Challenge-based learning exploring sustainability

Image: Sean Corcoran is Head of Learning and Teaching at Newington College in Stanmore, NSW
Image: Dr Britta Jensen is an educator and linguist with experience teaching at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels.

Sean Corcoran and Dr Britta Jensen showcase the use of challenge-based learning (CBL) to develop a cross-curricular, technology-rich, authentic, inquiry-based and collaborative four-week program to explore sustainability, a national cross-curriculum priority area.


Developing ideas that were originally set out in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008), the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has identified sustainability as one of three cross-curriculum priority areas. Simply expressed, the aim is to add depth and richness to student learningthrough promoting cross-curricular programming around themes such as sustainability (ACARA, 2014).

[Sustainability] will allow all young Australians to develop the knowledge, skills, values and world views necessary for them to act in ways that contribute to more sustainable patterns of living. The sustainability priority is futures-oriented, focusing on protecting environments and creating a more ecologically and socially just world through informed action.

ACARA, 2014


In this spirit, teachers at Newington College designed and implemented a challenge-based learning (CBL) model with 220 Year 7 boys in 2013. This project invited students to identify, refine, and present practical solutions to a real problem: ‘How can we make our school more sustainable?’In order to thoughtfully engage with this question, teachers took boys out of their usual classrooms to pursue a specially-designed, four-week program.

Over the four weeks, boys engaged with science and geography in order to develop foundational skills and knowledge. The boys then faced a series of student-directed learning activities relating to aspects of sustainability.

Finally, students worked in groups to select one key sustainability issue within their school environment and responded by developing an innovative and realistic plan of action.

Students and staff both benefited from this four-week program. Benefits for students included opportunities to use information and communication technologies (ICT) in innovative ways, explicit instruction in Guided Inquiry to identify solutions to real world sustainability problems, and the development of important collaborative learning skills.

In addition, there were important professional learning benefits for teachers. The genuinely cross-curricular nature of the task allowed teachers to witness authentic student learning beyond their usual discipline areas. Teachers grew professionally by challenging themselves to facilitate learning processes that were often outside familiar content areas.

This article sketches the ideological background to the project, outlines the planning and project phases, and closes with some reflections about the process. Hopefully, this article will inspire other educators to implement challenge-based learning projects with their own students.


In the twelve months preceding the Year 7 CBL project on sustainability, teachers at Newington worked collaboratively to develop a learning and teaching framework at the College. The aim of this framework was to provide a common language and clear expectations for learning and teaching goals, and practices to best equip students for the rapidly evolving nature of the 21st century both at school and beyond.

From this work three core descriptors for 21st century learners were identified:

  • the self-directed learner who is independent, responsible and resilient
  • the inquisitive learner who is creative, collaborative and passionate
  • the reflective learner who is engaged, ethical and critical.

Teachers then researched classroom practices and strategies which would best facilitate the development of these important characteristics. It was through this research that challenge-based learning was identified as one of the key approaches that provided self-directed, inquisitive and reflective learning opportunities for our students.

Challenge-based learning

Challenge-based learning is a learning and teaching model originally developed in 2008 by a group comprised of 29 teachers and a team of educators from Apple, Inc. This pedagogical approach incorporates the best aspects of problem-based learning, project-based learning and contextual teaching and learning while focusing on real problems faced in the real world (New Media Consortium, 2009).There is also a strong correlation between this approach and the Quality teaching framework, which identifies, intellectual quality and significance as key factors in improved student outcomes.

The authentic, collaborative, technology-rich and student directed nature of this model enriches students with valuable skills and engages them through this deeper inquiry. A study of challenge-based learning pilot programs by the New Media Consortium in 2009 found that 97 percent of the 321 students involved in their study found the experience worthwhile(New Media Consortium, 2009).

The planning phase

At the beginning of the academic year, a professional learning group was commissioned to develop the challenge-based learning task for the Year 7 cohort. Over the course of the year, this committee researched the components of challenge-based learning and liaised with other area schools who had created similar models, most notably Santa Sabina College who had been using this approach for two years in their Footprints to sustainabilitychallenge-based learning project for Year 7. The final four week program was then developed. As all Year 7 students have iPads, this committee incorporated technology-rich and iPad-specific tasks for the students throughout the project.

For the success of the project, it was fundamental that it became a truly cross-curricular and integrated program. By the middle of 2013 almost every department had agreed to participate.

Many teachers were initially sceptical and worried about issues such as losing control of their classroom or taking on a different role of teacher as facilitator, mentor, guide or collaborator. Some teachers also expressed concern about students becoming off task without direct guidance from a teacher.

To address these concerns, and to ensure that all staff had the opportunity to participate, part of the learning framework professional learning day at the end of Term 3 was dedicated to briefing all staff on the nature and principles of the challenge-based learning project. Staff chose between morning workshops on the classroom strategies of our learning framework, for example, Guided Inquiry, flipped teaching, blended learning, project/ challenge-based learning, ‘Visible thinking’and positive psychology.

All Year 7 teachers were then briefed about the sustainability project, and invited to voice their questions and concerns. Morale was high, and many teachers felt more prepared to tackle this new challenge.

The project phase

As outlined above, the project was divided into three distinct stages which allowed students to develop necessary skills and knowledge and explore issues around sustainability. This enabled them to find their own areas of interest before beginning their collaborative projects.

Stage one: Introductory activities on sustainability

Students rotated through two days of practical and fundamental lessons in Geography and Science, developing some foundational understanding of the issues surrounding sustainability. Geography and Science teachers developed and taught lessons on eight focus areas: water, food, energy, air, resources/recycling, waste management, biodiversity, and population. Tasks for both science and geography were made available via Google Drive, and boys completed activities on their iPads.

Students were guided by external and internal experts. Two guest speakers gave inspirational presentations. The surfing scientist, Ruben Meerman, illustrated the science behind climate change, while Kristina Stoney and Nic Arney from ‘World by Cycle’ inspired students with their stories of cycling around the world. During this stage, students also developed their inquiry and research skills with library staff, their teamwork skills with drama teachers and their ICT and presentation skills with ICT facilitators.

Image: The surfing scientist, Ruben Meerman, demonstrates some of the scientific principles behind climate change

Stage two: Student learning matrix

Individually or in small groups, students worked through a learning matrix of activities drawn from various disciplines, concentrating on the aforementioned eight focus areas of sustainability. All Year 7 teachers facilitated this phase of the project, guiding and supporting boys’ activities within and outside their particular curricular area. These cross-curricular activities developed students’ skills and knowledge, allowing them to explore the issues around sustainability in a self-directed way in preparation for the actual challenge-based learning task in stage three of the project.

The learning matrix was organised using Bloom’s taxonomy of higher order thinking so that the activities progressively became more challenging as the students worked through them. Students were issued with a paper A3 sized matrix that served as a passport for these activities. These passports were stamped by teacher mentors as students progressed through the matrix by submitting the tasks via Canvas our learning management system.

Image: Learning beyond the classroom – recording findings

Stage three: Challenge-based learning task

Drawing on their learning experiences from stages one and two of the project, students worked in groups of four to identify an issue, problem or challenge around one of the eight identified areas of sustainability at Newington College. They used guiding questions to focus in on the issues of their challenge before exploring guiding resources and activities which led them to develop an authentic solution. A group then planned and presented a 5-6 minute pitch highlighting the chosen problem and its solution. Students worked through a scaffolded series of activities, and each group had the assistance of a mentor teacher. The full program for the integrated CBL project is available on Google sites.

The project culminated with the groups presenting their authentic solutions over two days to an audience of students, teachers and parents. The presentations were a great success with some captivating usage of technology through videos, websites and animations. Some innovative solutions to the challenges of sustainability, included the use of corn starch pensin classes and awareness raising programs to encourage students to eat locally grown and sustainable foods. The head of the school’s sustainability committee was present to hear these solutions with the aim of implementing some of them in the following year. Sustainable awards, made from recyclable materials, were presented for the most creative and innovative presentations.

Feedback from staff

By the end of the project the teachers who were involved found that any initial concerns were unwarranted and they found the experience a positive one for themselves and their students. Some of their feedback can be found below:

‘What an amazing project! The boys gained a great deal from it.’

‘I loved what I saw! Thank you so much for giving us this opportunity with our classes.’

‘It was great to see that the boys were able to use their creative skills to communicate their ideas using technology in a positive way.’

A secondary benefit of the challenge-based learning project for staff was the professional learning opportunities provided for teachers. Teachers, who might have been previously hesitant about using technology, allowing for student-directed learning or developing a Guided Inquiry focus in their classes could trial these approaches in a safe and supported environment and readily see the benefits in their students’ learning.

Explicit use of Guided Inquiry offered teachers the opportunity to forge new links, and refresh existing connections, with library staff. As it is in many schools, the library is the headquarters of Guided Inquiry at Newington College (Carron and Choi, 2013).

Feedback from students

Student reactions to the challenge-based learning project were also overwhelmingly positive with 80 percent of students finding it an ‘enjoyable’experience and 82 percent of students reporting that it ‘effectively developed their learning’. Some of the student responses can be found below:

‘It was very enjoyable and productive - a good way to keep our brains still in gear for the last few weeks of the year.’

‘It was a great idea and I would love to do it again next year!’

‘It was fun to try something new and learn different information.’

Taking the next step

With sustainability as one of the three cross-curricular priorities of the new Australian Curriculum, many schools are looking for effective and innovative ways to integrate it into their various subject areas and project-based and challenge-based learning approaches are becoming more prevalent.

Specifically, challenge-based learning allows schools to develop a cross-curricular, technology rich, authentic, inquiry-based and collaborative approach so that the study of sustainability becomes a meaningful, and not a tokenistic, learning opportunity for students. Challenge-based learning also provided many exciting learning opportunities for students and staff. Teachers at Newington College will run this challenge-based program again in 2014 for Year 7, and are in the process of developing challenge-based learning opportunities for students in other years, as well.

References and further reading

Apple Inc. 2008, Challenge based learning: take action and make a difference, accessed 20 January 2018.

Atherton J. S. 2013, Learning and teaching: Bloom’s taxonomy, accessed 20 January 2018.

Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) 2014, Cross-curriculum priorities, accessed 20 January 2018.

Carron, A. & Choi, C. 2013, Information fluency framework, unpublished internal document, Newington College.

Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MYCEETA) 2008, Melbourne declaration on educational goals for young Australians, accessed 20 January 2018.

New Media Consortium 2009, Challenge-based learning: an approach for our time, accessed 20 January 2018.

Newington College 2013, Challenge-based learning: sustainability, accessed 20 January 2018.

New South Wales Department of Education and Training (NSW DET) 2003, Quality teaching in NSW public schools, Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate, Sydney.

Santa Sabina College 2011, Footprints to sustainability, accessed 20 January 2018.

Keywords: challenge-based learning, guided inquiry, Year 7, sustainability, learning matrix, science, geography

How to cite this article: Corcoran, S. & Jensen, B. 2014, ‘Challenge-based learning exploring sustainability’, Scan 33(4)

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