The Transformative Impact of Design Challenges

Posted October 2, 2020 by Joshua neubert

  • This is a guest post by Brent Powell. Brent was a teacher and administrator for 15 years at The Derryfield School in Manchester, NH, and now serves as a Program Officer for Korda Institute for Teaching.

Have you ever had a student ask you such a profound question that it reshaped your teaching philosophy?

I did. And it happened on November 16, 2016.

The question was: Why can’t school always be like this? and it was asked by Malcolm (student’s name changed to protect privacy), a high school senior who did not do school well. Even though clearly intelligent, capable, and creative, Malcolm had found much of his school experience difficult, with its deadlines, structures, adult expectations, and non-personalization. He was often late with his work, disengaged, and unmotivated. But suddenly, and for the last five weeks, he had been on fire: inquisitive, collaborative, creative, and communicative. His best self had come out and he was now pondering why he had never been this engaged before.

Malcolm asked his question the day after he and his classmates from The Derryfield School in Manchester, NH had presented to local entrepreneurs and professors at the University of New Hampshire. Their presentations were part of the UNH Social Venture Innovation Challenge, which asks students to identify a social or environmental problem at any scale and design an “innovative, sustainable, business-oriented idea to solve it,” and to communicate that solution through a paper, video, and public defense.

Malcolm’s question was powerful because it succinctly captured what the experience had meant not just to him but to the entire class. In addition, and without knowing it, he was also solidifying a transformational moment for me, helping me realize that Public Design Challenges hold the potential for creating powerful change in teachers as well as in students.

In the years leading up to this experience I had been working to follow the best thinking in education – the need for students to learn 21st century skills (critical-thinking, collaboration, creativity, communication, and problem-solving), the power of design thinking, and the pedagogy of project-based learning. But it was the lived experience, the learning by doing, and the seeing my students excel, that altered my teaching beliefs and practice and showed me the power of Public Design Challenges. This process of teacher change was the focus of a recent article in The Learning Professional by Thomas Gurskey. In it he argues that traditionally educational leaders have tried to change teaching practice by changing beliefs first, thinking that classroom behavior will follow, but researchers are now coming to understand that “experience shapes teachers’ attitudes and beliefs…and [that] teachers retain and repeat” only those practices they see producing evidence of learning. These findings match my experience of change exactly.


During the five weeks my students put into the UNH Challenge they identified and defined a problem they cared about, researched already-attempted solutions, brainstormed and designed a prototype, tested their design with end-users, and iterated based on feedback. They were doing what educator David Perkins calls, “playing the whole game at the junior level,” by engaging in authentic work, just like professionals in the fields of innovation and design.

Derryfield students presenting at the UNH Social Venture Competition

What I observed as a teacher was engagement like never before — students would arrive to class and immediately get started before the bell rang, they would communicate outside of class in ways that weren’t required, and they directed their learning by setting goals, refining their ideas, and seeking feedback in ways that were new. It is hard to know precisely what produced such high levels of engagement. Was it that they were competing against other high schools for public recognition, presenting their work in front of professionals who they knew would ask challenging questions, or was it that they were tackling an issue they, not their teacher, had identified as important and finally had the power to design their own learning process? Perhaps it was different for different students, or a combination of all of these.

When Malcolm asked his question, he was speaking for the whole group, high-flying students as well as those who traditionally struggled. In an anonymous survey I gave the students in the days that followed, all 14 students said the class should participate in the challenge again next year. One student wrote, “[I got] so much more [out of this] than other classroom experiences. You get to look at real problems and see how you can actually make change. You are not focused on the grade, you are just doing it because you are excited to learn.” While another wrote, “I definitely feel as though I learned a lot more through this project than just writing a paper or making a powerpoint. When you have to actually defend your ideas verbally and be able to logically apply them to the real world it makes the learning more interesting and [me] more invested.”



It’s not hard to understand why these types of public, competitive, design challenges are powerful experiences for students, as they perfectly capture Jal Mehta’s Deeper Learning framework of Mastery, Creativity, and Identity. But what fascinates me even more is how engaging in Public Design Challenges has the potential to change teaching practice — to move teachers towards a 21st century skill orientation and a student-centered, inquiry based, personalized approach. Simply put, when a teacher sees her students perform at their highest level she quite naturally asks: “How can I get more of this behavior from my students? How can I alter my teaching so students can consistently be this invested and engaged, and produce their highest quality work?”

To explore my belief that design challenges can change teachers, I interviewed three high school teachers involved in the UNH Challenge. All of them responded by talking about how meaningful the experience was to both them and their students. Like me, they celebrated the work their students had done, and talked about seeing them perform in new ways and with a higher degree of commitment to excellence. They agreed that given the right conditions every student should have this type of learning opportunity.

These interviews also confirmed my sense that Public Design Challenges can be gateways to teacher transformation and key learning experiences on the way to teaching 21st century skills. The teachers I spoke with each described how the experience had changed aspects of their teaching: one spoke of now allowing more time for student iteration and refinement of projects; one talked about how she now has students work harder and more creatively to ask questions and guide their own learning; while the third talked about her growing belief in students as changemakers within their communities, and how she now creates more opportunities for students to engage in service-learning.

And yet, from these teachers, I also learned how much context matters. Being in a school with the freedom to try new things with the support of administrators is crucial, and for teachers who are new to project-based learning, having mentors and resources matter. In addition, teachers who are already on a pathway towards teaching 21st century skills are more likely to seek out and pursue Public Design Challenges; they understand that learning this way can be messier than in a tightly controlled classroom but also how the rewards can be greater. These teachers are therefore more likely to take the risk.


The good news for teachers and schools is that Public Design Challenges are all around us. In fact, the Institute for Competition Science, hosts a searchable database that contains over 525 different opportunities. Most of these are national competitions and therefore only offer a live performance to those who progress to advanced rounds. But there are many local and regional challenges that give students the in-person experience of presenting to experts. In the last few years I have attended two such public competitions. One was the EF Glocal Challenge sponsored by Education First, the City of Cambridge, MA, and the Cambridge Public Schools, and the second was the New Hampshire chapter of Envirothon, a competition facilitated by the National Conservation Foundation. In both of these competitions I witnessed the same type of student engagement, creativity, critical-thinking, and high levels of communication. Performance matters to students and it brings out their best. In one conversation at the Envirothon an AP Environmental Science teacher told me how jealous her colleagues were that she had found this competition, as it appeared to keep her students unusually focused through May.

Josh Neubert, founder and CEO of the Institute for Competition Sciences noted, “Teachers have to learn the value of this by doing it. Unfortunately there are not a lot of resources for teachers to learn how to teach this way, especially for new teachers. The vast majority of design challenges and competitions are being done after school, as teachers often don’t incorporate them into the curriculum because of time, curricular constraints, and systems of accountability and testing. So we are taking amazing programs and forcing them to be outside of class time.”

A.J. Downs was an English teacher I had in high school. He often said, “Nothing is learned until it is used.” Public Design Challenges, when done well, unleash the full potential in our students. The teachers I interviewed described never before seeing this level of engagement, commitment to excellence, self-regulated learning, authentic collaboration, and dedication to iteration and rehearsal. Learning by doing is not just for students but also for teachers. When we create the conditions and support our students in ways that bring out their best, we naturally look for ways to make this type of learning happen more often. Fortunately, there are more and more resources to help us do just that.

Design challenges and all kinds of academic competitions (before, during, and after this COVID-19 Crisis) are a terrific way for students to gain valuable real-life skills and experiences. They are also great resources to help teachers create more engaged classrooms. Head to our competitions page to see what academic competitions are coming up. Set up your account to follow competitions that excite you and stay up-to-date on all the news with academic competitions.

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