This is a write up of my talk from Practical Pedagogies in Cologne, November 2018.
‘Unapologetically ambitious, unashamedly academic’
This is the mantra I share with my students at the start of every academic year, and it’s something we return to when we need a boost. I am currently teaching in the same community where I grew up. It’s taken me nearly a decade, but I’ve earned my stripes in a number of other schools and communities across West Yorkshire in order to return to my old stomping ground. I am incredibly grateful for the foundation which my childhood has given me, but as someone who grew up in a single parent family in an area which ticked all the boxes for social deprivation, someone who attended a (technically) failing school and wouldn’t have been expected to do particularly well, I want to give voice to something:
So called ‘disadvantaged’ students don’t want you to make things ‘accessible’, we want you to make aspiration possible. Don’t take it slowly, take it easy on us or limit what you teach so that we can ‘get it’. Instead, be even more demanding, even more ambitious, and help us to catch up with our more privileged counterparts.
A school does not need to be ‘outstanding’ to challenge students and get the best out of them. Though the school I attended had its difficulties, it was the individual teachers, their care, their intelligence and their belief in me which meant that I went on to be successful. Bright, poor kids can do really well if they:
- Have teachers they KNOW believe in them
- Are confident that their teachers have the knowledge and ability to stretch them
Students will never hold it against you for being demanding, relentless and rigorous, as long as they feel that you believe in them and will support them to achieve.
What is Challenge?
Challenge is a highly abstract, subjective concept. Educators and philosophers have tried to define and explore challenge for generations. My colleague Dan Eastwood has written an excellent explanation of Czikszentmihalyi’s theory of ‘Flow’ on our school T&L blog here.
Essentially, attempts to take ‘challenge’ from abstract to concrete are all based on finding the optimal level of difficulty on a scale from easy to hard. Using a scale like this is incredibly helpful because it gives us a mechanism to help us measure challenge, and to talk about it. Most important, it helps students to talk about it.
A classroom which is challenging for all is one where all students have work which is the most appropriate for them. Sound familiar? Best practice in teaching always boils down to the same thing; whether we call it Challenge, Differentiation or Personalisation, it is always just: knowing our students and acting accordingly.
Why is challenge important?
In a recent HMI visit to our school, an inspector asked our student panel, “On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is completely empty, and 10 is full to bursting, how full is your brain by the end of the school day?”
I think this really goes to the heart of things. By the end of the school day, students should feel full of new knowledge and understanding, and should be tired out by all the work their brains have been doing!
Challenge has obvious benefits:
- accelerated progress
- makes lessons feel meaningful
- leads to greater engagement
- meeting challenge leads to aspiration
As educators, we know this. What we often aren’t aware of, however, is the role of challenge as a vital part of the mechanical process of learning.
If the brain finds something difficult, or encounters failure, it grants it personal significance. High challenge = better learning.
To read more about the cognitive learning process (how the brain learns things, and why challenge is a key part of this), see my blog here.
So, give them work which is highly challenging, and they are more likely to transfer new information to long term memory. Work which is too easy is generally ineffective in terms of the learning process.
This high challenge will also be more powerful if students themselves are aware of the research around learning and the brain. Tell students that challenge is good for them, get them to embrace it, and encourage them to ask for it.
Practical Strategies for the Classroom
I believe strongly that there is very little difference between half-decent teaching, and brilliant teaching. Anyone who tells you that there is a single silver bullet or solution, and that you should make big changes to your practice, is a snake-oil salesman and should be avoided. ANY teacher can be highly effective in the classroom by making tiny tweaks to their practice; don’t re-invent the wheel or change your style.
Tweak 1: Vary Cognitive Load Demand
Cognitive load theory is the consideration of how much we are asking students to do at once, and whether or not it is manageable. To be truly challenging, we want to get this exactly right, and there are many things about our planning and delivery that we can do to make subtle alterations to this. See this great blog by Adam Boxer: Simplifying Cognitive Load Theory for more detail.
Tweak 2: Awareness and Articulation
Empower your students to do the work for you; if they can tell you that they need more challenging work, that is learning gold!
I’ve shown this resource in previous posts, but it’s a good one! Give students a blank version of this ‘comfort, stretch, panic’, then get them to write in each space what this looks like for them in your classroom.
This is one student’s first attempt at this activity. In red, she has looked at the skills in her ‘panic’ area. and begun to think metacognitively: How does it feel? Why might that be? What can your teacher do to help you overcome this?
I also use paint sampler scales and chilli scales, things you will have seen before, to help students to identify how challenging things feel…
If students can identify what feels challenging, the next step is for them to think about how you could challenge them even more. This is quite advanced metacognition, but it is possible to give them scaffolds to help them with this initially (see below). If students have independently asked you for more challenging work, or even suggested to you what their next step will be, then engagement in learning will be higher because they have ownership.
Tweak 3: Language – explicit, purposeful planning
Students who use sophisticated language are able to express themselves with greater precision and elegance. In my opinion, this is the most high-impact tweak you can make if you’re in a writing subject. My blog here explores some simple strategies for teaching sophisticated vocabulary and expression.
Tweak 4: Disciplinary Literacy
In his book ‘Don’t Call it Literacy,’ Geoff Barton argues that literacy is not the same in every academic discipline, and therefore we shouldn’t pretend that it is. My school this year is using this principle and teaching children the unique academic writing styles which are required in each aubject area. Students aren’t just learning to write; they are writing like historians, biologists, politicians, novelists and critics. This is hugely important for maintaining high levels of challenge because we can set the bar high – “you have the process right, Jordan, but what adverbs would a chemist use to describe the reaction?”, “accurate response, Alima, but how would a businesswoman have said that in a sales pitch?”
This approach requires collaborative planning in department areas, the sharing of expertise, and the development of resources to support different writing styles. When in place, it can produce some excellent responses:
Tweak 5: High Level Models – pitch to the top
Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead) wrote a great blog on Teaching to the Top, where he talks about setting the bar as high as possible and scaffolding downwards. One way I try to do this is by only ever using models which are aspirational for the students in front of me. More often than not, I use only top level models, sometimes showing things which are A Level standard for GCSE students. This might sound a little extreme to some, but it is a teacher’s job to make this feel accessible, to break it down and show students how good writing is constructed.
Here is an example of a top band poetry paragraph. Students have picked it apart, analysed it, identified the key phrases, skills and vocabulary. You can see along the bottom that there are a high number of sophisticated vocabulary choices.
I also use full marks responses as part of whole class feedback sheets. With the example below, students looked at the model, then at their own attempt, then identified things which the model did which they hadn’t done. Their next draft aimed to close some of those gaps in their writing.
Here is an example of a student’s work who has been exposed to full marks models for six months. At the start of the year he was writing at a grade 2. The difference here is remarkable.
Tweak 6: Multi-faceted, personalised success criteria
Using success criteria to frame any substantial task is crucial in my opinion. Students know what you’re looking for, you know what you’re feeding back on; everyone knows where they stand. I like to use success criteria as an initial list of things students need to do to be successful in a task (use the author’s name, comment on context, etc.). Success criteria serve to lay out all the features of a high level piece of work, and thereby make excellence transparent and clear for all students.
The example below shows where a Y7 student has completed a piece of work, been assessed by the teacher (see green and pink highlighter bars), used this to set their own challenging targets for next time, and has some challenging questions at the bottom to push them further.
Tweak 7: Embrace and respect the abstract
All subjects, at their upper levels of challenge, become increasingly abstract. English goes from words to humanity, just as Physics goes from measurement to creation. The abstract is hard to teach; it is intangible, ethereal, and leads to unpredictable thinking from the young people before us. If we want to be truly challenging and aspirational, we must face these challenges head on and find creative ways to help students to access them. In a blog here, I outline a strategy to help students to break down high level statements and questions. I find that it has been a reliable approach for all my classes, from A Level to Y7, and I know of a primary colleague who successfully used a slightly adapted version with Y4.
The other, most effective way of embracing the abstract, is by finding powerful visual representations of concepts. I use the image below to help students to explore ideas about mental instability in poetry. The image represents the concept, and students have made really perceptive notes.
In his blog, Tom Sherrington says that students need the opportunity to have open ended tasks where they can really excel. If we are too prescriptive, we run the risk of limiting creative potential and allowing our pre-conceived ideas of student ability to provide a glass ceiling and stifle them. I like to set regular homework tasks which enable students to surprise me. The example above is work which a student did entirely by hand – I asked the class to create mood boards to encapsulate the key ideas surrounding a main character in the play. I’m sure you’ll agree that this is stunning. An overly-prescriptive task might have prevented this student from producing this beauty.
Another example of this can be seen on my post here on homework.
All of the strategies above are explained fully in this post.
Tweak 10: big yourself up
You’ve done it. You’re challenging students left, right and centre, they leave lessons with aching brains, and are desperate to push their own limits. Now it’s important to monopolise on that brilliance and re-establish the power of challenge. At the end of a topic, re-visit old work and show students really explicitly what progress has been made.
This example shows what the student did as a baseline, and then what they did later in the topic. I got them to look at both pieces of work, identify how much better the most recent one was, and reiterated all the challenging things we did to get there.
There is value in reminding students that you are a good teacher. I want my students to say: “Mrs Webb is a brilliant English teacher; I learn a lot and make excellent progress in her lessons.” As well as feeding my ego, this breeds trust between us and our students, improves engagement and strengthens your practice moving forward.
Class teachers can create highly challenging environments where students thrive, but this is even more effective when leaders create an aspirational culture in the wider school.
Things leaders can do:
- Seek to understand curriculum demands. Many subjects have highly demanding new curricula. Leaders should find out what these demands are so that they can appreciate the work teachers are doing.
- ASK staff what they feel they need to become better subject specialists. Teachers can only stretch students if their own subject knowledge is good enough. If teachers are asking for subject knowledge enhancement, give it to them. It is far more important than most of the other CPD expenses you might be considering.
- As part of quality assurance, look for evidence of struggle. Where have students found something difficult and how have they overcome it? If you can’t find the evidence of this, ASK! Speak to teachers and students: What did students find was the most challenging part of this task? What could you do to raise the level of challenge? Discussions like this should be developmental and non-judgemental; we should not be in the business of catching teachers out, but finding more ways to support and develop them.
- On curriculum, ask yourself: can you be certain this wasn’t covered in Primary School? Build excellent relationships with feeder schools. Look at innovative strategies and make time to connect.
- Ask yourself: Does culture and staff attitude reflect a ‘not yet’, hopeful atmosphere? Find ways to sensitively challenge staff who say, “these kids can’t/won’t/don’t…”
The first ever school I worked in was a successful independent school. I learned a lot from my time there, but the abiding lesson I learned about school culture is that if the students value academic success, your work is mostly done; they will value and seek out challenge. At that school, the person who got the highest score on the maths test was as highly respected as the captain of the rugby team. As long as someone was successful at something, whatever that was, they felt that they had some status and identity. If we can build schools where students see academic success, progress and the strive for excellence as something which is, dare I say, ‘cool’, we will have learning environments where students can really thrive.