#TLT15: Achievable challenge: walking the fine line between comfort and panic

scale up

Image: @jasonramasami

What follows is a write-up of my #TLT15 presentation on ways of challenging students without making the content unachievable. Enjoy.


In 1997, Strack and Mussweiler conducted a study into what is known as the ‘anchoring effect’ – the finding that we tend to let the first piece of information we receive about a subject influence our subsequent judgements about that subject. In their study, participants were asked whether Mahatma Gandhi died before or after the age of 9 or before or after the age of 140. Participants were then asked to guess how old Gandhi really was when he died. Even though the two original questions were plainly absurd they had an interesting effect on the later estimate: the average guess of the ‘before or after 9’ group was 50, the average of the ‘before or after 140′ group was 67.

The anchoring effect is a robust finding from experimental psychology which has been reliably replicated in various contexts. I believe that the finding acts as useful guidance to teachers. To truly challenge our students, to prime them for success, we must ‘anchor-in’ high expectations from the very off so that achievement can be measured by adjusting up or down from this point. Similarly, if the anchor is set too low so that content is less stretching, then, needless to say, success will be adjusted up and down from this inferior position.

As teachers, therefore, we need to ‘scale up’ our expectations, to encourage our students to aim for more. Yet this is not enough in itself. Handing our year 7s a copy of Shakespeare’s King Lear to read for holiday homework is unlikely to yield much success. Most probably, it will lead to despair and confusion. Challenge, therefore, needs to be achievable.

In our book, Making Every Lesson Count, Shaun Allison and I argue that challenge should be the driving force of everything we do as teachers, yet we also argue that it is not enough on its own. Through clear and carefully structured teaching, challenging and abstract subject content can become concrete and learnable. Challenge, we believe, should be the ethos at the heart of all planning:

expert teaching

Unfortunately, much that is promoted as good differentiation practice – personalised plans, worksheets at three different levels, etc. – is unmanageable and sometimes counterproductive. Differentiation, I think, is best understood as responsive teaching. Set the bar high for all students and then respond to student needs as and when they appear. This is a skill and an art – the best differentiation lies in knowing the students, knowing the subject and being fully prepared to adapt, adapt, adapt

Drawing on Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?, cognitive load theory and on Carol Deck’s mindset theory, Shaun and I have attempted to conceptualise three zones a student might be working in at any time in a lesson:

challenge zone

It is the ‘struggle zone’ we must be gunning for our – even if it is near impossible for 30 students, with their complex differences in prior knowledge, to all be there at once. As Professor Robert Coe states, “Learning happens when people have to think hard.” Having every student thinking deeply (and accurately) must be our learning Shangri-La.

So how do we create a challenging classroom climate?

1. Use single and challenging learning objectives. ‘All, most, some’ objectives can unintentionally ‘anchor-in’ low expectations; they send a subliminal message: I think that some of you aren’t clever enough to do this. By expecting all kids to aim for the best, we give them the opportunity to surprise us. Many do. That’s not to say, however, that some will not need extra support – they most certainly will.

2. Plan for what students will be thinking about. I spent the early part of my career planning lessons in terms of what I would be doing and what the students would be doing. Yet the evidence, as Professor Coe’s suggests, would seem to point to a third option: it is thinking that leads to learning. “Memory is the residue of thought,” as Daniel Willingham has famously pointed out.

3. Use scaffolds judiciously and with subtlety. Scaffolds, supports and worked examples allow students to practise at a stage beyond their current capability. We must use them carefully, though. If we let the scaffold do all the thinking for them, their learning might be little more than an illusion, much like the cathedral of air below.


4. Use ever-decreasing scaffolds. Over lessons, explain, model and guide to start with and then let students have a go on their own. Over schemes of work, consider the bedrock of knowledge needed for mastery and then gradually give them the chance to apply it independently. Over the year, scaffold heavily at the start and then begin to dismantle bit by bit.

5. Consider the balance between surface learning and deep learning. Some people dislike this distinction, pointing out that extensive ‘surface knowledge’ – knowing the facts about a topic – should not be considered inferior to ‘deep-knowledge’ – how we relate, link and apply this knowledge. I would agree – see here, for instance. Nevertheless, skilled teachers are able to judge perfectly when the right time is to switch from one to the other – and when to switch back again.

6. Create benchmarks of brilliance. Drop the anchor and set the status-quo in place by asking students to do something that truly challenges them very early on in their time in your class. See here for more details.

7. Remember that challenge is a long-term venture. It is a misunderstanding to consider challenge just in terms of individual lessons. In reality, these are only stepping stones to longer term goals. Often our plans will need to be torn up so that alternative routes can be forged. As long as the destination remains sharply in focus, how we get there and how quickly we get there become of less importance.


Sometimes, however, we can get challenge wrong – very wrong. These are mistakes I have often been guilty of and am still learning from:

• Relying on challenging individual lessons and tasks without a suitably challenging curriculum.

• Too much focus on progression; too little focus on expansion. (Do listen to Tim Oates on the importance of ‘understanding the same construct but in a wider range of settings.’)

• Substituting simplicity and clarity for unnecessary difficulty (which then overloads the working-memory). A classic example from my own lessons is asking students to look up the definition of new words in the dictionary. The definitions are much harder to grasp than they are from a clear explanation and subsequent practice.

• Continually asking for more without considering a child’s sense of self-worth. (See Sutton Trust report – What Makes Great Teaching?)

• Ignoring the building blocks of knowledge and going straight for the jugular – the ‘as-the-crow-flies’ error. Often, paradoxically, teaching that builds towards challenge is slow, methodical and goes back as well as forwards.


My #TLT15 session ends with these two questions:

1. How might these ideas translate into your school and teaching context?
2. Are there any gaps, inconsistencies or tensions in the ideas I have presented in this session?

Your comments are more than welcome.

Many thanks for reading.



8 thoughts on “#TLT15: Achievable challenge: walking the fine line between comfort and panic

  1. Thank you for sharing your session – followed link from #TLT15 chat on twitter. With respect to inconsistencies: Step 4 should come before step 3 in accordance with your opening point regarding “anchoring effect.” If you begin at a level beyond what you have taught a priori knowledge and methodology for then you are anchoring (at least the less knowledgeable students) in the panic zone regarding the subject as a whole. Students must be giving tools first, then set free to apply and innovate. Not vice-versa. -ClickVerse LLC

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  3. This is a really good explanation of how and why to challenge students in the classroom. When I lead professional development, I often get push back on this very idea; that stress (the good kind) is necessary for learning. And I’ve never heard a better explanation of why asking students to look up words in the dictionary is not a best practice.

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