What is high challenge teaching?

This post appears in in Schools Week:

“A question for you: What does high challenge teaching look like?”

“Oh, easy answer: make the work harder”

“OK, another question – what is harder work?”

“Er… more difficult work?”

“And what is the nature of more difficult work?”

“[now trying desperately to break out of synonym soup] I suppose work which moves pupils on further and faster…”

“And how does the work achieve this?

“Umm… by being highly challenging?”

We were asked the first question at one of our regular trust Curriculum and Assessment Group meetings. Perhaps aware that playing with synonyms wasn’t going to take us any nearer to a useful definition, we didn’t spend time on this game!

We were also unlikely to attempt to define challenge by using descriptions of good summative performance.  In so doing, as  Christodoulou explains, we simply confuse ‘the description of a phenomenon with its explanation’.  Sure, an observer with subject expertise could decide a class must have been challenged because of the high quality of their work but if we define high challenge by what it achieves (described in summative level descriptions) we move no closer to defining what teaching that challenges looks like or what tasks provide the challenge that will lead to great performance in a summative assessment. Giving our own pupils these summative descriptions of their academic destination also moves them no closer to understanding the route to get there.

So we cannot define what high challenge teaching looks like by describing more successful outcomes. Perhaps we can reach a better answer by identifying the sorts of tasks that do move children on ‘further, faster’ as being ‘high challenge’. On the face of it this seems quite straightforward: “I will give my history class tasks that require them to really struggle with difficult concepts and explain those ideas in increasingly analytical extended writing.”

But this definition is flawed in several ways:

  1. Challenge varies by subject. Increasingly analytical extended writing won’t provide the requisite ‘high challenge’ in maths. The tasks that push pupils ‘further, faster’ vary enormously by subject. It seems the moment I use specific tasks to define challenge I have to abandon any non-subject specific description of ‘high challenge’.
  1. It goes beyond tasks. Surely in history the range and specificity of the knowledge students can deploy (a key summative descriptor of quality) will depend in part on the quality of prior teacher explanations? I’m going to have to abandon the attempt to define ‘high challenge’ just through the tasks pupils do.
  1. Challenge ≠ struggle. Does moving pupils ‘further, faster’ have to involve ‘struggle’ or difficulty? I’m very familiar with Direct Instruction programmes for literacy and maths and they are highly successful despite being designed to introduce new learning in easy, incrementally tiny steps. There is progress with no struggle. Working memory theory from psychology suggests cognitive overload is a threat to learning when tasks are complex which means struggle can be a bad thing.
  1. It’s about the process. My description of a ‘high challenge’ history task is not specific enough anyway. It is still really a summative description of success. What prior work would make success in this particular analytical task more likely? As Christodoulou points out ‘the process of acquiring skills is different from the product’.

The term ‘high challenge’ is often unhelpfully associated with the experience of struggle. Perhaps a class will feel challenged as they grapple with a complex text, assimilate detail or force themselves to knuckle down and learn when they aren’t in the habit of revising. However, a strong teacher explanation of a difficult concept and its use in different contexts might feel painless. The important practice of learning times tables to automaticity might even feel too easy.

I’ve realised that it is impossible to meaningfully define ‘high challenge’ in any general way. Summative descriptions simply define the outcome and the suitability of tasks is entirely context dependent. Observations can look at outcomes but teachers must simply use their expertise to ask themselves what actions will most efficaciously move their class forward ‘further, faster’ at any given time.

'May I be excused? The pressure is getting to me.'

The ‘quite tidy garden’ …or why level descriptors aren’t very helpful.

Dear Josh,

Thank you for agreeing to sort out our garden over your long holiday. As we’ll be away all summer here is a guide that tells you all you need to know to get

from this…

…to this

STEP A: You should begin by assessing the garden to decide its level. Read through these level descriptors to decide:

Level 1: Your garden is very overgrown. Any lawn has not been mown for some years. Shrubs have not been pruned for a considerable period. There are no visible beds and typically there will be large areas taken over by brambles and or nettles. There will probably be an abandoned armchair (or similar worn out furniture) somewhere in the overgrowth as well as assorted rubble and the old concrete base from a fallen shed. Boundary fencing will have collapsed.

Level 2: Your garden is just a little overgrown. The lawn is patchy though neglect and has only been mown sporadically. Shrubs generally have not been pruned recently. Beds look neglected and are not well stocked. There may be various forms of old rubbish abandoned in the far corners of the garden along with old lawn clippings and hedge trimmings. Boundary fences are in disrepair.

Level 3: Your garden is well tended. Lawns are mown regularly and contain no moss and weeds and shrubs are regularly pruned. Flower beds are well demarcated and contain no weeds. They are well stocked with appropriate bedding plants. The garden is quite tidy and boundary fencing is new and strong.


Josh, if you decide the garden is Level 1 (that is certainly our view) then I suggest you look at the Level 2 descriptor to guide you as to your next steps. It is clear that you need to move the garden from ‘very overgrown’ to ‘just a little overgrown’. For example, in a Level 1 garden, shrubs ‘have not been pruned for a considerable period’. You need to move on from that to a Level 2 garden where ‘shrubs have not been pruned recently’. The lawn needs to move from having ‘not been mown for some years’ to Level 2 ‘has only been mown sporadically’. Aim to move the boundary fencing on from Level 1 ‘will have collapsed’ to Level 2 ‘in disrepair’.  To move on from Level 1 for rubbish, for example, you’ll need to move that old armchair to a far corner of the garden.


Now move the garden from Level 2 to Level 3. This means you should ensure the garden is ‘well tended’ rather than ‘a little overgrown’. What useful advice!

Using level descriptors makes it so clear for you doesn’t it? Hubby is trying to insist that I also leave you his instructions but they are hopeless as he doesn’t understand that you need to know your next steps to make progress in gardening. He’s written reams and reams of advice including instructions like:

‘You’ll find the strimmer in the garage’

‘Start by clearing all the nettles’

‘Ken will come and help you shift the concrete’

‘The tip is open from 10-4 at weekends’

‘Marion next door can advise you about the best bedding plants to buy’

His instructions are just too specific to our garden. To learn the gardening skills that will achieve a Level 3 garden what you need is to really know your next level targets. I won’t confuse you by leaving you his nonsense!

We’ll see you in September and in the meantime we wish you happy gardening!


With apologies to any actual gardeners out there who know what they are talking about and enormous thanks to Daisy Christodoulou whose recent book helped me appreciate just why we shouldn’t use level descriptors as feedback.