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.'

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6 thoughts on “What is high challenge teaching?

  1. Whenever I see the word ‘challenge’ applied to education, I count the spoons. Teaching basic literacy skills in the days before the Rose Review, every single pupil I taught had already been challenged to the point of destruction. At first I used Engelmann’s direct instruction programmes–the scripted lessons could be used by TAs and parents, so my pupils could get short lessons every school day (I only had 5 minutes per week for each pupil on the SEN register for poor literacy skills). However, even Spelling Mastery moved too fast for most SEN pupils; after all, it was designed as a whole-class programme. I wrote lots of supplemental material to fill in the gaps, but eventually I wrote my own direct instruction materials.

    I learned a lot from Tony Branwhite’s ‘Designing Special Programmes’. One of his cardinal rules was that if there was any possible way a task could be misconstrued, it would be. Far from being an opportunity to learn, making a mistake was a step backward: not only was the pupil’s confidence dented, but you had to work that much harder to instill the correct response. I learned that whenever a pupil started making mistakes, it was time to back up and cover previous material again.

    For a long time, I thought that this kind of careful, step-by-step teaching was only necessary for teaching basic skills to kids with some degree of ‘dyslexia’. Now I’m not so sure. Making learning into a struggle is simply perverse–if you make it as easy as possible for your pupils to learn, they can learn one hell of a lot faster. What’s more, they will be more motivated to learn if they aren’t always playing Sisyphus.

  2. Thanks for this post Heather. I took on the role of Gifted and Talented coordinator 18 months ago and I’ve tried to encourage a subject specific approach to challenging students rather than generic identification and provision across the school. This is a great explanation of the complexities behind building meaningful challenge in lessons and I am going to share this post with staff as it shows why we should be thinking carefully about subject specific progression and the process of building challenge across lessons rather than complexity of tasks or activities in lessons.

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