One of the most thought-provoking* lessons I have ever observed wasn’t very challenging. (*For me) You could not hear the cogs grinding as pupils struggled to comprehend complex, abstract concepts. There was little requirement to draw upon extensive prior learning to draw inferences from a text. Questioning was clear, incisive, but answers could readily be extracted from the resources provided to pupils – there was little need to synthesise from more than one source, to extrapolate from data, to suggest explanations not made explicit. But the pupils were working very hard. Behaviour was impeccable. Concentration was unwavering. The quantity of work produced, individually and collectively, exceeded what I had seen in most, if not all, lessons in my career to date. Books were beyond immaculate. Pupils, including some particularly recalcitrant individuals, did more work in class, more homework and more revision for this teacher than they did for any of their other teachers. And, crude proxy though they may be, GCSE results were, year-on-year, exceptional by quite some margin, in terms of pupil progress, by reference to national standards, in comparison to pupils’ FFT-derived targets and by reference to other subjects in the school. The teacher was arguably the most successful in the school, and so much of what was happening in the classroom was exceptional. Pupils worked hard…but the work wasn’t always very hard.
Reflecting on this nearly 10 years later, I make sense of this by distinguishing between “challenge” and “expectations”. I am simplifying my observation to illustrate my point, and would be doing the teacher and pupils a disservice to say the lesson was easy. However, it wasn’t as challenging as many I had seen or as challenging as I intended for my lessons. However, the expectations were sky high, higher than I’d ever seen or upheld myself. What do I mean by these two terms? For these purposes (and I fully accept there are other interpretations of these words):
First and foremost, this is informed by a knowledge of one’s subject – the content and its disciplinary structures – and by your experience of common misconceptions within that subject. Certain questions may typically be more difficult to answer, certain concepts typically harder to grasp – perhaps the topic you are teaching is unfamiliar, or abstract, or alien, or layered, or nuanced – the more so, the more challenging it will be to comprehend. Where you set the level of challenge in a lesson is a subtle judgement call, based on your subject expertise and your knowledge of pupils’ learning to date. You can deliberately create legitimate challenge (or militate against excessive challenge) by choosing appropriate resources and teaching strategies that provide more or less support and access to the learning you desire. Underpinning this must be a knowledge of how your curriculum is constructed, layered and interwoven over time, a knowledge of what has come before and what is coming next, of what pupils have learned of that curriculum and how this new learning relates to it. This latter point – the role of interwoven knowledge in determining challenge – must not be under-stated. What knowledge pupils do or don’t bring to a particular lesson, the nature of the content you present to them and ask them to consider and analyse, is perhaps the single most significant factor in how challenging a lesson is.
These are set by your values as a teacher and the standards you set in your classroom, in terms of behaviour and work ethic. What routines do you have in place, and how automatic have they become for pupils? What behaviours are (not) acceptable in your classroom? What learning habits do you insist upon? Where is your threshold for accepting or rejecting homework? Underpinning your own expectations is the school culture – the higher the standards are across the school, and the more consistently these behaviours and attitudes are reinforced, the more likely pupils are to meet them in your classroom.
How challenge and expectations combine can optimise or compromise the quality and quantity of learning that takes place.
If expectations are unreasonable and the level of challenge too high for pupils at that point in their learning, resentment may build, disillusionment and despondency may set in.
If challenge and expectations are both insufficiently high, pupils can become bored, complacent or lazy, resulting in low attainment.
If expectations are high, but the level of challenge is too low, pupils will graft, the ‘basics’ of presentation, organisation of books, completion of tasks and compliance with instructions will be high, but the work may be misleadingly superficial, lacking depth and complexity – perhaps too much regurgitation and not enough contemplation.
If challenge is high but expectations are low, some self-motivated pupils will fly, thriving on the intellectually demanding questions you ask, bringing enough prior knowledge to make sense of complex new material, and having enough independence to keep their notes in order; but many will fall off the bottom, allowed to get away with not contributing, not working hard enough, not handing in their homework, with each lesson they cruise through further suppressing their progress until they simply can’t access the challenges you set because they don’t have the foundations (of knowledge and habits of work and of mind), to build upon. Certainly in the early part of my career I made the mistake, not of failing to ensure lessons were appropriately challenging, but of failing to recognise the parallel importance of having equally high expectations of what pupils did in response to that challenge. Linked to this, I under-estimated the importance of securing prior knowledge in order to ensure that all pupils could flourish rather than flounder when they engaged with new content and difficult questions.
The optimum goal for a lesson, obviously, is appropriately high challenge and high expectations. Require pupils to graft, wrestling to answer appropriately difficult, meaningful questions about complex material. Insist upon good habits and a consistent work ethic, and calibrate the level of challenge so that it is attainable but only with effort. Complementing expectations, we must also ensure that we build pupils’ confidence: reassuring pupils, praising pupils, helping pupils, encouraging pupils, advising them when they have made errors – we can’t simply expect, we will need to model, guide and lead them; success will breed success.
In thinking about how we make lessons more challenging, it is important that what I have defined here as challenge and expectations are not conflated. Expectations complement challenge, and are essential for all pupils to rise to the challenge – at the risk of crude over-simplification, it is not enough to ask a challenging question if you accept “dunno” as an answer. But high expectations alone do not ensure that a lesson is sufficiently challenging at an intellectual level. Books might look good but how hard have pupils had to think to write that answer? You need to know your subject and know your pupils’ learning in your subject (both the pupils in front of you and generally) to get the level of challenge right: we need to lay the secure foundations of knowledge, of ways of examining the world, of disciplinary processes and the habits of mind that are needed to access the challenge you have set, and provide the right scaffolding to help them reach greater heights or the tunnels to greater depths.