Real Challenges — In Every Sense of the Word

Mark Wise

Mark Wise serves as the K-12 Supervisor for Curriculum and Instruction for West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in New Jersey. Previously, he taught high school history and government in New Jersey as well as in Washington D.C. Mark did his undergraduate work at UMASS Amherst in political science/history and received his Master’s in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Mark’s work led to his being recognized as the 2010 Visionary Supervisor/Director of the Year for New Jersey along with receiving CTAUN’s Best Practices Award in 2007 and 2010. Mark is committed to prepare students for success in the 21st century by designing and implementing curriculum that forges interdisciplinary connections, embeds global competencies, and requires students to utilize technology in a meaningful way in order to solve real-world problems and address authentic audiences.

From Allison:

Authenticity is powerful when it is thoughtfully combined and connected. This is the story of West Windsor Plainsboro, New Jersey’s focus on measuring what matters according to their mission statement by providing an annual opportunity for 8th grade students to tackle some of the thorniest global challenges in a self-directed manner. The power of the experience lies in students navigating not just the complexity of the global challenge but also leveraging their voice in their collaborative groups to design and present their solutions.

Mark Wise, leader of the Global Challenge, provides background context and brings the voices of some of his students to illuminate what they experienced.

Guest Post by Mark Wise


These students are involved in the Global Challenge, a week long interdisciplinary project that engages each of the district’s approximately 800 eighth grade students in applying 21st century skills to tackle one of seventeen global problems based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The project provides students with an opportunity to select from a set of problem solving tasks in accordance with their personal interests and talents. Regardless of which problem they choose, each task requires that students research their chosen challenge, define the root problem, consider possible options, and propose a well-reasoned solution to address the need. Along the way, they collaborate with a diverse team of fellow students and communicate through a variety of media to authentic audiences including local members of the community, former and future teachers, high school students and for some, experts in field of global development.

Authentic Challenge

Students select a real-world problem that they are most passionate about (e.g. hunger, health, education, gender equality, environment). Through their research they identify a country that is not meeting the identified SDG, indicate the challenges and barriers to growth, and design an action plan with criterion-based solutions to enable the county to find its way out of this crisis. Some students, who wish to leverage their social media networking skills and enjoy the design process, can create an awareness campaign for an existing nonprofit organization that works in developing countries on achieving the SDGs. Students may also decide to work with a client based in the Spanish-or French-speaking world and make their presentation in that target language. For budding scientists, engineers, or designers, they have the option to solve design-based problems such as improving water filtration systems or making the journey for refugee families more comfortable and safe.

Authentic Audience

Several months prior to the Global Challenge event, we put out an email blast for volunteers amongst the community as well as the school district inclusive of teachers and high school students. The training and scoring are all done in one morning, from 8:00 am until 11:30 am. We train judges using the rubrics along with videos of past performances to set clear expectations for both the process and product. Survey results from the students indicate that they are highly motivated by the outside audience judging their work. Additionally, about a third of students then have the opportunity to Skype with an outside global development expert – shifting their audience and purpose from trying to persuade a group of judges to fund their project to sharing and asking questions about their research to an expert in the field. This past year, there were 60 Skype sessions with experts ranging from former White House officials to UN fieldworkers to professors at The London School of Economics, involving over 250 students, across 10 time zones, all in one school day! We feel it is essential that students authentically interact with outside practitioners as part of their overall educational experience.

Authentic Test

Learners truly demonstrate understanding when they are able to apply what they know or are able to do to a new situation. Unfortunately, many external assessments merely require students to memorize sets of facts or follow a fixed set of procedures, neither of which allows the learner to activate strategies by themselves nor make meaning of unfamiliar material. This transfer of understanding happens only when we teach and test for application.

As a district, we are looking to get feedback and data on how well we are preparing our students for the world and knowledge economy they will be entering after high school or college. The information we receive from the student presentations enable us to reflect and adjust our curriculum and programs so that we are better able to develop innovative and practical problem solvers, effective communicators, self-directed learners, collaborative team members, information literate researchers, as well as globally aware and responsible citizens.

While the students are not formally graded, they are scored by judges on the 21st century skills rubrics and receive feedback on their performance. Rather than only measuring the performances of individual students and project teams, the results from the Global Challenge also serve as an annual “physical exam” for checking the relative “health” of the district’s success at meeting its Mission with regard to the 21st century learning outcomes. The results from the Global Challenge serve as an assessment of the district’s success at building student capacity to meet its Mission and relies on this data to inform its program offerings, curriculum writing and assessment development. This has already had an impact on how we conceptualize our K-12 vision for research as we’ve begun a 7th grade documentary project as well as 12th grade capstone graduation experience.

Authentic Journey

All students are able to work on the challenge of their choice, but are randomly placed in groups of five within that option. During the first four days of the project, students have team time (during social studies, mathematics, science, and language arts classes) to brainstorm problem solving strategies and solutions. Fully in charge of their own time, as well as how they define and analyze the problem, students determine which resources they access, and ultimately decide on their proposed solutions. They then select the media with which to make their proposal to an authentic audience of judges comprised of parents, teachers, business leaders and high school students. Teachers oversee five teams during the week, but the students are completely self-directed. The teachers do not assist or grade the students, but merely observe and record the quality of student collaboration using the Collaboration Checklist.

As evidenced in their surveys, students truly appreciate the ability to be independent in how they use their time, the content they select, the problem they choose, and the products they create. However, this level of independence can create issues for some students as they get stuck, frustrated with one another, and can become resentful if a group member isn’t sharing the load (or conversely, taking over the project). We anticipate and welcome this reaction as it not only reflects the “real world” but provides us important data and feedback about how well we’re preparing our students to collaborate, independent of teacher guidelines and grades. This data then informs how we attempt to build student capacity K-12 around key attributes of collaboration such as facilitation, building group cohesion, persevering through obstacles, flexibility, and goal setting.

I asked several students to blog about the experience over the course of the challenge last year. Here are excerpts in relation to how they handled the authentic messiness of working collaboratively on a self-directed task on a deadline.

From Arya:

As the groups were read off the screens of the chromebooks, you could immediately tell how people felt. There were cheers of excitement, which lit up the faces of those lucky enough to be partnered with friends. There were also silent grumbles from those who were not. Despite the initial reactions and disappointments of many, I found myself enjoying myself, even though I was surrounded by people who I didn’t really know. Personally, I enjoyed the experience of being able to work with people who I normally wouldn’t in my day to day life. This way of working was extremely self guided, meaning that every group only got their work done if they chose to put time and effort into it. I appreciated this, as it was a nice refresher from the teacher controlled, step by step lessons that many of us were used to.

From Maanya:

Overall, this project reminds me of a real world situation, where people are put together in a room and asked to work together to come up with a solution to a problem, without the help of others. Today, my group and I came to the decision that we would make a company that helps people in Nepal fix the water systems that they already have. It turns out, that after a few hours of research my group found out that Nepal is actually rich in water, but the only problem is that their water systems are broken and most of the water has contamination such as arsenic.

From Daphne:

This project allows us to exercise our skills to function as self directed learners. However, in a few instances, I feel as though we lost sight of the objective while researching. Our target was to reduce the air pollution as a result of factories, but for some reason our focus also shifted to include smoking cigarettes and vehicular exhaust, which is not part of the SDG but is still included in our presentation.

From Oliver:

As “presentation day” looms, it’s clear that people are starting to treat the project much more seriously. Before, we all assumed that five days, not to mention the weekends, would be more than enough time to finish everything. Today, however, it was quite clear that people were trying to use every minute to its fullest. While teachers did provide basic guidance, they were far more hands-off than typical projects. Instead, they allowed the students to define task themselves, as well as set deadlines and goals. As our group went through this arduous process, I began to realize that everyone in the group had something important to contribute – even the students who were normally labeled as “unproductive” in group projects. Turns out, they were the ones who were best at seeing the big picture, and kept the group from being bogged down by insignificant details.

Continuing to Grow Student Voice

If the only time students were given this kind of academic freedom and authentic learning experience was the Global Challenge, then it wouldn’t have the desired impact of informing and adjusting teaching and learning across the district. As stated above, the results from the Global Challenge serve as an assessment of the district’s success at building student capacity to meet its Mission rather than a measure of individual student performances – informing our program offerings, curriculum writing and assessment development. This has led to teachers being more deliberate in offering meaningful choices and learning pathways available to students, seeking authentic audiences for student work, as well as reducing teacher over-scaffolding and guided-direction of the students to allow them to apply their learning to new and complex problems and open-ended scenarios. As a result, the data we’ve started to collect indicates that our students are more highly motivated and emerging as stronger problem solvers, communicators, and collaborators.

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