The school year is an unrelenting march to cover the prescribed content in time to participate in exams. Driven by school calendars, bus schedules, lunch schedules, district policies, curriculum maps, textbook chapters, and exam schedules it is all we (teachers, students, parents, administrators) can do to simply keep up with the pace of the march. We even break it down into stages to survive — made it to winter break! Only x more weeks to spring break! The final push to summer! During the march teachers and administrators have fleeting thoughts of creative assignments, that there has to be a better way, and some even take a chance at spending several weeks on a student driven or just in time assignment, but it is not an easy decision. I remember this dilemma from my time in schools, and today as I visit with schools about Challenge Based learning (CBL) I often hear: We would like to do this, it makes sense and we see the value, but we do not have time — our year is booked and the stakes are too high to deviate from the plan — maybe we can do something after testing, or as an after school program.

Now there are a number directions this essay can go based on this opening paragraph. First, how often do we think about and question the destination of this yearly march? Is the destination appropriate? Do all of the students need to go to the same place, and at the same pace? Second, when is the last time we looked at the packing list — do the students need all of the items we make them pack into their bags during the 12 year long trips? Third, what is the toll on teachers when they have to carry many of the students for much of a journey the students have little to no ownership? And finally, what is the toll on student attitudes toward learning when school means unwillingly, and mindlessly trudging along a prescribed trip. All of these are worth some serious thought, and I will revisit some of them later, but for now I want to focus on the lost opportunity of this yearly lock-step march.

In the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow Today (Apple, 2008) study one of the key findings was that most students do not understand the relevance and application of what they are doing in school. They have no idea why they are on the trip, the short or long term destination, and why they need to pick up, learn and retain all of this stuff. This concern is amplified by the fact that they are taking five or more separate and unrelated journeys during the school year (and day), each with a different map, expectations, collection of supplies and guide. Fifty minutes on one trail collecting supplies, drop the pack, pick up another and start slogging for another hour, repeat, repeat, repeat. They feel little control over the destination, the pace, the stops — just pick up your pack and start hiking. When faced with this scenario students react in a variety of ways. The students with a carrot (college, grades, parental approval, financial gain, etc.) and/or a stick (parental disapproval, grades, punishment) continue on the journey but often intellectually disengage and simply learn to “jump through the hoops” in a convincing fashion. The students without adequate carrots and or sticks eventually disengage from the system. Simply put, being herded along a path that one does not choose or have any control over only works if something great (perceived or real) awaits at the end of the journey, or something you do not want to come across is chasing after you. The opportunity costs of this type of learning environment are student engagement, ownership and in too many cases actual participation, as students physically and mentally leave the journey early.

This lock-step march, allowing precious little time for individualized interests, connections or reflection, produces an environment that does not encourage divergent and creative thinking (or in some cases thinking at all). When the trip is only about implementing the plan, staying on schedule, following the leader, and keeping on the trail — creativity and individual ideas are discouraged because they will slow down the process or get the class “off task”. Early in my career, I guided 7, 14 and 21 day backpacking trips for high school students. As a new guide driven by responsibility and fear, there was the tendency to lockstep the campers through the experience. My thinking was that if I can just get them through the experience and no one gets lost, hurt, or killed it was a successful trip. As I matured, learned from senior guides, and became more confident in the woods, I realized that making all the decisions and marching the campers mindlessly through the journey was not sustainable, effective, or fulfilling. As a guide, it was exhausting because I was doing all the work, and the campers missed out on opportunities to learn about the environment and themselves. The key was finding a balance between structure and freedom. In the circles of outdoor and experiential education this is referred to as the “boundaries of adventure,” On the trail we always worked to define boundaries that surrounded a large enough space for the campers to take control of their experience and have an adventure. Simply put, the boundaries of adventure allowed the campers to find solitude and adventure without getting lost or killed. In essence, the boundaries slowed down and expanded the march of the journey allowing the campers time to explore, reflect and take responsibility for themselves. It was during these camper driven experiences that much of the deepest learning took place.

A key element in Challenge Based Learning (Nichols and Cator, 2008) is slowing down the process between the challenge and the solution to allow students the opportunity to “explore, reflect and take responsibility”. We know that in most cases when faced with a problem, or a challenge, the tendency is to apply solutions based on our personal experience and preferences. When the goal is to keep marching, challenges are addressed with first solution that comes to mind or suggested by a leader. In schools, standards, the schedule, the curriculum, textbook or teacher define the challenges and solutions for students. Teachers provide the students with the problem, the steps to figure it out, the resources to use, the timeline to follow and then the correct answer to check their work — Next! We know that in real life it is never this simple and we do a disservice to our students by not providing them with the skills and a framework to think about, analyze and make informed decisions when faced with challenges.

The guiding questions, activities and resources phase of the CBL framework provides the “boundaries of adventure” for the educational process where students can think, be creative and gather the information to develop grounded solutions to their challenges. In this phase, the learners begin by defining all the questions needing answers to identify potential solutions to the challenge. In this framing and clarifying the guiding questions the boundaries are set that will allow for creative/divergent thinking but keeps everyone moving along the path toward a solution. We are creating a framework for this work, and we (as teachers/senior learners) are participating, we are neither doing all the work for the students or are we sending them into the woods alone and unprepared. We are working and learning together.

By slowing down the pace, and generating the questions we allow for the possibility for ideas to emerge that would have never seen the light of day in a traditional classroom setting. These are the slightly off-kilter questions generated by the quiet students in the back of the room or ones that emerge from a side trip, or the obvious questions that everyone just assumed were understood. By giving space (within boundaries) to these ideas they must now be analyzed and researched through guiding activities and resources. By honoring the guiding question phase and listening to all of the voices, the result is a deeper process and results in more thoughtful solutions. Slowing down is a simple concept but very difficult to implement in an environment ruled by time, By slowing down, and creating space we come up with deeper thinking, more ownership, and better solutions. Even if the final solution is the one that a learner had in their head from the start, they have gained much by considering alternatives and justifying their choices. In my experience with CBL, rarely does the preconceived solution withstand the critical and creative thinking of the “guiding” phase of the framework.

If we persist in an adult controlled calendar driven march towards preconceived solutions, we will continue to suffer the significant opportunity costs of lost ideas, students, and teachers. In a world filled with complex challenges, some that completely defy traditional wisdom, we need all the divergent thinking we can muster. The Investigation phase of the CBL framework allows for the inherent ambiguity and structure to foster divergent and critical thinking without compromising the learning expectations of the curriculum and standards.

Mark Nichols


Apple 2008. Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow—Today: Learning in the 21st Century. Cupertino, CA. Apple, Inc. Retrieved December 20, 2016 from

Nichols, Mark H., Cator, Karen (2008), Challenge Based Learning White Paper. Cupertino, California: Apple, Inc.