The Challenge Debate

I love my job, it’s hard work but I love it. I don’t like the bureaucracy that goes with it sometimes, but I’m not entirely convinced that any teacher does. I’ve not heard anyone suggest that they ‘can’t wait to spend hours putting in data’ or are really excited to ‘jump through the hoops to teach that really exciting exam.’ But day to day it is the most brilliant of jobs.

I’ve aIMG_6555lways enjoyed learning, I wasn’t perhaps particularly good at it, but I liked that feeling of learning something entirely new – I still do. I’ve spent a lot of my summer planning for the new English GCSE, but amongst this have been doing some reading to refresh my teaching and my tired teacher brain. As an avid Twitter user, I have read blogs full of interesting ideas, shared ideas with colleagues across the country and..well…just generally been inspired by what a fabulous bunch of people there are in the teaching profession. Through Twitter, I noticed the publication of Making Every Lesson Count by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby and bought a copy as a Summer Holiday read. It’s a fabulous book, full of interesting little ideas, without being condescending and preachy.

One of the ideas that really struck me in the book however, was the idea of challenge and what we expect our students to be able to do. Allison and Tharby point out that often we may be criticised for a lesson that has been ‘badly pitched’ because students are struggling, but to some extent should they not be struggling? Surely it shows that they are having to think and be pushed out of their comfort zone? They’ll remember it, because they worked for it. I certainly remember things that I had to work hard for, but also felt good about because there was a bigger sense of achievement. 

I was introduced to the work of Carol Dweck a couple of years ago and to me it always semed obvious, if you adopt a growth mindset, you believe that you can do anything and are more likely to achieve because you are willing to work for it. Even as adults, it is a mindset that will help us to get further and be happier and healthier people (although sometimes easier said than done.) A couple of years ago, I had a year 11 class whose mindset was on the whole unnervingly fixed. They didn’t think they could do it and therefore they wouldn’t do it. They had spent their entire school careers in detentions, in fixed term exclusions and knowing that they were the bottom of the pile. They didn’t believe me when I said that they could do it; their opinions and ideas were too ingrained for me, as a single teacher, to turn them round quick enough to get them a GCSE and a few of them didn’t care altogether, they had no interest in education and just wanted to get out of school. Sadly, many of them didn’t achieve and left with nothing, but there were some successes, some who had listened and worked hard and in the end achieved their highest grade in English – I have to hold on to the fact that those few could change their mindset, and I will forever be proud of them for doing so.

Reading Allison and Tharby’s book has reinforced for me, something that, after this experience, I believe to be an essential part of our day to day teaching – raising the bar high. Too often, we are faced with this out-dated idea that we need to differentiate everything ten different ways so that each child is working to their ‘ability.’ Surely, every student should be aiming for the top and it is then our job, as professionals, to be able to recognise and support individuals on their way and the best way to do this, is not through 20 different worksheets, but through support tht is given ‘on the ground’, as Allison and Tharby suggest, by offering verbal differention or through the simple use of a highlighter pen as you walk round the classroom. Our expectations must remain high for all students, this in turn should make their own expectations of themselves high

However, this surely has to be a constant across their entire school career. It needs to start as soon as they arrive at school and continue throughout. Trying to change a students way of thinking in year 11, is such a huge challenge; it’s surely impossible to unpick all those years of thinking that they are not good enough. Children soak up everything that they see and hear. I was reminded of this recently. As an enthuiastic trainee, I had put a quote from Eminem’s Lose Yourself (a brilliantly motivational song)on my classroom wall, ‘You can do anything you set your mind to, man’. It’s one of those quotes that kids like to repeat back to you all the time and I always tell them that it is good because it is true. At the end of last year, a year 11 student came up to me, who I had taught in year 7 and 8 and said, ” ‘you can do anything you set your mind to, man.’ I’ve never forgotten that Miss, because you can” Years later, he had remembered that A4 poster on my wall, and taken on board it’s message and used it to create his own mindset. Inspiring stuff and proof that we need to be constantly reinforcing that it can be done.

I’ve had a difficult year 10 class this year, full of what I like to call ‘characters, ‘but knew from my experience the year before, that the most important thing that I could do was expect great things from them, and never, even in my tired and stressed moments, allow that to slip. From the outset, I expected them to constantly redraft everything they did, from coursework, to work in lessons, to homework. I wanted them to always think that they could reach the top if they pushed themselves. I told them that I didn’t care about their reputations around school, I knew they could do it and in my classroom I expected it of them. It has been hard work, some have pushed and pushed, and I constantly have to be on my toes to push them that bit further, I have had to have lots of contact with parents, be prepared to give up a lot of time, particularly as part of the challenge has been for them to complete an exam question a week in their own time, but it appears to be working. They sat a mock at the end of the year, in which the majority did really well and the ones that didn’t know exactly what they need to work on. Some have been sending me coursework drafts in the holidays – I refuse to be annoyed, these are difficult kids and they are listening.

I also took the same stance with a year 8 class. These were a higher ability, but who were bumbling around and not pushing themselves. I chose a challenging text to teach them, Sherlock Holmes, and refused to listen to any of the shouts of  ‘it’s too hard! I don’t understand it!’ Turns out that when we broke down the language, they did understand it (funny that) and they soon realised that a more challenging text, actually challenged them and led to better results. One of the things that they hated, but actually soon got used to, was that I refused to mark anything until it had been redrafted to the best that they could do. So for example, we talked about how to analyse the more difficult language, I would model a paragraph, they would then write their own which I would look at and suggest improvements. They would then be given DIRT time to improve, I would look again, give more feedback if needed, tell them I would be marking them at a certain time and if they wanted to make changes they could do before then and then take them in and mark them. Before long, the students had got into the habit of re-drafting and surprisingly, many would opt to take theirs home to tweak a bit before they handed in their final version. In a term, many went from top 4s to 6s (old money) a dramatic improvement. On a personal level, some of them went home and watched every episode of Sherlock and are now as obsessed as me – result! Again, hard work for me and them, but it paid off – so surely a lesson learnt.

The idea now is to ensure that the same things happen in every year, in every single lesson. I also have to consider how to make sure there is challenge without giving myself too much challenge. My targets this year are:

  • Expect the highest from ALL students – aim for the top and then support individuals to get there using whatever strategy is the best for them
  • Don’t produce endless differentiated resources, let the students struggle for a bit and then step in to guide them, in a way that is appropriate for them e.g – a starter sentence, scaffold etc
  • Scaffolding is great, but it shouldn’t be relied on. At some point they need to do it without it; no exam comes with a scaffold.
  • Stop teaching to targets – it’s a guide. They should all be aiming for the top.
  • Don’t listen to the ‘they won’t be able to do it’ Children can surprise us and will be able to do more than we think.
  • Experiment with how to challenge individual students within the classroom without having to produce lots of resources.
  • Have a challenge task at the bottom of ppts, instead of an extension task.
  • Never allow the first piece of work to never be looked at again
  • Never use All/Some/Most for the learning objectives as it encourages students to only do the minimum – or only challenge themselves to do the minimum.
  • Make students aware that they are able to reach a difficult long-term goal if they see it as a series of small steps.
  • Constantly make them aware of what excellence looks like through the use of modelling and WAGOLL.
  • Make sure they understand the processses involved in making something excellent.
  • Remember that the optimal place for learning is just outside a student’s comfort zone and that low challenge=low stress=limited thinking=limited learning

And most of all, smile and be happy! Always a winner with students…

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