Sunday, 2 November 2014

Raising the bar: How do you make activities more challenging?

Challenge will keep pupils engaged and motivated (TS7), ensure that the promotion of good progress (TS2) is at the heart of your teaching, and signal to anyone monitoring your practice (tutors, mentors, senior leaders, etc.) that you set high expectations (TS1).  But the challenge needs to be relevant to the learning, and you'll need to employ different types of challenge to ensure that all learners are challenged.* 

I'm going to start by busting some myths about challenge.

More of the same isn't more challenging.  If a child has completed one set of questions, then another set of questions that duplicates the level of challenge is a waste of time.  It is a way of keeping the pupil busy, but that doesn't equate to high expectations or pupil progress. (No Teachers' Standard requires you to keep pupils busy.)  This is a problem with depending on worksheets.  

Writing more sentences about something isn't more challenging.  Requiring more able pupils to write more content will keep them busy longer but doesn't challenge them. Actually, writing more about something can be easier - more words allow writers to waffle.  And if this is a history lesson or an RE lesson, for example, measuring outcomes in terms of the quantity of written output (the least able group will write 4 sentences, the most able group will write 2 paragraphs, etc.) will mean that pupils in your class with the capacity to excel in these subjects will fail if they aren't confident writers.

Bigger numbers isn't more challenging.  65 + 22 is no more challenging than 15 + 12 (there are no complicated tens boundaries to cross); calculating the area of a 12m x 7m rectangle is no more challenging that calculating the area of a 3cm x 5cm rectangle (it's just times tables); counting in hundreds is no more challenging than counting in ones (one hundred, two hundred, three hundred...).

So how can you increase challenge?

Get pupils to set their own more challenging tasks.  These could be based on the tasks they've already completed.  The tasks they set themselves will tell you a lot about the pupils' understanding, and you can intervene (raise the bar) if you feel the self-set task isn't sufficiently challenging.  This could also have a positive effect on your workload, saving you hours devising insufficiently challenging tasks.  (If you're working in the Early Years, models of good practice would suggest children are already initiating activities.)

Think carefully about what the curriculum actually requires.  If this is a history lesson, for example, you'll want pupils to articulate their knowledge and understanding of the past (KS1), to note connections, contrasts and trends over time, to devise historically valid questions about change, cause, similarity and difference, and significance (KS2).  Challenge isn't about writing more, it's about developing more understanding, becoming more analytical, becoming more competent at identifying and questioning patterns.   If the task focuses on writing, this will only tell you that confident writers can write more than those who find writing difficult. You already know this.  It won't tell you anything about their capacity for noting connections or devising questions.  Opportunities to talk, share and present ideas will push expectations to a higher level for all pupils. This is about the climate you create in your classroom.

Think carefully about what makes a task more challenging.  Why is 17 + 6 harder than 22 + 6?  Why is it harder to calculate the area of a rectangle you've drawn yourself than one you've been given on a worksheet?  Why is counting in 3s harder than counting in hundreds?  Once you've worked out what makes something more challenging, use this to inform the challenges you set pupils, and to inform your interventions after you've asked pupils to set challenges for themselves.

*NB: If you find yourself at an interview and you're asked about providing challenge for pupils, make sure your answer refers to challenging the least as well as the most able pupils in your class.

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