Can challenge based learning find its way into our classrooms?

Brain research has proven to us that experiences we perceive negatively are far more likely to stay with us as we age. I guess that explains why I so clearly remember the feeling I had as a young person when it was indicated that I was incapable of doing something because of my age and/or inexperience. It often started with an intense tightening in my throat, and nearly explosive rage inside, although I never showed it, of course. It would have been disrespectful to do so.  But I probably had an almost intentional hurt look on my face, and neon red would glow from my cheeks to outwardly show the embarrassment I felt for being viewed as incapable to complete do any task.

Yes, I can remember the feeling well, even though I struggle to come up with specific examples of the things I was deemed not ready to take on.

I think the research overlooks another feeling, though. The feeling that comes along with being deemed ready to take on a major task. The feeling of having somebody clearly putting their faith in you to do something of importance or merit.

Think back. Do you remember those times in your life? I remember them clearly. Like the time my mom trusted me to stay with my younger brother while she ran to the store. Or the time my baseball coach turned over pitch calling to me behind the plate. Maybe it was the day my Dad trusted me to co-coach a little league game with him. Or the time that my principal allowed us to run a new class event that was previously outlawed because another student had made some very immature choices.

As I reflected on those times, something interesting struck me. School, the place that I spent so much of time at growing up, specifically my academic classes and teachers, are relatively void of any such experiences in my memory. I don’t remember too many times when my teachers were the ones challenging me to take a leap, to try something new, and to show that I was capable of something even I did not know I could do.

It seems sad to me that the people in my life who were directly responsible for my growth academically, never challenged me to take a big enough risk that I could recall clear examples. I can even come up with examples where the very same people, my teachers, challenged me in big ways outside of the classroom (in extracurriculars or sports). So, I know it was not an issue of personality that caused them to not offer these challenges to me and my classmates. Instead, it leaves me  wondering if the greater likelihood is that our classrooms were not designed to provide these kinds of opportunities for students. And in that design flaw, we miss an opportunity to connect authentically with our students and to give them skills and experiences where they can prove themselves.

Doesn’t that seem ridiculous?

With all that we, as educators, are charged with doing to help young people grow, the structure that drives what we do with them daily is not really designed to provide students with opportunities to prove themselves in ways that they will remember long after they are with us. They do not get many chances in our classrooms to show us they can handle the pressures and the responsibilities that come with taking on projects, challenges, and real-world struggles. And we KNOW that they would find interest in these types of opportunities, and we KNOW these are the skills that they will need moving forward, even if they forget parts of the content we are teaching them.

If we want to find ways for students to be more engaged in our classrooms, maybe that is where our change needs to start. And no standards or list of required activities can keep educators, some of the most innovative and scrappy people I know, from finding ways to inject those opportunities in our classrooms!