Reflecting on “Challenge”

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In our school this year we have been focusing on our four pillars of outstanding teaching and learning; Feedback, Independence, Challenge and Engagement. I have been looking in particular at Challenge.

Challenge seems to come up more than anything else in discussions following lesson observations or when looking at the plans of trainee teachers. “Where is/was the challenge?” I’ll find myself asking. Often the reply comes back “Well there is an extension task for anyone who finishes early…”.

For a long time this seemed to be the approach to challenge. That it was something “extra” for the more able and often used as something to keep them busy rather than to really push them. I carried out a little student voice activity looking at extension tasks and challenge and found that pupils gave very little value to these tasks and saw them as “filler”. Work scrutiny also showed that they were often rushed and often contained very little additional challenge anyway. If an extension task has value it needs to be the task.

Reading Making Every Lesson Count and 7 Myths About Education has encouraged me to look at challenge with fresh eyes and to make sure that every part of the teaching and learning process contains challenge.

  • At the start of the lesson pupils are confronted with a stimulus. Something to think about and to start forming questions. One lesson last week I used these compound bar graphs and ask the class “What challenges for global water management does this suggest?” This required them to interpret some reasonably complicated images and draw conclusions from them. The more able were forced to explain and justify their ideas to those who were struggling helping with their oral literacy – especially as I moved around the class and prompted rewording of some points.

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  • The next part of the lesson usually focuses on pupils increasing their knowledge. This may take the form of direct instruction and effective questioning, textbooks, studying maps and data, and video clips. For example we have been looking at whether the Lesotho Highland Water Project should have been built. To do this they have needed to increase their knowledge of patterns of precipitation in the region, contrast the development data of two countries and know the impacts of this scheme. Many of these concepts are by their nature challenging and complex.
  • Once pupils have acquired knowledge they are challenged to apply it. In the case above they answer the question “Should the LHWP have been built?” The challenge here is to apply their knowledge to a real world problem. As pointed out in 7 Myths About Education – without knowledge first being accquired pupils cannot move on to so-called “higher order thinking skills”. In the past I would have highly differentiated this task and pupils would have completed quite different work. After reading “Making Every Lesson Count” though I have changed my approach somewhat and instead differentiate the support offered in order for everyone to complete it. Many pupils will be given the task and have the expectations for a good answer made clear (and often modelled) and are then left to work on it. Some pupils will receive far more support as they work on it. I will read their work and give them feedback as they go, make suggestions or help them to apply some of the more complex ideas from earlier in the lesson. Very few pupils will have the task broken down into easier to follow steps as they are not yet ready to write extended pieces. This scaffolding will be removed slowly as they make progress.
  • Once the lesson has finished they receive feedback on their work. Much of this feedback will be verbal – especially if there have been common issues with the work of the class that they all need to work on. Other feedback will be written in to their books and will be targeted to particular needs. This continues the theme of challenge as the class are now challenged to improve their work to ensure it is excellent – remembering our department motto “If it’s not excellent it’s not finished.” They make these improvements based on feedback I have given, the criteria for excellent work we have shared and by looking at each others work for inspiration.

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One thing I have come to realise as I have focused on Challenge this year is that you cannot do that without also focusing on our other 3 pillars; Feedback, Independence and Engagement. If pupils are not engaged in their learning they are not going to be making progress and are not going to be feel challenged to improve. They need to know how to respond to feedback and they need to be able to develop their skills to do this independently. Without all 4 pillars the teaching and learning platform collapses.

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