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Gawd, Toby, it’s bloody obvious! Nobody cares about a blog where you try to be contrary about something that we already know: challenge is MAKING THEM WORK HARDER. No, wait: hang on. Challenge isn’t about working harder but learning harder stuff. There.

Buuuut … No – isn’t it to do with the manner in which students approach a task? Or is it in a deliberately obscure way in which an evaluation is set up? Perhaps it’s just delivering the content in a more challenging way? No, that’s a tautology. So, challenge comes simply from the amount they’re expected to learn? Like I always say when reading a larger text, or writing more: it’s just more ink. (I don’t actually think that, but it’s a nice way to calm a class shocked at higher expectations). Hmm, I’m not convinced.

The thing about challenge is that it’s situational and contextual: challenge is being faced with something that requires great effort in order to be successful. That might mean more complex ideas but it also might mean performing a task, correctly, faster, completing more tasks in a shorter time, or being able to hold more – and increasingly complex – ideas, or facts, in one’s working memory in order to make more nuanced decisions, for example.

Now I don’t read too many Ofsted reports – my life is exciting enough as it is. But when I do the phrase that inevitably jumps out from any school adjudged to be Requiring Improvement is that too many students were ‘not sufficiently challenged’. 

Why is this? Well, partly it’s to do with underestimating what students can do, especially in Y7; it’s possibly also because teachers can find it difficult to balance the requirements of the exam with a suitably enriching curriculum; perhaps it’s also because of low expectations. There are many reasons.

But how do we make lessons more challenging?

If we’re often told that increasing challenge is vital then how might we do this? Just telling staff that their lessons aren’t challenging enough doesn’t really help. And it’s no good saying, ‘Well, imagine it’s GCSE/A level/undergraduate’ if that teacher hasn’t taught A level, or isn’t particularly academic: I reckon most teachers, while being interested in their subject beyond the classroom, don’t read teaching journals or write blogs. By telling teachers to make their lessons more challenging we run the risk of inadvertently making lessons inaccessible.

So what can teachers do in the classroom? 

Well, we could employ something like Work the clock. This Teach Like A Champion technique is all about fostering a culture where every second counts: three minutes on x, seven minutes on y. This might be appropriate if we’re drilling a technique, especially when it’s specific exam practice, because students have to think fast. However, this would be entirely inappropriate if we wanted them to be able to grapple with a more complex concept or technique.

We could ask questions which require of students more than short-term recall (not that there is anything wrong with that). We can even use statements instead of questions. If students need to answer a question which requires them to make links between facts which were initially covered six weeks ago with those discussed today then we’re forcing them to think harder. However, we also need to build that memory through repetition and constantly revisiting knowledge

We could just have damn high expectations, or give a certain number of key words that have to be included in written work, or deliberately obscure what might be straightforward by adding noise at an appropriate moment.

It’s important, though, to not just add more work.

What about Bloom’s?

We could use Bloom’s (or even something like SOLO, though I’ve made clear my objections here) but if students don’t have the knowledge to extend their thinking to the so-called higher orders then the taxonomy becomes rather vacuous.

Challenge is having consistently, and increasingly, high expectations.

When I explain chronology to Y7 I expect them to understand the roots of the word itself, to find other words with chrono or logy in them. When I set up glossaries I expect all my students to be constantly turning to them in order to speak with authority and specificity on the subject at hand. When a student gives an incorrect answer I say Thank you, but that’s incorrect: does anyone know why that’s incorrect? I don’t praise the mistake but the effort. If, and when, the class are consistently achieving full marks on their knowledge recall tests then I up the stakes: now it’s out of thirty, forty, fifty – I expect you to learn them.

Challenge is also about courage and experience.

Here, Harry Fletcher-Wood explains how deciding what to do with the results of hinge questioning is something that requires a lot of thought and planning. But it also takes courage: courage to, as an NQT especially, stretch students by expecting and requiring of them more knowledge and greater effort; courage to stretch students who might very well appear to be bored; courage to expect more in less time. That comes with experience, although experience is only worth anything if a teacher’s practice is, for want of a better word, reflective.

Challenge is teaching to the top.

The very worst thing any teacher can do is to teach to the middle. Instead teach to the top and scaffold where necessary. Expect the best. Expect them to know more. Expect them to do more with more. Expect them to do this in less time. Expect 100% in the test. Expect correct spellings, nominalisation and increasingly complex syntax. Don’t apologise for your confident and nuanced writing: help them understand, give them chance to practise and then expect it the next time. Be brave – students will complain: I wear as a badge of honour every Do you ever stop, Sir?, Argh, my hand hurts! and So much work! comment. 

I don’t think that’s too much to ask. It’s just teaching.