Challenge, Challenge, Challenge!

I’m always banging on about challenge. I do this in lots of different ways. For example, I frequently vent my disdain for “learning passports” and their equivalent (those little excuse cards in the students’ planners that encourage them to believe they can’t read aloud or that they mustn’t attempt to construct their own paragraphs without having all the words or phrases they need given to them first). I also get annoyed at the fact that most schools still place students in sets and teach the bottom set easy texts (or easy maths or BTEC Science) and the top sets get to do the good stuff. And sometimes I moan about how easy the novels we expect our students to read in KS3 are. No matter the day or time, I usually find some excuse to bang on about challenge, or the lack of it.

As teachers, it is our job to make the good stuff accessible to the kids that don’t yet quite have the tools to access them, not save it for the “bright” kids (the ones who’ve had a lot more practice at reading and writing and have a home environment that nurtures and encourages these skills). Three things happened to me this week that served to emphasise this point of view (and yes, I know, I’m seeking confirmation bias, but that’s what works for me I’m afraid).

Last Sunday, I was sat marking some English GCSE exams for AQA. Some of you may know that these are all done online these days; all the papers are scanned in at some central location and markers can log on when and where they want providing there’s an internet connection. So there I was, marking away, when the 5 year old appeared at my shoulder and began reading the first line of an answer aloud. When she’d finished reading the line she pointed to one of the words, something like “sunny” or “large”, and said “Daddy, I know what that word is. It’s an adjective, a describing word.” I whirled round and said “wow, that’s great! Can you find a doing word?”

“A what?” retorted the bemused visage.

“A doing word? You know, a verb?” At this she looked at me with utter contempt and said, “Daddy, a verb is an action word, not a doing word. Look, there’s one there.” And promptly pointed to a verb.

Now this got me thinking; I’ve just waved goodbye to some year 11s who still couldn’t tell the difference between a verb and an adjective, and yet here I am faced with evidence that even a five year old can identify these things. So what went so wrong that these 16 year olds can’t even do it? Could it have been a lack of challenge? A lack of expectation? A lack of practice? All three?

Then, on Tuesday morning, I was teaching a small group in year 9. This group is the set 5 in the band, littered with SEN statements and learning passports (the cynic in me might say a group created to fail, a self-fulfilling prophecy.) The group are currently studying The Lord of the Flies, a challenging text at any level, and are really enjoying it. All of them, despite their excuse cards, actually read out at one point or another, and many actively ask to do this at the start. We’d just finished reading chapter 4 and I thought it might be a good idea to pause and take stock of some of the themes in the book. Our lesson objective (I always frame these as questions now) was “Why are some themes more important than others?” This is clearly a very challenging objective that requires many smaller steps to build up to, and one that can be entered from any (post-unistructural) SOLO level. The idea was that by the end of the lesson the students would be able to produce a piece of writing in which they could evaluate the importance of some of the key themes in the story and then make an informed and justified decision as to how they ranked in importance. And, through lots of whole class discussion (to which everyone contributed), a silent debating activity using big paper and felt tip pens, and a little bit of teacher modelling, they were perfectly capable of doing this.

That same afternoon I had my set 1 year 10 group. They’ve just finished reading the first act of Macbeth and I wanted to pause to do a piece of writing that would test their learning, develop their critical thinking, and give them something to go back to when it comes to preparing for their controlled assessment in September. I wanted them to think about the act less in terms of plot and more in terms of a tool used by Shakespeare. Their (again very challenging) learning objective was “How does Shakespeare use Act 1 to engage the audience and set up the rest of the play?” The previous lesson had been set up to allow them to explore the objective in terms of characters, themes, settings, events and foreshadowing/clues. During this lesson I wanted to spend a short time recapping the work done in the previous lesson before giving the group half an hour of focused, silent writing time. During this time the work that they had produced the previous lesson was displayed around the room so that if they felt stuck they could go over to it and have a look to get some inspiration. At the same time, each table was given a wad of post-it notes in case they wanted to ask me anything. These they could stick on the board in a queue and I would deal with each in turn; they key was that the silence wasn’t broken.

Anyway, I had just set this activity going when one of the DHTs walked in with a guy from the National College who was shadowing HMI (who were also in school). The first comment was “It’s very quiet!” So I explained the point we were at and how we’d led up to the task. They talked to a few students, looked at a few books, and then disappeared. I later bumped into the DHT in the corridor where she told me that the chap she was with (who was an English specialist) was impressed at the high level of challenge and how well the students engaged and coped with this, usually expecting to see this kind of thing in a year 13 class. But it wasn’t anything special; they know they are expected to operate at a high level and I know they can, so they do.

So, to recap. My daughter was identifying things that some 16 year olds can’t; the year 9 class were doing things that the institution wouldn’t expect them to be able to do; and the year 10 group were engaging at a level that is well above what is expected for their age. And so here is the point. As teachers, we should expect this from all our students, regardless of “ability”, age or what their learning passports say. With the right support and conditions and given enough time, there’s really not very much that your students can’t do. You’ve just got to give them the tools to do it.

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

2 responses to “Challenge, Challenge, Challenge!”

  1. wendy says :

    I have been saying something similar for along time. I too have a ‘bottom set’ year 9 for science and will be taking them for GCSE next year. They are capable of having a go at much the same stuff as my more able sets, they just need much longer to do it, they need it breaking down into smaller chunks and more reinforcement. They don’t need dumbing down, they just need a bit more time, this is where the exam system fails them, they don’t finish.

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