Everyday challenge

As part of a series of blogs focused on Durrington’s six teaching principles, this piece deals with the underpinning principle of challenge.  It marries with Andy Tharby’s blog on the Durrington Research School website.

A transformational moment for me when clarifying what every-day challenge meant, was attending a course in 2016 at which Professor Rob Coe was a keynote speaker.  He posed three questions to the delegates:

  1. How many minutes does an average student on an average day spend really thinking hard?  
  2. Do you really want your students to be ‘stuck’ in your lessons?
  3. If they knew the right answer but didn’t know why, how many students would care? 

Question two particularly resonated with me.  When I thought of my most challenging students could I honestly say I regularly planned for them to be stuck?  Or more often was I planning for them to be occupied?  In large part the strategies below are focused on how we can set our expectations high, up the challenge, and in consequence increase the time our students spend thinking hard about what they are doing, and where necessary, struggling (while still keeping our sanity and an ordered classroom). 

To add some underpinning theory to this, challenge is about pitching our students into the struggle zone as regularly as possible.  Learning is unlikely to happen in the comfort zone as they are not thinking hard enough about the material in order for it to be retained.  Equally once the challenge gets too high students enter the panic zone and will shut down to what we are trying to teach them.  This is in large part due to cognitive load, as when we overload students with information their limited working memory (in which almost all information is lost within after 30 seconds) will not contribute to the formation of long-term memories, which is the storehouse of concepts, vocabulary and procedures where we ultimately want our teaching to end up.


Therefore, if you are attempting to teach something that the students won’t generally have much prior knowledge on, for example the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in history, you should factor this into your planning.  If you explain the events, while also projecting a complicated slide on the board that contains long text to read, questions and several images, students will have too much to cope with and will fail to retain the knowledge.  It would be better to complete your explanation, then unpick an image, before introducing text for them to read in silence and finally asking students to complete the written outcome you desire.   

Preparing for our students to get and stuck and having the strategies is unstick them is a long-term venture and can be best encapsulated by the principle of challenge.  Some key strategies that will help us achieve everyday challenge are:

1. Prioritise learning over performance

The reason plenaries at the end of lessons to prove to an observer that the students in the class have made progress was always a flawed measure, is that all they prove is surface learning, or performance, rather than deep learning.  Learning is mysterious, liminal and invisible. An individual lesson is the wrong unit of time over which to judge learning.  Therefore a challenging curriculum is key to challenging lessons.  It has to be Curriculum first.

2. Space it out and keep coming back

This principle also fits with one of the strategies for learning to come from cognitive science with the strongest research-evidence behind it, distributed or spaced practice.  This is the idea that if you space out your study of a principle over time you will learn it more effectively than if you learn it intensively in a short space of time.

3. Set single challenging objectives

If we are to exemplify high expectations, any objective we share with our students should set the expectation for all.  We certainly shouldn’t limit some in our class to only being about able to cope with certain aspects of the subject matter. 

4. Get them thinking hard

As Professor Coe’s first question suggests, we should plan to challenge our students as much through thought as through action.  We should plan for what we expect students to be thinking about throughout the lesson as much as what we want them to do.  As Daniel Willingham put it in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? memory is the residue of thought, therefore we need to get them thinking about the topic we are trying to communicate.  

5. Know thy subject

If we are to truly challenge our students then we need to have absolute confidence in our own base of knowledge.  Research demonstrates that a deficit in teacher subject knowledge can be a barrier to students achievement

6. Challenging vocabulary

A central tenet of teaching should be that we use the rich language of the subjects we teach.  We should avoid at all costs the temptation to dumb down our language for fear that using the proper terms will terrify our students.  However, if we are to successfully create a classroom rich in historical language, we need to explicitly teach this words.  

7. Set the benchmark early

Use those first few lessons with a class to set the bar of expectation high and handsome.  Show them what you believe students in your class are capable of and get them to produce something similar.  This is useful in a number of ways.  It is something you can return to throughout the year (perhaps the dark days of early January) to demonstrate what they can do when they really put their minds to it.  It also establishes where the bar is in your classroom nice and early.  We know students tend to meet the expectations we have of them so start as you mean to go on.   

8. Share excellence

Once excellence has been achieved and created, make sure it kept and shared.  It is important students understand the level you expect and that the level is achievable within the context of your classroom or department.  The aim should be to immerse them in this excellence through displays and teaching strategies. 

Reflective Questions 

  • Do you plan for students to regularly get stuck and struggle in your classroom? 
  • Do you have high expectations of all the students you teach?
  • Is your subject knowledge strong enough to stretch your students with confidence?
  • How do you ensure students retain what you teach in their long-term memories and retrieve this regularly?

Posted by Chris Runeckles

Extra reading

John Sweller, Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design, Learning and Instruction Volume 4, Issue 4, 1994

Soderstrom and Bjork, Learning Versus Performance, An Integrative Review, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2015, Vol 10, P176-199

John Dunlosky, Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning, American Educator 2013

Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School

Coe et al., What Makes Great Teaching?

Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown and Kucan

Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck

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