Why is ‘challenge’ such a challenge?

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‘Challenge’ is one of those buzz-words being bandied about in education at the moment. You must challenge your students! Students in the UK are institutionally under-challenged! The new curriculum is designed to create rigour and challenge!

 In the video below – nicked from Shaun Allison’s post on challenge – John Hattie clarifies the great potential of acceleration and challenge. Most exciting to me is this statement: if students don’t understand something then ‘give them harder stuff, then come back’.

I have a hunch that ‘challenge’ might singularly be the most important day-to-day consideration for the average classroom teacher like me. But why do I have such a difficulty establishing and maintaining a challenging environment? Three answers come to mind immediately:

1. We make simple content and tasks more challenging than we need to. A classic example of this is the ‘dictionary challenge’ in English. We have students root out the meaning of words even though these meanings might have been more efficiently and more effectively explained by us in the first place. In the name of challenge, we have provided a task that slows down learning. Hattie’s simple advice – “tell them the answer and then show them how to get there” – is one way to counter this problem. Quite why we have developed an education culture where explaining things explicitly is seen as a weakness is quite beyond me.

2. The time for good planning is hard to find. If we are going to up the standard of our existing content and tasks, or develop alternatives, then we need the time to do this. So what do we drop instead? This is likely to be controversial but the answer seems obvious: the quantity of marking. Why? Because marking a piece of work that has not challenged the child means that we are unlikely to be able to give useful feedback. Yes, marking should inform challenge, but many teachers with a high marking load would, I am sure, agree that it can directly limit our capacity to plan more rigourous work.

3. The risk factor. It is safer for me to ask my students to, for instance, write a persuasive letter about uniform to the headteacher than it is to ask them to write a satirical argument. This is especially so if the outcomes of this task will be recorded as part of whole-school tracking and monitoring, and even more so if it is part of GCSE coursework or controlled assessment. The fear of taking risks is a side-effect of our current accountability culture.

However, before we challenge our students we must challenge ourselves and as such I have been reflecting on three types of challenge through the prism of my subject, English.

Challenge through content. At first glance, this is the one that we would seem to have less control over. The National Curriculum, exam syllabuses, school and subject leadership all hold sway here. In English, content is bound up in the texts we teach. A simplistic argument is that the more challenging the text is, the more our students will be challenged. This inevitably leads to a thornier issue: what constitutes a challenging text? Do we only choose our texts from the ‘dead white men’ of the established literary canon, aiming to immerse our students in what Matthew Arnold dubbed, ‘the best that which been thought or said’? Or do we adopt a pluralistic approach, teaching modern texts from a diversity of writers along with the traditional?

It seems to me that the issue here is not just which texts are being taught, but how they are being taught. Is skirting over Great Expectations, reading a handful of chapters on the way and superficially touching on plot and character, any more challenging than, say, a detailed full-text reading of The Hunger Games which explores sophisticated interpretations and insights? If we are going to create the conditions for challenge, how the content is delivered is as important as what the content is. Our explanations, our questions, and how we encourage students to talk and think about the content are key.

Challenge through task. Here the teacher has more control. If we are going to challenge our students, we must set them harder tasks – so the argument goes. Take these two essay questions taught by Teacher A and Teacher B:

Teacher A: How does Steinbeck present Lennie?

Teacher B: How does Steinbeck reveal his moral, social and philosophical ideas through the character of Lennie?

Clearly question two is the tougher question, but would it necessarily elicit the better answer? Taught well it is unquestionably a stronger question, yet I think it is entirely possible that the students of Teacher A might learn more than the students of Teacher B. Why? Because, once again, the quality of teaching that counts for more than the perceived challenge of the task. Exemplars, modelling and scaffolding must be of the highest realistic standard, yet also allow room for independence and a chance to think and struggle. Be that as it may, we must also be careful not to get too caught up in raw outcomes – the quality of the outcome might not always be an indication of the quality of learning.

Individual challenge. Challenge becomes more complex when we add into the mix the fact that for each student challenge means a slightly different thing. In a sense, it is easier to think of our students working towards two concurrent challenges: a) those that pertain to the whole class such as write a persuasive speech and b) those that pertain to the individual such as use at least five different sentence starters across a piece of extended writing. I like the idea of setting a ‘challenge’ for the next extended task when giving feedback, rather than a generic ‘target’ – it just seems more stimulating.

In spite of the caveats, the breaking-down and simplifying of challenge in terms of content, task and the individual has made things clearer for me. Here are a few decisions I have made recently in light of this:

  • To teach Y8 students how to write a Shakespearean sonnet.
  • To introduce Y9 students to a range of historic political speeches before they write their own on significant social issues (and not whether football is better than rugby!).
  • To spend more time planning the way I word my questions and explanations.
  • To ensure that students redraft work more often so as to complete the challenges I have set for them.
  • To bring encourage my Y11 top set to begin their ‘conflict poetry’ essays with famous quotes about war.
  • To set individual challenges for my KS3 students.
  • Not to change much with Y10s because the English Literature exam they will be sitting in May is challenging enough!

One final thought – forgive me if I am stating the bleeding obvious. I have come  to the conclusion that challenge is almost entirely bound up in the way we immerse children in language. This might be the language we encourage students to read, write, speak and think in, along with the language we model through speech and the written word. Ultimately, if we raise the quality of language, we raise the challenge. Simple?

Related posts:

Differentiating the responsive way

The Everest writing scaffold

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10 thoughts on “Why is ‘challenge’ such a challenge?

  1. “Ultimately, if we raise the quality of language, we raise the challenge. Simple?”

    Given that teaching — irregardless of the subject matter — is an activity that takes place through language (speaking, listening, reading, writing, thinking — all these using language), you have a point that attending to the ‘level’ at which we communicate in the classroom can impact the level of ‘ease’ or ‘difficulty’/challenge for our students.


    “1. We make simple content and tasks more challenging than we need to.”

    It sounds here like you’re attending to the quality/depth of the challenge, making things ‘more difficult’ without necessarily making the solving of the challenge more meaningful. There are lots of ‘challenging’ tasks that computers/machines can do marvelously. But in education, shouldn’t our goal be to help students face more ‘challenges’ that require unique human abilities to address/solve/face?

    • Thanks for commenting. My point about making simple things more difficult was about the way I have, in the past, shied away from telling students what they need to know. Instead, I have made knowledge acquisition into a challenge – like the dictionary example above – which then slows down the pace of progression.

  2. Number 2 here is so important. We’ve become so in thrall of the need for feedback that it had become a time-eater in too many cases, leaving the curriculum and planning to become neglected. And as you rightly say: good feedback on low-quality challenge is of little use

    • Thanks Michael. I often wonder what would happen if I stopped marking completely and reinvested all that time into quality planning (supported by reflection and research). Assuming I kept an eye in the work in the lessons and responded accordingly my hunch is that my students would learn more than they do now.

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