath Walker. Each of these ladies have written their own specific approaches that schools in Australia, and perhaps particularly in Victoria, have taken on to varying degrees.

When I say varying degrees, I think we all share the broad ‘inquiry’ philosophy, but let me put it this way: I’ve worked at a number of schools that have shared a similar journey, through topic based units, to inquiry learning, to integrated inquiry learning and back again. Probably the most consistent thing I’ve seen is that a school’s ‘integrated’ units have their own time in the day to be taught, their own books to be taught in, and in general are about as ‘non-integrated’ as it is possible to be. Likewise, I’ve showed up to work in ‘inquiry’ schools and after spending quite some time working with the school, almost being embarrassed to ask the Principal “are you aware that your ‘inquiry based’ school isn’t actually doing any real inquiry?” As for ‘Play Based Learning’, that can look like just about anything, and has come to broadly mean ‘letting little kids play with stuff in an unstructured way’. (Kath Walker’s ‘Walker Learning Approach’ defines a set developmental, or Play Based, pedagogy but I’ve rarely witnessed it being strictly adhered to by schools).

In general I find that teachers and school leaders can throw a lot of these acronyms around without having a deep understanding of what they actually represent, and the philosophy behind why you would teach like that. Or perhaps once upon a time the school leaders of a particular school did know the ‘why’ and ‘how’, but more than half the staff have changed over in their school since all the original PD was done, and what has resulted is a broken down, fatally weakened version of whatever the ideal originally was.

Most consistently what I’ve observed is teachers wanting to retain too much control over what goes on in their rooms. They control the activities that are done by students, denying them almost any choice in their learning, and in general just talk too bloody much! (If I had one piece of advice to give to every teacher, it would be: “the kids don’t learn by listening to you talk!”) To cut to the chase, this means that in many Australian schools, the ‘Enquiry Approach’ is actually a topic decided by the teacher, followed by a brain storm of questions relating to that topic by the students (if you’re lucky) with a series of activities that relate to that topic that the students complete, with an ‘enquiry project’ (read: set project) tacked on the end.

Don’t let my casual tone bely what this really means for our kids: this situation is a disaster happening in our schools. Our kids just aren’t getting the opportunities to develop the skills that they critically need to be successful in the 21st century.

Inquiry type curriculums had their origin in the 1960s, and the theories behind them date back even further, probably to John Dewey’s writings on education at the turn of the century (yes, 1897 and 1902 believe it or not! Not new ideas at all!) But the irony of it all is that our students need a true inquiry approach now more than ever before.

That is because information is now so freely available, and what is important to know so rapidly changing, that learning ‘content’ is no longer an appropriate focus for our classrooms (and never was according to Dewey writing more than 100 years ago!). What is important now is learning how to learn. Questioning is more important than answering, and understanding broader concepts that can be applied across many specific situations and topics is far more important than knowing specific information about specific topics.

This move to a ‘concept’ generated curriculum (another acronym just waiting to happen!) is a vital step for any school. By ‘concept generated’, I mean beginning from a starting point of the student’s learning being focussed on concepts that can be applied in many situations and understood at many different levels, rather than the traditional beginning point of focussing the learning on specific content that ‘needs’ to be taught. (For example, the concept of ‘Change’: When a student understands that change is inevitable, they can take that understanding and apply it across different stages in their learning. For example, a six year old may understand that people and animals grow and change over time, while a ten year old may begin to recognize that relationships change over time.)

For a local school I recently visited, it has meant that instead of teachers walking into a planning meeting and saying ‘Term 3 is going to be our unit on the Gold Rush’; they  might instead walk into their classrooms and present the concept of ‘Change’ or ‘Courage’ to their students, who then generate questions and ideas around that concept. They narrow these down to an ‘Essential Question’ that will drive the focuses of their investigations relating to this concept. Then, as a part of their investigations, the more specific content knowledge specified in the National Curriculum is skillfully drawn in by the teachers as it becomes relevant to what the student needs to learn as a part of the goal they are trying to achieve.  (For example, recently our grade 5 and 6 students planned our school fete. The entire Economics curriculum was suddenly something the students needed to know, rather than something that would in previous years have been forced upon them).

Which brings me to the ‘CBL’ mentioned earlier, as this is basically the thrust of Apple education’s ‘Challenge Based Learning‘, which is an effort to design a specifically 21st century version of Inquiry Learning. The ‘challenge’ that is presented to the students (or in pure CBL, arrived at by the students themselves) at the beginning of each unit is a ‘call to action’ that should break the boundaries of the classroom. It is calling on your students to create a solution to a ‘real’ challenge/problem in the ‘real’ world, and then to communicate their results not just to the teacher, but to the wider community and the world, usually in the form of a multi-media presentation posted on the net.

As I mentioned, I see CBL as like a 21st century update of the Inquiry approach, with a set focus on real world application and 21st century skills. You can read more about it here or better still, check out all the great resources on Apple’s iTunesU by searching for CBL. (CBL was initially developed with Marco Torres and is still being refined by very fine educators across the world).

Whatever acronym of a curriculum model we choose for our school, I believe the important thing is that it basically fits the following description: an engaging, real and relevant student driven curriculum developing understandings of broader concepts that students can apply in countless situations, fostering 21st century skills such as collaboration, problem solving, innovation, information literacy and the communication of ideas through multi-media mediums. It calls on students to be curious, demands of them to question and be critical, and challenges them to engage with the real world to find answers and be an agent for change.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, if your pedagogy manages to do all that, you can give it whatever name or acronym you want!

5 thoughts on “Do you know your CBL from your PBLs?!?

  1. Pingback: Do you know your CBL from your PBLs?!? | Don't forget to play

  2. Interesting post!

    Especially about the degrees to which we all actually implement PBL in our schools.

    At our school, we have no curriculum at all really – rather a student’s day is spent entirely (or mostly) on self-designed projects, each culminating in a product or deliverable of some sort. While we do offer some classes, they look more like college seminars in that they meet only a few times a week. This independence really frees them up to do some of the stuff you are talking about in the last section – getting out into the community and working with real people to answer real questions. I think that piece is vital!

    I am only just beginning, but I am trying to pool PBL resources together, especially cool ways students can use tech to ‘prove’ their learning – that’s what the final product is supposed to do. Come over and check us out at! (Or the school at!)

  3. This is a really great post! I completely hear what you are saying with regards to what many of us think we are doing as opposed to what we are actually doing. I think this letting go that is required of us as teachers is incredibly difficult for many staff and so far out of their experience and comfort zone. That does not mean we should give up but it is definitely a challenge. At our school, our Religious Education units are now concept driven and that concept arises out of our Integrated curriculum. This has been quite successful in some classes but there are still many staff who want the planner to show lesson by lesson. For many teachers, The ‘system requirements’ like Naplan and Aus VELS etc can seem incompatible with the kind of learning you have written about. That is another challenge I believe.
    Thanks for challenging my thinking around this.

  4. Enjoyed reading this post. It is so important to walk the talk. There’s lots of good talkers out there! Great last paragraph!

  5. Pingback: 1:1 iPads – Don’t stuff it up! Here’s some ideas…

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