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By Matthew Manos, founder of verynice, and Director of Challenge-Based Learning at the USC Iovine and Young Academy.

Picture this: You’re back in the fourth grade.

You whip out a freshly sharpened number two pencil as your teacher hands you a math exam.

You look down at the page, and see a question:

The average hamster weighs 4 ounces. A 747 can hold 248,000 pounds. How many hamsters can you take with you to Maui?

If you’re one of those kids who doesn’t excel at math, like me, you lose your mind scribbling down countless notes, deciding how to respond.

You think to yourself: “How many ounces are in a pound? Am I to assume that each of these hamsters is an average weight?”

The self-doubt continues, until you finally write down your best response to the question, and turn in the exam.

The next day, you receive the test back, only to learn that the correct answer is 0 because hamsters are illegal to own or transport in the state of Hawaii.

This model of learning is called problem-based learning. It’s the default approach many of us will remember from our days in school.

There is a time and place for problem-based learning. It can build the capacity for employees to develop critical thinking and communication skills. In some cases, it can also improve an employee’s ability to work in groups, synthesize complex information and become very prepared to plan the next corporate escape room outing.

But what a problem-based approach like this lacks is the ability to provide a platform for employees to define their own problem. Instead, learning experiences like these present a problem, however tricky, to the employee. Further, the problem that is being presented, more often than not, is being presented as a kind of riddle that has one, and only one, correct answer or interpretation.

This is contrary to the mindset of an entrepreneur or innovator and to the needs of organizations that push the needle by first framing the underlying problems that have yet to be clearly defined. Further, this approach can be limiting in its inability to clearly and directly connect to the nuances of the day-to-day role an employee holds, their interests and the challenges that excite them.

Despite all of this, traditional corporate training, seminars and webinars far too often present themselves in this manner.

Be it the tackling of massive social issues or the navigation of new and emerging technologies, the work of an innovator is rarely predictable. But one thing each day has in common for innovators like these is the need to start with the challenge and work outward. Some of these challenges are small—some are big. None of these challenges are presented cleanly to us, and the biggest challenges in the world rarely have a scope that is predefined.


Enter challenge-based learning.

Challenge-based learning is defined by challengebasedlearning.org as “an efficient and effective framework for deep and meaningful learning while solving real-world challenges.”

Unlike more traditional models of teaching and learning, a challenge-based approach calls upon the learner to define the problem itself, before attempting to solve anything.

At the USC Iovine and Young Academy, we’ve seen first-hand the unique potential this model has to better prepare learners and working professionals for the fast-paced worlds of entrepreneurship, technology and design-driven innovation.

By engaging in challenge-based learning, we can develop creative responses to complex problems faced by individuals, communities, organizations and society at large. These projects include real stakes—real problems—that require definition and contain many possible pathways and outcomes.

We’ve observed learners leverage diverse skills and knowledge to build ideas and prototypes in response to problems that they themselves frame. In the process, students develop a powerful framework to analyze challenges and synthesize information in a collaborative manner.

For your next corporate training, apply a challenge-based approach by:

1. Presenting a big challenge the organization is currently facing.

2. Getting your employees into teams that break away from their day-to-day departments and silos.

3. Sharing new methods and strategic frameworks that can be applied in real-time to tackle that same challenge.

Real-time, hands-on and challenge-based experiences like these are not only more immediately applicable and relatable to the day-to-day work of your team; they align with the hard skills required for the creative industries of the 21st century:

• Knowledge Transfer: Bringing together insight from various disciplines

• Collaboration: Understanding different processes and perspectives

• Interdisciplinary Problem Solving: Applying a diverse range of competencies

• Communication: The ability to bring clarity to a problem

• Iteration: Continuous learning through constant reflection, trial and error

• Creative facilitation: Coordination and management of complex projects, systems and teams

• Design Strategy: Innovation that balances the needs of business with the needs of people

Educational experiences can leave a lasting impact when the learner is able to draw a connection between the content and their real-life interests and ambitions. By moving from an “only one correct answer” model to a learning experience that is challenge-based and rooted in real-world problems and opportunities, you can empower your team with the tools and confidence they need to create meaningful change.


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