Challenge-Based Workshops: Moving Teachers From Discomfort to Empowerment

Does the following seem familiar?

“Okay, everybody, click here.

Now, everybody click here.

Now, everybody click here.

Now, everybody read along with me.

Now, everybody watch me.”

Boring, right?

Through the years I’ve seen many stand-and-deliver workshops where the presenter stands in front of attendees talking and pointing for long stretches of time. Invariably, some participants race ahead because the pace is too slow. Others get lost because the pace is too fast.  Others tune out and start checking email.

Long ago at EdTechTeacher, we developed a “challenge-based” model for our workshops where attendees become active and reflective participants. For us, a “challenge” is a set of structured tasks, arranged to increase slowly in complexity. Therefore, instead of explaining something step-by-step for an extended period we create a list of challenging tasks in an order that makes developmental sense.

I typically begin my workshops with a “warm-up challenge.” I ask participants to complete a few fundamental tech tasks to gauge whether they indeed know how to do them. If they’re unfamiliar with something I don’t tell them how to complete the tasks; instead I ask participants to try and figure it out on their own.

I make sure they understand that the goal is for them to learn through exploration rather than through imitation. I want them to learn how to learn. I explain that if  I do everything for them, I become the center of learning and thus am not empowering them to learn on their own. My approach can be hard for people who are more accustomed to learning through direct instruction, so I try to create an environment where everyone feels supported. For instance, I place participants in groups of 3-4 people to help each other. (But I ask them not to do someone else’s task for them.)  If a group gets stuck, they can ask another group for help. If everyone seems to get stuck in the same place, we pause for a mini-lesson on a particular topic. If an individual or group finishes early, I have additional “advanced” challenges for them to complete. If they finish the advanced challenges, I’ll enlist them to assist others.

In my workshops, participants typically spend most of their time immersed in hands-on challenges exploring a new concept or tools. At the heart of the process are exercises that put participants in an immersive and problem-based learning environment. Instead of taking a “here-is-how-you-take-a-picture” or a “this-is-how-you-switch-apps” approach (characteristics of passive training sessions), I challenge educators to learn as much as they can on their own.

One of the benefits of challenge-based professional learning is that it combats a culture of dependency, in which teachers immediately turn to "experts" to "show-me-how-to-do-it" instead of figuring it out for themselves. By completing even small challenges on their own, teachers gain a measure of confidence in their ability to tackle future challenges.


“But I Don’t Have Time!” - Escaping Constraints That Thwart Teacher Innovation (Part 1)