Written by Christine Blackburn and Jennifer Rhodes, Middle School Principal and Middle School Art Teacher American School of the Hague

In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Harari (2018) writes that “the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information” (p. 261). He believes that “most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things, and to preserve mental balance in unfamiliar situations” (p. 262).

We aren’t sure about the facts and knowledge that students will need in the future, but we do know that helping students practice critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication will help them along the way. These four core skills are a pillar for 21st Century Skills, the buzz phrase in education. We believe that challenges and choices in learning are key factors to success in these skills.

Challenge and Choice to Hone 21st Century Skills

In the middle school at the American School of the Hague, we focus on ensuring that all students are given challenge and choice in conjunction with 21st century skills. Learning is a process where challenges provide growth and choices instill what Parker, Novak and Bartell (2017) describe as “autonomy, competence and a sense of belonging” (p. 39). These characteristics are essential for the wary middle-schooler.

Providing challenges and choices benefits students by:

  • Empowering them to make choices about how to either best demonstrate their learning or to move beyond the level of mastery for a topic
  • Allowing students to access the real world through authentic learning
  • Enabling students to choose the best way to demonstrate their understanding
  • Placing emphasis on deeper understanding
  • Appealing to all students
  • Providing a stimulating learning environment
  • Ensuring that they are working in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development
  • Requiring students to take responsibility

When and how might we use challenge and choice?

  • During any moment of student learning
  • Within any curriculum
  • While working with students from preschool until high school, including students with learning needs
  • Throughout the learning transition when students move from one school to another
  • For pre-assessments, summative and formative assessments or practicing skills and sharing knowledge that may not be assessed

Challenge and Choice to Foster Authentic Learning

Students who are engaged in a challenging environment where choice is an option experience authentic, or real-life learning. In other words, students practice skills and behaviors that they will use to engage and connect with the world around them.Authentic Learning “is real life learning. It is a style of learning that encourages students to create a tangible, useful products to be shared with their world.” Not only are we teachers bringing in real world context to our classrooms, but our students are taking real world issues and problems and developing solutions applicable to the world or community around them.

Design Authentic Learning Experiences >>

Challenge and Choice to Deepen Learning in Every Subject

At ASH, we aspire to achieve a challenging, choice-based classroom. Challenge and Choice can be used in all lessons from Math to Art to Social Studies to Science. A few of the ways that teachers provide challenge and choice in the classroom for authentic learning are:


Students have access to ‘expert’ videos for almost every lesson. Students watch the videos for a variety of reasons: to better access the material during the lesson, to review a lesson or to move ahead to learn about the next lesson. Math videos are also created with challenge options.


When assessing the students understanding of feudalism, for example, students are able to demonstrate their understanding in a variety of ways. The first choice is accessible for all students, with a variety of choices increasing in difficulty and challenge.


After a skills bootcamp where students practice using a variety of techniques, students create from their choice of media using a chosen artist and a chosen theme. Although choice is given, the units are structured and students document learning by recording elements of art used, skills developed, vocabulary learned, results of peer feedback, and media explored. Students can work at their own pace and differentiation is inherent within the tasks.


After a phenomenon-driven demonstration, students are required to ask testable questions and plan an investigation to test those questions. After analyzing and interpreting results, students develop a results and theory-based cause and effect model of the phenomenon, ultimately trying to explain why the phenomenon happens. In these standard types, assessment focuses on the quality of their practices, not whether or not their explanation was accurate (though, clarifications and redesigns are made eventually for inaccurate models).

Incorporate authentic learning experiences into your instruction to engage students and elevate their comprehension and understanding.   

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About the authors:

Christine Blackburn, in her role of Middle School Principal, is committed to meeting the social, emotional, and academic needs of Middle School students. Christine is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) herself, which allows her to understand and advocate for the unique needs of TCKs. As a student, she lived in the U.S., India, The Netherlands and Sudan.

Christine earned her Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Texas and her Master of Education from the University of Houston. She has worked in education in both inner city and rural U.S. schools as well as international schools in Tunisia, Russia, Qatar, and Jordan.

Presently, Christine has returned to her alma mater, the American School of the Hague, as a leader of both the learning and development in the classroom and the learning and development of the adults in the school.Jennifer Rhodes is the Middle School Art Teacher at the American School of the Hague. She has been a moderator for the MYP, taught art at both the IGCSE and the Diploma levels, was a Year Leader and Coordinator for Learning at her previous school in France, and served as an EAL teacher in Assiut and Cairo, Egypt.

Jennifer has co-led workshops in Design Thinking and is inspired by teaching methods that ignite students’ curiosity and promote community. She holds a Master’s degree in both Art Education and School Counseling and believes that learning can be addictive. Jennifer is married to a blues playing philosopher .

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