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Setting challenge – How tough is ‘too tough’ for your students?

illustration of a uniformed figure leapfrogging over a tall stack of books

Adam Riches hones in on the essential considerations when presenting your class with an appropriate level of challenge

Adam Riches
by Adam Riches
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Pitching your lesson at the right level is one of the key classroom skills it’s necessary to master. Too easy, and you’ll lose the top end; too hard and you’ll lose the bottom.

As we all know, even in set ability classes there can still be a huge variance in what students are able to do and what they’re capable of, why is why it’s so important for us to possess the tools we need to challenge appropriately.

Professor Robert Bjork’s conceptualisation of ‘desirable difficulty’ continues to be a reliable backbone when it comes to pitching challenge. Under this model, each individual will need to be sufficiently challenged in order for them to remain engaged and progressing positively in their learning.

Bjork himself uses 80% as a measure for success in classroom tasks, but really that’s an arbitrary number. What’s important is that we’re aware of how to appropriately motivate students through challenge.

The first, and easiest thing to do is to ensure that tasks are appropriate during the planning phase. It’s important to reflect on how your various classes are doing with respect to learning different skills, so that you can adapt your delivery to meet their needs.

For them to be appropriately challenged, they need to be catered for effectively – which may mean making small tweaks to centralised lesson plans, or recovering material that they might have struggled with first time round.

One challenge-related ‘quick win’ is to prepare some back pocket tasks you can call upon as learners are completing standard set tasks. Having a selection of simple tasks to hand that will add complexity to the standard task is a great way to stretch learning.

These extra tasks needn’t be complicated in format, and could potentially be used to model adding sophistication to responses – for example, using alternative evidence or sources to support additional points.

Socratic questioning can be a great way of examining ideas logically, and determining the validity of those ideas. The style of discussion this encourages will add an extra level of challenge to class talk, getting learners to think metacognitively in ways that more traditional classroom questioning styles might miss.

Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning; follow him at @teachmrriches

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