Just how easy is ‘high expectations for all’?

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Image: @jasonramasami

As the new school year springs – or lumbers! – into life, I have been thinking about the beliefs I have about my students. Like all dedicated teachers, I would vehemently argue that I have the highest expectations for each and every student I teach. How dare you suggest otherwise!

But do I really? And more to the point: is it possible for any teacher to have genuinely high expectations of every student?

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, shares the following experiment. Participants were given this question:

An individual has been described by a neighbour as follows: “Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.” Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? (P6)

Did you go for librarian? I thought so. So did I. Your associative mind made it impossible to avoid this immediate assumption. Yet, as Kahneman reveals, there are twenty male farmers for every male librarian. (These statistics come from the United States, but I imagine that the ratio is not too dissimilar over here in the UK.) Statistically, it is more likely that Steve is a farmer even though his description matches our stereotypical understanding of a male librarian. Human thinking, Kahneman shows us, is prone to making judgements through a reliance on heuristics (rules of thumb that take the place of deeper thinking). The heuristic in this case was that a male library attendant is ‘meek and tidy’ and a male farmer is not. Judgements are immediate and implicit and they will form our expectations before we are even aware of them.

Now let’s segue to this morning as I slouched at my desk and put together some seating plans for this year’s classes. Some of the classes I had taught last year and some were new to me. I was looking through a list of names when I came upon ‘Ryan’. Now consider the fact that I had never met Ryan before and I had no data or information to go on: Ryan needs to sit near me at the front, I thought. A couple of minutes later, I came to the name Benedict. Benedict will be fine – put him at the back.

Now in my teaching career I have taught a few Ryans – one or two of them have been a little on the tricky side, but the majority have been paragons of virtue. As for Benedict? Well, I have never taught let alone met a person by that name! Yet his name made me smile – internally, at least. The tragic, brutal truth was that my initial expectations of both children – before even a photo, prior data or target grade; before even a glimpse of their brimming 12-year-old faces – were beginning to form implicitly, beyond my control. Kahneman also describes the priming effect: when we are exposed to a stimulus it can subconsciously influence our response to another stimulus. In this case, their names led to the first stirrings of an implicit judgement of their character and ability.

A little later in the day, I caught myself at it again. A year 10 student had surprised me in her summer GCSE English literature exam by performing better than expected (see, there’s that word again…). I was marking a piece of her creative writing from the back-end of last term and, low and behold, I was noticing things about her work I had never noticed before. Yes there’s a real fluency here. A lovely turn-of-phrase in this sentence too. My response to her work was transforming favourably in light of my new understanding of her. This time, an unexpected letter next to her name had raised my future expectations of her. Would I have read her work through the same filter if I she had not achieved that grade I wonder?

Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s study, 1968, into the Pygmalion Effect is one all teachers should know about. Teachers were told by researchers that a group of students were expected to be ‘spurters’ (an interesting turn-of-phrase I know!) over the coming year and should make significantly more progress than their peers. In fact, these students were chosen at random. The findings were shocking: these students really did make more progress than their peers even though they had no ostensible advantages. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: teacher expectation had had a genuine impact on learning. Rosenthal and Jacobsen posited four reasons for this: teachers create a warmer climate for those they believe to be more academically able; teachers teach more material to these children than they do to those they label as ‘dumb’; teachers also give them more chance to respond verbally; and teachers give them more feedback. See the following video for more information:

Coupled with this is the fact that ‘self-reported grades’ comes out as the top ‘effect size’ in John Hattie’s meta-analysis. In effect, this relates to students’ expectations of themselves – they are remarkably good at predicting how well or badly they will perform in a future test. Hattie states: “Our job is to never meet the needs of kids…our job is to help kids exceed what they think they can do.” Our job as teachers, then, is not only to raise our own expectations, but crucially to raise students’ expectations of themselves. Presumably, these self-expectations are formed from a hotchpotch of factors including teacher expectation, parental expectation, peer expectation and previous academic success. To disrupt and readjust these often entrenched presuppositions is no mean feat. Watch Hattie speaking about this here.

It might be a  KS2 score or a letter next to a name (L, M, H), it might be a word in your ear from a form tutor, it might be an uncharacteristically sloppy first piece of work or it might simply be the expression on a face… over the next couple of weeks you will, consciously and subconsciously, form hundreds of expectations based on the information in front of you. It would be impossible not to. Schools face a tricky dilemma. It seems intuitive to share as much helpful prior information about students as possible with teaching staff, but might this militate against the success we want our students to achieve through the unwanted side-effect of crystallising expectations at too early a stage?

I am usually one of life’s cynics, apart from in one domain. Despite what statistical evidence and common sense tell me, every season I expect Tottenham to win the league. This year my view was augmented by the fact that I had sound evidence that our new manager, Mauricio Pochettino, would build a tremendous, world-beating team spirit. (A former student of ours, a professional player at Southampton – Pochettino’s previous club – had shared with us the manager’s ability to generate a great team spirit and a winning mentality.) It seems strange, however, that this type of optimism rarely finds its way into my thinking about students.

And so, fighting back the expectation-whispering devils as best I can, I will try my hardest to put the data to one side and begin the year with unlimited optimism.

 

Related post: Reflections on a successful student 

Postscript – It would appear that, after a little extra reading, the Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s research into the Pygmalion Effect showed quite modest effects. I may have been guilty of hyperbole in my description of the study. However, this does not detract from the main argument of the post: that we should be wary of jumping to assumptions about students too quickly. Follow the link in the comment from dodiscimus below.

Reflections on a successful student

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 Image: @jasonramasami

“Can he get an A*?”

In the autumn term, when Rasheed’s father asked me this at year 10 parents’ evening, I squirmed in my seat. My mind screamed, “NO, he’ll get a B.” Eventually my vocal chords, with little assertion, found a compromise:

“I’m not sure, but if he works hard he might achieve an A.”

Rasheed – not his real name – has a MEG (a ‘minimum expected grade’) of a B, and I rather think that the anchoring effect, as described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, was playing its hand. Kahneman writes:

“It occurs when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity. What happens is one of the most reliable and robust results of experimental psychology: the estimates stay close to the number the people considered – hence the image of an anchor.”

The effect has been shown to influence and constrain our thinking beyond our control. My prediction for Rasheed, therefore, was probably anchored to that ‘B’ that sits adjacent to his name on my class list. If you had asked for my reasons, I would have claimed that my prediction was based on my understanding of his current ability.

On closer scrutiny, my reasoning reveals an uncomfortable prejudice: my subconscious belief that a student working at Rasheed’s level at the start of year 10 is only capable of achieving a B by the end of the year. (Our students complete their English literature GCSE in year 10).

Here is a random paragraph from Rasheed’s work taken from October. He was writing about John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

“George was in disbelief as he sat ‘stiffly’ on the bank, he was frozen with shock. He also ‘looked at his right hand that had thrown the gun away,’ this means that he was emotionaly numb. It may also suggest that he was angry at what his ‘right hand’ just did, it shot his friend. It shows that he wanted to blame it on something. Steinbeck used these words to replicate how frightened he was after he shot Lennie.”

There is little real analysis here, just a gunfire list of descriptive inferences. On such evidence, a B might seem more than a fair target.

At the end of June, after the students had completed their literature exam, we returned to Of Mice and Men to write their English language controlled assessment. Eight months on, here’s a sample of Rasheed’s writing:

“Furthermore, she reveals a more dominant side when she stands ‘over him’. Here Steinbeck describes physical levels to illustrate social hierarchy. To emphasise her power, Steinbeck uses the metaphor ‘whip’, a harsh sounding word that not only stings Crooks but the reader as they feel his pain. This onomatopoeic word generates images of slavery, which was abollished many years before, yet is still remembered to this day. Hence, we could speculate that Steinbeck felt a certain degree of sympathy for Crooks. Moreover, it conjures up images of a slave master, Curley’s Wife and Crooks, the slave. It is this that gives Curley’s Wife a vociferous tone. When Crooks had ‘reduced himself to nothing’, our sympathy is eroded away from Curley’s Wife and deposited into Crooks. On closer analysis, it might seem that by describing Curley’s Wife as powerful, he is actually exposing her weakness as Crooks is the only person she feels she can attack.”

This paragraph, written under controlled conditions, represents the journey Rasheed has gone on this year. Even though his ideas are not completely polished, you will notice a new-found maturity of style and depth of analysis. A* is a not a million miles away.

Rasheed, it is fair to say, has blossomed over the past three or four months, and not only when writing about Of Mice and Men! When we witness such success, it is important to attempt to unearth the causes.

First, of all it is worth mentioning the curriculum plan. It was a risk entering every year 10 student for English literature this year; we will find out in the summer how successful this approach has been. However, the quality of the controlled assessments we recently moderated, along with the supporting data, shows unanimously that a year of analytical writing practice has paid dividends across the year group. The quality of the writing about the novella was further enhanced, I believe, by the knowledge students had of the text; as they already knew the storyline and themes well, they were able to find extra layers of meaning with relative ease. Rasheed’s progress, then, is partly explained by the general picture.

Yet this is not the full story. I would like to claim a little bit of his success for myself. The most obvious affect I have had as a his teacher has been through my teaching of essay writing (see this post on life after PEE). I would contend that his writing has improved not only through an improvement in his ability to access more subtle ideas, but also through an improvement in his ability to express himself through analytical language. This improvement has been replicated across the class, to various degrees, and it is something I have taught explicitly through a range of modelling and scaffolding strategies. Pleasingly, I can detect my influence in his work.

But of course there is more. Rasheed exudes the growth mindset. His effort levels are quietly impressive. Since the beginning of term, he has often waited behind after lessons to ask what he can do improve and what we will be studying next. He listens, nods, says ‘thank you’ and goes. I will never forget the time he arrived at a lesson and asked which poem we were covering today. I told him – it was one we had not covered in class before – and he smiled.

“Yes, that’s one of my favourites,” he replied.

His progress, however, cannot just be explained away by in-school factors. Rasheed’s father, clearly, has sky-high expectations for his son (expectations, unfortunately, that were not shared by his English teacher at the beginning of term). The research into mindset suggests that there is a cultural element to the attribution of success. In many Asian cultures, success is more likely to be attributed to hard work and effort than it is in the West, where too often success is linked to talent. His cultural roots may well be significant.

Perhaps there are other opaque factors at play too, factors that we as educators may never fully grasp hold of. What has happened within his mind? What invisible neural connections have fizzed together this year? Is he a thinker? Does he sit at home on his bed mulling over what he has learnt today? Or does he pace around the house religiously rehearsing the sentences he will write in his next piece? Who knows?

Success is a complex concoction. To understand its richness accurately we must not only engage with robust educational research, but also zoom in on those fascinating individual case studies readily available to us. Our students.

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Last week, I asked Rasheed whether he realises how much he has come on in English. His response is instructive:

“I didn’t know I could improve so much.”

Neither did I.

(Thanks to those of you who have taken the time to read my scribblings over the past few months. It is time for me to take a holiday from teaching and blogging. I aim to be back again in September. Enjoy the break.) 1DA9A47D-5771-4594-9E10-B11AEE763898 79B58F87-24F3-4F60-BF0D-50FE8E422E2D

Differentiation: making possible the impossible

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Image: @jasonramasami

When I think about the students I teach, I probably should make a beeline to their personality traits – their helpfulness, cheerfulness, kindness or pain-in-the-backside-ness. Or, perhaps, I should visualise an image of their pimply or foundation-masked faces. But no. Instead, etched in this particular English teacher’s mind’s eye, is their handwriting. Eddie’s hideous scrawl that hides his mature and concise control of syntax. Imogen’s perfectly curlicued lettering that can’t quite disguise a simplistic matter-of-factness of style. Tom’s horror-show spelling that can sometimes be forgiven because of an unexpected rhetorical flourish.

They are all different, very different. Now let’s multiply these three by ten and we have your average class. Grades and levels might help me group these thirty into smaller groups, yet even within these smaller groups the range, in terms of what they can do and can’t do, and in terms of what they know and don’t know, is startling. In fact, it is impossible for me to hold all this complex data in my mind at one time. This difficulty is further compounded by the truth that never will I be able to see inside minds and memories to discover the extent of comprehension that exists beyond what appears on the page or what is uttered from the mouth.

Graham Nuthall’s incredible research, detailed in his book The Hidden Lives of Learners, shows how each student enters the classroom with very different prior knowledge even if their ability is broadly similar. New knowledge, as we know, can only be assimilated in the memory by attaching itself to existing knowledge schemas. This means, in effect, that each and every child will experience our lessons differently and so learn very different information and concepts from the same lesson. Nuthall’s amazing finding was that about a third of what a student learns is unique to that student and is not learned by other students in the class.

So, differentiation – or challenging all at the level of need – is pretty hard. In an attempt to paper-over this uncomfortable truth, I have attempted many teaching strategies. Unfortunately, however, each of these strategies has seemed to both fix the problem and simultaneously create a new problem:

• If they work in ability groups, then the more-able can stretch each other…yet the less-able might hold each other back.

• If they work in mixed-ability groups, then the more-able can support the less-able…yet it is harder to challenge the more-able with new material in this scenario.

• If students are given different tasks, then they will have work suited to their ability…yet confusion about how to complete the task is more likely as each task will need separate instructions.

• If I only ask simple questions to the less-able, then they will be more confident when talking in class…yet they will not be stretched by challenging, higher-order questioning.

• If I only ask challenging questions to the more-able, then their thinking will always be stretched…yet it might be that they too need testing on their basic understanding.

And the list goes on…It seems, therefore, that attempts to differentiate can militate against the very learning I am trying to elicit. The above are all useful teaching strategies, of course, but are they useful differentiation strategies? It seems to me that too much that goes by the name of ‘differentiation’ is driven by deficit. It focuses on what they can’t do now, rather than what they might be able to do in the future. This is further compounded by the fact that the more ‘different’ learning experiences I try to plan into one lesson, the more time consuming it becomes to plan and the more watered-down my effect becomes. I cannot deliver six different lessons as effectively as I can one. 

So what’s the solution? Clearly our students are all so different that they cannot be taught through the same methods, can they?

Well, perhaps they can. When I reverse my thinking I find the complexity a little easier to cope with. It may be impossible to tailor work to the level of each individual in every single lesson. However, over a longer period of time – a year, a key stage – it is less daunting. That’s why I think that differentiation can never be measured in an individual lesson; it might look like they are all learning or being challenged, but you can bet your bottom dollar they are not. My way of looking at it is that if our students  make progress over time, irrespective of ability, then we are surely differentiating well.

So here are my four – very simple and obvious – suggestions for creating a classroom culture that might ensure that all abilities thrive.

1. An ethos of hard work and sky-high behavioural expectations must be established. As Dweck’s mindset research has ascertained, students must attribute success to hard-work; failure must be normalised, or even celebrated, as part of this ethos.

2. High challenge is essential. However, we must accept that it is not realistic to expect that every lesson is challenging for all. At times we need to, as Doug Lemov suggests, ‘encode success’ through practising the basic knowledge and skills that underpin our subject areas. Challenge, therefore, is about imagining where the student might get to in the future and then leading them there, however circuitous the journey.

3. Responsiveness is key. We must anticipate as best we can the needs of our individual students, yet we must always be prepared to act and respond to the unanticipated needs too. See my post on the matter.

4. Differentiation is no bolt-on. It should be infused in everything we do. How might we explain complex and abstract ideas with clarity and concision? How might we break up complex questions into a simpler, yet no less challenging, series of questions? How might we deliver instructions in the most meaningful way? How might we, as David Didau might say, make the implicit thought processes of experts, explicit to our students? Etc, etc.

Please don’t see this argument as an excuse for binning differentiation as a frame of reference; in fact, I see it as quite the opposite. Let me finish on a slightly pretentious note. The concept or ‘force’ known as Brahman comes from the Hindu religion – it is said to be the ultimate reality or ‘soul’ underlying all phenomena. Perhaps the following analogy for Brahman could also apply to how differentiation might melt into everything we do:

When you throw a lump of salt into water, it dissolves; you cannot take it out again, and hold it in your hands. Yet if you sip any part of the water, the salt is present. In the same way the soul can be perceived everywhere and anywhere; the soul has no limit or boundary.

— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4.1–4, 8

Related posts:

Why is challenge such a challenge?

Differentiating the responsive way

What I learnt about great teaching from learning to brew beer

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Image: @jasonramasami

Four years ago I became, almost despite myself, an all-grain brewer. What does this mean, you ask? It means that I can design a beer recipe. I can choose from a dizzying range of ingredients. I can combine hops, malt, yeast in an ancient scientific alchemy. I can manage the fermentation process. I can bottle-up and wait impatiently for maturation. And I can drink the stuff. Litres of it.

If I think back five years, however, I had not the slightest interest in becoming a homebrewer. If you had told me that within a year I would be able to make my own amber nectar, I would have thought you absurd. I have few practical skills, I don’t have a head for science and the closest I’d ever come to real ale was a pint of the mass-marketed stout known throughout the land as Guinness.

So what happened? My transformation was driven entirely by my friend, brewing expert and fellow English teacher Gavin McCusker. Gav decided he would like a brewing partner and that I was his man. Right from the get-go his vision of my brewing potential surpassed my imagination of who I was and what I was capable of.

This post reflects on my experience as a novice ale-maker and what I have learnt about the experience of being a learner…

Let’s get started. The learning process Gav took me through was devoid of any teaching ideology; instead it was purely pragmatic. How would he use the limited time we had to turn me into the discerning and skillful brewing buddy he so desired? He decided to take the hard option: he would need to design me in his own image. I was to be his apprentice.

The brew-day itself is the key to brewing; it is far more complex than managing fermentation (the few weeks that it takes for yeast to convert sugars to alcohol) and bottling. To master brewing, you need to master the brew-day.

1. It started off with watching Gav, the expert, in action. He modelled the processes, talking me through a huge range of procedures from mashing, to sparging, to boiling, to cooling the wort… Needless to say, it was very challenging and not a little confusing (made even more so by the fact that it is de rigueur to knock back one or two ‘sample’ ales along the way).

2. As Gav explained, he flaunted his mastery of the brewer’s glossary, refusing to ‘dumb-down’ for the sake of easy comprehension. The boiler was the ‘kettle’, the sticky pre-hopped fluid was the ‘wort’, the grain was ‘malt’. He took time to explain how ‘alpha acids’ determine bitterness, the way alcohol levels are measured in ‘gravity’.

3. The next time we brewed together it was more of a collaborative venture. Gav allowed me to practise the basic processes one-by-one while he managed the overall sequence. Instant feedback was readily available – I remember he was distinctly unimpressed by my stirring technique!

4. Gav was insistent that I did not buy specialist brewing equipment. Abiding by frugal ideals, the genuine homebrewer fashions ones own utensils. We made a brewing ‘kettle’ from the combination of an old chutney vat and an element taken from a Tesco Value kettle; we insulated the ‘mash tun’ with a couple of tent mattresses from Argos. It was slow, frustratingly time-consuming, but helped me to understand the minute mechanics of what I was learning.

5. When it was finally time for me to brew alone, Gav provided a written scaffold: an exhaustive list of procedural instructions, calculations and a recipe. He was available on the phone to answer my questions, but ultimately I was left alone, independent. And guess what? I made my first beer!

6. On cracking open and sipping my first brew I was up for more. I read around the subject, deepening my understanding as I did. Eventually, I designed my own beer from start to finish: Pepper Porter. Made from a mixture of pale malt, chocolate malt and roasted barley, it was named after Pepper, my dog. With chocolatey bitter depths, boy it was good on a winter’s evening!

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7. Over time, my beer preferences have diverged from Gav’s. He prefers the heavily-hopped American-style beers all the rage in the Brighton area at the moment; I prefer something sweet, malty and more traditionally British.

8. Since learning to brew, I have experimented with many styles of beer. There have been disasters along the way (like the day the beer leaked out of the fermenting vessel, through the floor and dripped onto the head of my son’s visiting great-grandmother!). There have also been many successes too: such as the beer I brewed, to much acclaim, for my best friend’s wedding. Unfortunately, due to the demands of life, I have not brewed for several months. I know, however, I will pick it up again easily when I have the chance. It’s like riding a bike.

The process Gav took me on was not a self-conscious one; instead it was entirely organic. However, it mirrors remarkably the ‘Big 5’ that Shaun Allison has identified at my school. Beginning with the initial challenge, we moved through explanation, modelling and collaboration, all supported by feedback, questioning and scaffolding.

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The process took time. It is now firmly embedded in my long-term memory. The sequence would have pleased the cognitive scientist. It involved repetition, spaced-out learning and the interleaving of procedural steps.

All the above factors, however, were not the most crucial. The most crucial factor was my teacher, Gav. He was indefatigable, never giving up on the vision of the brewer I could become, even if I was ready to throw in the towel on more than one occasion. His quest was relentless. At 7.30 on a Monday morning, he would come into my classroom to ask about my latest ‘gravity reading’. When I was having trouble with the ‘false-bottom’ of my mash tun, he took it to the DT room after school to perfect. His infectious enthusiasm for brewing exuded from every pore of his body. He encouraged, commiserated, cajoled, comforted and bullied me into becoming a brewer, never once allowing me to believe that this was not possible.

If brewing was an academic subject, my target grade, based on prior practical ability, would have been a D. In brewing terms, a D would be the equivalent of being able to brew a hop-less wort (which, unless you like sickeningly sweet Horlicks, would be entirely pointless not to mention unpalatable).

So what did my experience as a novice brewer teach me about teaching? Firstly, that for all the expert teaching methodology and research in the world, the relentless belief of the teacher in the student’s potential is the glue that binds everything together. Secondly, that expectation is everything: the teacher must make the unimaginable imaginable. And thirdly, that learning, with all its short-term setbacks, must be a long term venture.

Of course, Gav did not have a class of 25 in front of him; he was teaching me one-to-one. We also had a very tangible goal – lots of cheap beer! – to work towards. Even so, Gav taught me many lessons. This week, my Y8s have been set a Shakespeare sonnet to recite from memory. Some have managed it first time, others have not. It would be so easy to say to those who have struggled, “It’s okay, you gave it your best shot.” But no, instead I have said: “Go and practise again over the weekend. I know you can do it.” I became a brewer, they can learn a sonnet.

Cheers Gav!

 

Related posts:

Why is challenge such a challenge?

Differentiating the responsive way

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?

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