The 15 minute forum tonight was led by Steph Holt – looking at how we can ensure high levels of challenge during lessons. She started the session by reminding us of the fact that it’s unfortunate that often when you read about challenge, it’s often in the context of ‘challenging the most able’. This is not good. It seems quite bizarre that we seem to have got into thinking that only the most able need/deserve challenging? So some over-arching principles for challenge:
- It’s not just about the most able.
- We should have high expectations of all students, all of the time.
- Make it hard – it’s good for students to find tasks difficult.
On the last point, how many of us have been told (following a lesson observation) that ‘you pitched the lesson wrong, as they were struggling‘ -This is an odd statement, as struggle (within reason obviously) is good as it develops grit!
This diagram sums up the most important aspect of ensuring challenge – set the bar high for all students and expect them all to get there. This can the be further developed into the following concise description of embedding challenge:
Set the bar of expectation high; encourage students to be resilient; support deliberate practice and hard work; encourage students to respond to feedback and critique to improve their work and get them inspired by the excellent work of others
So, it’s clear that challenge needs to be the key driver of everything we do – as set out in our newly evolved ‘Big 5’:
Steph then went on to discuss some techniques that she uses to develop challenge.
- Use accurate, academic language e.g. in science don’t refer to liquids as thick and runny – call them viscous. Students love learning new, challenging vocabulary.
- Show students examples of excellent work – discuss what makes it excellent and what students need to do to achieve this excellence. Expect students to aspire to this standard.
- Use the 5Bs (Brain, Board, Book, Buddy, Boss) to develop resilience when students get stuck.
- Flipped learning – this can be used to develop challenge, by allowing students to get the basics at home, so the lesson can be spent developing the ideas further.
- Expect students to articulate rules or patterns to clarify understanding.
- Use students when modelling learning e.g. Why do we do that? What’s the next step? What’s an alternative way of saying/ doing that?
- Use the idea of the ‘Plenary Prefect’ to keep students challenged – if they are the PP and need to come up with questions, they need to fully understand the learning. Don’t just use this for the end of the lesson though – use it throughout the lesson.
- Encourage students to set questions – not just provide answers.
- Encourage students to contribute to the success of others, by giving peer feedback – but making sure that it sticks to these rules:
- Encourage students to talk about their ideas to each other and the class. Then support them with developing their ideas further by questioning each other.
- Foster originality, independence and initiative – this happens when students understand that it’s fine to get things wrong when you’re doing challenging work. This requires the teacher to create a climate of expectation and support.
- Promote and model extended writing – don’t just expect students to be able to do it.
- Promote activities that require students to read for information and analysis – in all subjects.
- Share the specification with students….as it is. Don’t dumb it down, by putting it into ‘student speak’.
Simple tasks – with added challenge….
The following is a list of common teaching activities – but how we can inject more challenge into them:
- Classify & Justify: Given several pictures/ statements/ people/ places/ opinions etc, the students could be asked to classify them into groups and justify why they have put them into groups. The challenge here comes in the justification – why are they in each group? Make some are similar enough to generate discussion and debate.
- Demonstrate: Students are asked to explain a difficult idea or concept, using a prop (photo, piece of writing, apparatus etc e.g. Given a model of the earth, sun, and moon so devised that it may be manipulated to show the orbits of the earth and moon, the student could be asked to demonstrate the cause of various phases of the moon as viewed from earth. The challenge here is to be able to explain a complex idea, simply – as Einstein may or may not have said:
- Diagram: The student could be asked to summarise a difficult concept process in their own diagram/ flow chart. Again, the challenge here is to explain a complex idea, in a simple way. Alternatively, give them a diagram of a complex process and get them to explain each stage fully.
- Interpret: Show students a photo/ diagram/ graph etc and ask them to write a paragraph about it – but making sure they explain as well as describe.
- Paragraph: When asking students to write a paragraph – explanatory, descriptive, analytical etc – give them a list of challenging words that they must include in the paragraph.
- Redraft: Linked to the above. Once students have written their paragraph and it has been critiqued – by peers or themselves – get them to redraft it.
- Evaluate: Give students some contrasting examples and then ask them to come up with strengths and weaknesses of each e.g. Given several types of materials, the student could be asked to evaluate them to determine which is the best conductor of electricity. The challenge here is in the choice of examples – make them similar enough to make it difficult to contrast.
- Order: Students can be asked to put a range of things into order – and justify their choice e.g. oldest, most ‘morally wrong’, most significant etc. The challenge here will be having to justify their choice, but also to be prepared to change their judgement, based on the views of others.
- Predict: Give students some information and then expect them to predict the outcome e.g. from a description of the climate and soils of an area, the student could be asked to predict the plant ecology of the area. Challenge is introduced here by asking student not just ‘what‘ will happen, but ‘why?’ and then extended further by ‘what if?‘
- Solve: Give students a challenging problem to solve e.g. the student could be asked to solve the following: How many grams of H2O will be formed by the complete combustion of one litre of hydrogen at 70 degrees C? The challenge here is all in the problem – make it difficult! They will enjoy the struggle of getting there…..and it’s the struggle that should be rewarded.