Stretch and Challenge

It’s been a term that has been bandied around everywhere in education for the last few years; ‘stretch and challenge’ learners. All of a sudden, as if out of nowhere, some bright spark realised that there needed to be a name for that thing, the thing where learners aren’t working hard enough or aren’t progressing enough in lessons. 


When I started to write this post, I thought I had a good understanding of stretch and challenge, after all, I’ve attended several training sessions and seen all of the toolkits over the years; damn I even have my own toolkit of ideas! However, the more I think about it, the more I think that perhaps how stretch and challenge is commonly viewed might need to change slightly. Let me explain further…


I’d like to introduce to you the concept of ‘flow’ by Csikszenpmihalyi. Essentially, with an appropriate level of challenge for the appropriate ability level, it is suggested that learners are motivated and eager to learn. If new learning is too challenging for the ability level of the learner, then they are likely to become anxious and disengage. Likewise, if the new learning lacks challenge, learners become bored. 


In my experience,  teachers (myself included) typically plan to the middle ability learners and these are ones that tend to find their ‘flow’. However, this also results in some less-able learners becoming disengaged because everyone else ‘gets it’ but them. They need extra support and this is where the teacher is then required to spend the majority of their time in the lesson. In the meantime, the more able learners become bored quickly. After all, the work is easy and let’s be honest, no one wants to do extension work – it’s a punishment. These learners decide to take a little longer than they usually would on their work so that they don’t finish early, or they find something/someone else to distract themselves. It’s like a vicious cycle where only a few actually find their ‘flow’ in a lesson. 


For me, the key to stretch and challenge is to pitch the learning at the higher ability learners. This by default means that everyone in the class is challenged. Then through means of support, the lower ability learners are given the opportunity to find their ‘flow’ and make progress towards the learning intentions. So basically, what I’m suggesting, is that rather than the term ‘stretch and challenge’, we should be using the term ‘support’ instead. Here’s some ideas how:


  • Scaffolding – This essentially means that those learners that are struggling with the challenge of a lesson, have the option to acquire support to help them build on ideas. For example, the teacher may model a task using step by step instructions e.g. a science experiment. They could provide learners with a crib sheet which helps learners to structure a piece of writing coherently. Moreover, providing learners with worked examples allows them to develop their understanding of a process.
  • Probing questions – Not only is questioning a useful way of ascertaining learner understanding and eliciting discussion, one can use it as a means to support thinking. Most advocates of questioning suggest that it is a way to stretch and challenge learners. Yes, it can be, but why not use it to support learners thinking? For example: ‘What could happen if…?’ ‘Why is it not…?’ ‘How might this affect…?’ Knowing which learners are perhaps finding it challenging in a lesson, allows for targetted and probing questions to be asked, which may support their thinking.
  • Regular and purposeful formative assessment – It is no good checking learners understanding of something if you are not going to make purposeful alterations to the lesson if required. Just because a learner has been doing well in prior sessions, doesn’t mean they’ll be the same in this one. Regular assessment allows you to monitor the progress of ALL learners during the session. Providing learners with opportunities to peer and self-assess ensures that they are aware of success criteria and able to identify their own areas for development. Following this, support can be provided to individuals/groups.
  • Mixed ability paired work – Despite a recent post of mine suggesting that group work can work, I much prefer paired work. Through working in pairs, there can be a greater contribution from each learner and a greater responsibility for one another’s learning. Peer tutoring has an effect-size of 0.5 according to Hattie (2009), which is above average. This is particularly useful for supporting learners if mixing more able with less able learners. Not only do more able learners have an opportunity to consolidate their understanding, but the less able learners are more likely to receive better explanations.
  • Creating analogies/metaphors – In his book, ‘Why Students Don’t Like School’, Dan Willingham’s (2009) Fourth Principle is to assist learners in understanding new things in the context of things they already know. In giving learners an opportunity to create their own analogies/metaphors, or sharing a range with them, it supports the acquisition of knowledge and understanding concepts. 


So, that’s how we might stretch and challenge our learners, or should I say support our learners. Here’s how not to stretch and challenge:


  • Extra work – It’s fair to say that this is a common ‘no no’ for stretching and challenging learners, purely because it is hard to motivate learners to do more work week in week out. Maybe occasionally, this approach should be used, but my advice is to avoid where possible. 
  • Differentiated learning objectives – I used to be an advocate of the All, Most, Some business, that was until I realised that it pigeon holes learners. Let’s face it, learning isn’t linear, nor can personalised learning be something that can be planned for well. Depending on the mood of the learner, how much/little sleep they had, which teacher they had before you, whether they have eaten etc etc, will impact on their flow in the class. React to the learners you have in front of you at that moment in time. 
  • Engaging learners – This is entirely different to stretching and challenging learners. With the right level of challenge, learners may well be engaged, but thinking about engagement first is just outright wrong. Learners end up doing learning activities where they are not thinking about the content, but the activity they are undertaking. Memory is the residue of thought and all that!
  • Evaluative work – Mike Gershon, in his article for the TES discusses the importance of getting learners to evaluate as it demonstrates a sound understanding of the topic. By using evaluation command words such as: appraise, argue, assess, critique, defend, evaluate, judge, justify and value, learners need to think hard about the content and dare I say it begin to develop ‘softer skills’. However, this shouldn’t just be something just for the more able learners, these are things that all learners need to be challenged to do, therefore, it’s not something that I consider to be stretch and challenge.


In summary, all learners should be challenged by high expectations aimed to challenge the most able learners. The role of a teacher should then be to adequately support other learners to find their flow in lessons, thus supporting their learning. 


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