Thinking About Challenge

As one of Durrington’s 6 principles, challenge is a concept that has been regularly embedded into us teachers as an important part of planning effective lessons. But what does challenge really look like? How can challenge be applied to all students, not just the high attaining ones? How can we ensure we tackle the right amount of challenge to ensure students are not lost in the woods without guidance? Our students have a right to a curriculum that challenges them as much as it inspires them. To struggle is a privilege (much to their disagreement) that will bring them closer to being more confident, metacognitive learners with greater self-efficacy. 

Real challenge is often a balancing game. We want our lessons to be accessible, and therefore pitched at a level that is appropriate for our learners. However, in doing so, we can often ill prepare them for the level of higher thinking required for the exams.  Students need to be able to transfer the knowledge and skills they learn to all kinds of situations and scenarios to be assisted through their zones of proximal development, as proposed by Vygotsky. As the more “knowledgeable others” Vygotsky suggested that we need to provide opportunities for students to practice equipped with scaffolds, in a way that allows them to explore, and, in doing so enable them to become more skilled at tackling problems that will allow them to develop their higher cognitive functions.

Recently with my classes I have been trying to focus on providing sufficient challenge to them to prepare them for their GCSEs. Many of my classes are top set, and as idyllic as the notion of teaching top set classes can be there remains a pressure to ensure that students are achieving their potential and taking as many measures as I can to prevent them underperforming. Outlined are a few strategies that could ensure appropriate challenge

Explaining the value of challenge: Students with low self-efficacy may see challenge as a threat and therefore may either shut off completely or struggle to start if the goal wasn’t in sight. Initially, I endeavoured to show my students that they are being given the most difficult questions because I believe in their ability to do them and to see that the mountain ahead is obtainable if the first few steps are taken. I took the time to constantly remind my students that what they are being asked to do is difficult and that difficulty breeds resilience and to remind them that by seeing the difficult stuff as a challenge the reward and satisfaction of completion is magnified. I found that this improved intrinsic motivation and made them more appreciative of their own efforts. I often ask them to reflect on their own journey to reinforce this, by asking how they feel their attitudes to science has developed since their mocks, or the start of year 11 or even since year 10.

Often when teaching multiple year 11 classes I sometimes can get mixed up in what I have said to who and what. This led to me accidentally not having this conversation with one of my classes which invertedly provided an accidental control group for this variable. The class I didn’t explicitly tell this to felt their confidence had dropped because they had perceived a sudden inability to do physics. They had attributed their perceived struggle to be an indication of their poor performance and as a result, believed they could not do it. Once I had realised my error, they felt reassured and when coupled with some low stakes questioning, to build their confidence, realised that they had not been underperforming, but rather that challenge has stepped up.

Expectations: When compiling my lessons, my PowerPoints often include exam practice. Not only does it reduce the exam anxiety, but it also enables students to be able to see the language, the structure and success criteria regarding answering questions. Prior to this challenging venture I would base my selection on what my students could answer. My rationale would be that it would show the students that they can answer exam questions and their knowledge does translate to the exam setting. Once I had started to provide students questions that required knowledge and skills that built on what I had taught them, it showed me that I was underestimating their capabilities. It also meant that students could see that I had high expectations of them, and often higher than they had of themselves. In showing them that I believed they could do the more difficult questions enabled them to use that faith to motivate themselves. Tom Sherrington in his blog on the power of expectations quotes Dr Bill Rogers “You establish what you establish” and later himself says “show that you really believe that excellence is possible from everyone”

Normalise Errors: Often students will have an all or nothing mentality when it comes to their marks. They struggle to understand that 3/6 doesn’t need to be perceived as missing out on 50%, but rather they have achieved half, and they only must achieve a little bit more. I have found myself guilty of trying to ensure students get 100% and can invertedly undermine the individual struggle that the student went through to achieve what they did and in doing so missing out on an opportunity to build their confidence. In readdressing my focus, it has also given me the ability to invite metacognitive questioning in my students and enabling them to evaluate their progress and build them up further for the next step. “Why do you think you didn’t necessarily make the next set of marks?”, “What do you think your successes were?”, “Why do you think I marked this 3/6?”

Everyone one can be challenged: Though most of this blog has referred to challenging the higher attaining students, all students should be able to be challenged sufficiently and without compromise to other students. I have a mixed ability class as well and often the level of challenge must be sculpted to the individual’s needs. In this class a few students have difficulty in rearranging equations, so when providing practice questions to my students, I ensure that some of those practice questions involve calculations that require rearrangements. While this does rely on knowing students’ individual strengths and weaknesses, it has made it easier to better define individual success criteria. Gone are the days of “Some, Most, All” learning objectives and instead scaffolding down to ensure all students reach the same end point.

By challenging students, not only do we enable students to be better prepared for academic success, but we also prepare them for challenges they may face outside of their school setting. Resilience and perseverance are key qualities for individuals to develop, and ones they may be unaware of the challenges they may face in their world outside of high school. When they give me their usual line of “when will I ever need to know this?” my usual reply is to tell them they may not. One may never need to know specific heat capacity ever again, or understand Newton’s laws of motion, but isn’t the idea of being able to learn something as abstract and complicated as that uplifting? Don’t you feel powerful knowing something as difficult as physics you have learnt and comprehended? And if not, I have at least provided you options, which is more valuable than anything. It is my sincere hope and intention that in training and exposing them to struggles and pushing them, I have enabled them to face challenges head on.

Fahim Rahman is a Science Teacher at Durrington High School.  He is also a Research School Associate for Durrington Research School

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