What does high challenge teaching look like?

To define “high challenge” is almost impossible, says Heather Fearn. Teachers must use their expertise to ask themselves what actions will best move their class forward “further, faster” at any time

What does high challenge teaching look like?”

“Easy: make the work harder.”

“OK, another question – what is harder work?”

“Er . . . more difficult?”

“And what is the nature of more difficult work?”

“[now trying desperately to break out of synonym soup] I suppose work that moves pupils on further and faster . . .”

“And how does the work achieve this?

“Umm . . . by being highly challenging?”

We were asked the first question at one of our regular trust curriculum and assessment group meetings. Perhaps aware that playing with synonyms wasn’t going to take us any nearer to a useful definition, we didn’t spend time on this game!

We were also unlikely to attempt to define challenge by using descriptions of good summative performance. This was because our prior discussion had revolved around the key insight in Daisy Christodoulou’s new book, Making Good Progress. She questions the widely-held but fairly unexamined assumption that we can effectively use summative descriptions of performance (for example, descriptors of the sort we might find in a mark scheme or taxonomy) to define progression (including what provides high challenge) in the classroom.

In so doing she explains that we simply confuse “the description of a phenomenon with its explanation”. Sure, an observer with subject expertise could decide a class must have been challenged because of the high quality of their work, but if we define high challenge by what it achieves (described in summative level descriptions) we move no closer to defining what teaching that challenge looks like or what tasks provide the challenge that will lead to great performance in a summative assessment. Giving our own pupils these summative descriptions of their academic destination also moves them no closer to understanding the route to get there.

So we cannot define what high challenge teaching looks like by describing more successful outcomes. Perhaps we can reach a better answer by identifying the sorts of tasks that do move children on “further, faster” as being “high challenge”. On the face of it this seems quite straightforward: “I will give my history class tasks that require them to really struggle with difficult concepts and explain those ideas in increasingly analytical extended writing.”

But this definition is flawed in several ways:

1. Challenge varies by subject

Increasingly analytical extended writing won’t provide the requisite “high challenge” in maths. The tasks that push pupils vary enormously by subject. It seems the moment I use specific tasks to define challenge I have to abandon any non-subject specific description of high challenge.

2. It goes beyond tasks

Surely in history the range and specificity of the knowledge students deploy (a key summative descriptor of quality) will depend in part on the quality of teacher explanations? I’m going to have to abandon the attempt to define “high challenge” just through what pupils do.

3. Challenge ? struggle

Does moving pupils “further, faster” have to involve “struggle” or difficulty? I’m very familiar with direct instruction programmes for literacy and maths and they are highly successful, despite being designed to introduce new learning in easy, incrementally tiny steps. Working memory theory from psychology suggests cognitive overload is a threat to learning when tasks are complex.

4. It’s about the process

My description of a “high challenge” history task is not specific enough anyway. It is still really a summative description of success. What prior work would make success in this particular task more likely? As Christodoulou points out “the process of acquiring skills is different from the product”.

The term “high challenge” is often unhelpfully associated with the experience of struggle. Perhaps a class will feel challenged as they grapple with a complex text, assimilate detail or force themselves to knuckle down and learn when they aren’t in the habit of revising. However, a strong teacher explanation of a difficult concept and its use in different contexts might feel painless. The important practice of learning times-tables to automaticity might even feel too easy.

I’ve realised that it is impossible to meaningfully define “high challenge”. Summative descriptions simply define the outcome and the suitability of tasks is entirely context-dependent. Teachers must use their expertise to ask themselves what actions will most efficaciously move their class forward “further, faster” at any given time.


Heather Fearn is curriculum director at Thetford academy, Norfolk

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