PBL-CBL-PBL The Acronyms to Creating 21-Century Livelong Learning

Ah… the acronym! Education’s favorite jargon tool! But what is the difference between Project, Problem, and Challenge based learning? They all share commonalities and they each strive to enable a student-centered, collaborative approach to learning and encourage students to use higher-level thinking and reasoning skills to achieve success.

Project and Problem Based Learning are very similar in that they focus on an open-ended question or task and focus on inquiry and 21-Century learning tools. In my fourth grade classroom, I see the application of Project Based Learning in our interdisciplinary units such as our Netherlands Unit. Students engage in a study about how the Netherlands has changed over time.  They learn about how culture, technology, government, and water management have evolved over time to shape the Netherlands into the country it is today.  It is a trans-disciplinary unit incorporating reading, writing, social studies, and science. The culminating event is our Netherlands Museum where the students share their learning by setting up an exhibit which must include their essay, digital presentation, and physical artifacts. Within this unit are opportunities for students participate in Challenge Based Learning in several engineering challenges. My favorite is our Flood Challenge, where students must work withing a budget and with a group to create a flood barrier to protect a home.

Source: Challenge Based Learning: A Classroom Guide http://images.apple.com/education/docs/CBL_Classroom_Guide_Jan_2011.pdf

Challenge-Based Learning is a collaborative, hands-on approach to learning that enables students to identify and solve real-world problems, make a difference in their local community and potentially the world, and share those results with others. It teams up Wiggins Backwards Design model and Kath Murdoch’s Inquiry Cycle to provide a student-centred learning environment where the teacher acts as the facilitator and hands over control to the students bit by bit throughout the unit.


Kath Murdoch's Inquiry Cycle

Kath Murdoch’s Inquiry Cycle










What does this look like in my classroom? Our current Global Awareness unit is a challenge-based unit.

Enduring Understanding: 
  • Individuals and groups can bring about change in response to issues that exist in the world around them.

Essential Questions:

  • Form: What are the different types global issues?
  • Causation: What factors contribute to global issues?
  • Responsibility: What are the responsibility of people, governments, and organizations?
  • Connection: How do individuals, governments, and organizations work together to bring about change?

Other focus questions:

  • What are human rights?
  • What are the different ways to bring about change? (advocacy, direct, indirect)
  • How do citizens work together to bring about change?
  • How do the actions of people impact others?
  • How do the actions of people impact the physical environment?
  • How do our actions/choices impact others?

Our unit begins with a tuning in that exposes students to a variety of global issues in the world. Then, students examine a global issue of their choice and how it translates to our school community. They design a service project to help improve our school community and write a persuasive issue that raises awareness of the issue and persuades others to take action. Using from local to global concentric circles to help plan and evaluate the issue, where they fit on in, expanding to local and global. Students will share their essays and graphic organizers at a museum walk.

I believe that Project, Problem, and Challenge Based learning are essential in creating life-long learners of the 21-Century. They are each collaboriative, student centered and aim to provide students with the opportunity to problem solve real issues.


Jennifer Byrnes

My name is Jen and this is my 10th year as an educator. I am a fourth-grade teacher at the American School of the Hague. I have lived and worked in the US, Uk, Italy, China and the Netherlands. I have taught grades K-4.

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