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. 

Schemes that make a difference

I’ve been delivering training recently to staff which has taken scheme of work planning right back to basics. Almost patronising some might say, but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget what matters in the planning process, with many doing what they think management expect (to tick a box). Here’s my five top tips to planning a scheme: 
Tip 1: List all lesson topics for the year/term
Simple? Well, no. Using the course specification, plan your topics out for the whole year, building in the summative assessment where appropriate. Robert Bjork (1994) informs us that introducing difficulties to the learning process can greatly improve long term retention. Therefore, when planning topics, think about the following in order to make the learning desirably difficult:
1.1 Inter-spacing topics 
Rohrer and Taylor (2007) investigated the performance of undergraduate (non-maths specialist) students who were subjected to lessons on a maths topic unfamiliar to them. Half of the students did spaced practice, whilst the others did mass practice of the same number of questions as the spacers, but in a single session. The students all sat an assessment one week after their last practice session. The spacers outperformed the massers scoring an accuracy of 74% vs 49% on the assessment. It was also found that the optimum spacing is around 20 days. 
What does this mean?
Rather than planning to cover all of topic 1, then all of 2, all of 3 and so on, plan to cover topics 1, 2 and 3 over a shorter period, but then revisit topics 1,2 and 3 again on several occasions over the year/term. David Didau @LearningSpy suggests something like the following to optimise retention of learning:
1.2 Test, test, test
I’m not saying teach to the test, no, not at all, but if you want learners to remember stuff, they must practice retrieval. The research by Roediger & Karpicke (2006) informs us that taking a memory test not only assesses what one knows, but also enhances later retention.
In two experiments, students studied prose passages and took one or three immediate free-recall tests, without feedback, or restudied the material the same number of times as the students who received tests. Students then took a final retention test 5 min, 2 days, or 1 week later. When the final test was given after 5 min, repeated studying improved recall relative to repeated testing. However, on the delayed tests, prior testing produced substantially greater retention than studying, even though repeated studying increased students’ confidence in their ability to remember the material. 
What does this mean?
Testing is an effective way of not only assessing learning, but also improving it. Therefore, build in lots of low-stakes tests for learners to complete around the topics.
1.3 Vary the learning environment
A study by Godden and Baddeley (1975) asked a group of divers to learn a list of 40 unrelated words either under the sea or on the shore. The divers were then asked to recall the list in either the same environment or different. Superior recall was shown in when the divers were in the same environment that they learnt. A similar result was found in a study by Smith, Glenberg and Bjork (1978) a few years later, which examined the importance of physical context on memory. 
What does this mean?
Learners clearly attach their learning to the environment in which they learnt it. Therefore, either consider delivering learning in the environment in which learners will sit their exam, or consider ‘mixing up’ the environment frequently, so that learners do not attach their learning to the environment. For example, you may wish to deliver sessions outside of the classroom, or vary the seating arrangement, or the wall displays. 
Step 2. Plan the learning intentions for each topic
There’s been a lot of talk lately about getting learners to create their own intentions, or write targets for learning. Personally, I believe the teacher needs to direct the learning. I believe that the teacher ‘knows best’ because, after all, they spent the many years training in their subject and have probably taught it for several years. They know what needs to come first before progressing to more complex information – this is better coined as PCK (Pedagogical Content Knowledge).
So, setting intentions. There are loads of ways to do this and I don’t advocate a particular method, but I do firmly believe in the following
2.1 Be clear with what you want learners to learn in your sessions
  • What do I want students to know? 
  • What do I want students to understand?
  • What do I want students to be able to do?
(All three of these don’t necessarily need to be answered in one session)
2.2. Consider using a taxonomy of learning to plan your lessons
There are, of course, the taxonomies of learning which may form a basis for the outcomes i.e. Bloom and SOLO. I actually like SOLO myself, but appreciate that these may not be for everyone or every subject and that is fine.
2.3 Get learners curious about their learning
This is a great way to get learners involved in their learning. You could do this by posing a question that intrigues the learners. “Why, when ice melts in a glass of water, does the volume not increase?” This sort of question provides the learners with something to get them thinking and gives a clear direction for the lesson. 
What does this mean?
Plan what it is exactly you would like the learners to get from each lesson. Be clear with the knowledge, understanding or skills that you wish for them to acquire before moving on to how they will acquire them.
Step 3. Make sure the learning activities allow for learners to meet the learning intention.
3.1 Content First – What is the learner likely to be thinking about?
Dan Willingham is famous for his quote “Memory is the residue of thought”. He suggests that teachers need to beware of preoccupying themselves too much with making subject matter relevant to learners. For example, if a teacher has their learners making dance routines to show the flow of blood through the cardiovascular system, they will remember next to nothing about the cardiovascular system, only the dance routine.
What does this mean?
Ensure that the thinking is considered before the activity.
3.2 Cooperative Learning – Use group work wisely
There is nothing inextricably wrong with group work per se. It is just that in the vast majority of cases, group work is structured and facilitated badly. Slavin, Hurley and Chamberlain (2003) inform us that group learning activities work well if:
  • Learners are working as a group, not just in a group – i.e. they share a common goal.
  • There is individual accountability so that the best learning efforts of every member of the group are visible and quantifiable.
What does this mean?
Use activities which promote individual accountability. Will the following ideas work better than a traditional group method?
The jigsaw classroom – Learners are placed in groups of 4 and numbered 1-4. All number 1’s work on one activity, 2’s on another etc. Then once they have learnt about a particular topic, they reform in their original groups to teach one another (Aronson et al, 1977).
Accountability for the weakest in the group – When learning in groups, learners must equally contribute and learn the material. This can be encouraged by testing the learners individually and giving the group the lowest score within the group.
2.3 Deliberate Practice – Provide enough opportunity to practise
Ericsson et al (1993) argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain. The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities.
What does this mean?
When planning the learning activities, ensure that schemes of work detail where learners will be provided with opportunities to practise in order to reinforce their learning.
3.4 Don’t be afraid to give direct instruction
Direct instruction gets some bad press, but there’s a wealth of the research that points towards it being a highly effective method of instruction (Hattie, 2009).
What this means?
Plan where you will need to provide direct instruction in the learning activities. 
Step 4. Think about the formative assessment that will monitor learners against the learning intentions
There are a variety of formative assessment methods, but more commonly used are discussed below. The key to using any method is that learning activities can be adjusted to cater for the needs of learners. Learners also require feedback that ensures that they are clear with their strengths, areas for improvement and how they can improve in order to support their learning.
4.1 Teacher Observation – Learners present information via demonstrations, written work etc.
Be aware that just because the teacher observes something, if feedback isn’t provided to the learner, they may not have any idea as to whether they are correct. One method that always makes me laugh is when I ask teachers how they knew that learners understood. “Well I could just tell” I hear them say. How could you tell? “Their faces”. Well, I don’t deny that my facial expressions give a lot away. For example, when I disagree with someone, I have this frowny face that makes it quite obvious that I disagree, but that doesn’t mean I understand what you are banging on about.
What this means?
Observation may be a useful way of acquiring information about learning, but used alone, can limit the information both the teacher and the learners get.
4.2 Teacher Questioning – Teacher asks learner closed/open/probing questions.
Teacher questioning has a 0.41 (average) Effect-Size according to Hattie (2009). This is highly controversial however, as questioning can be delivered in many ways and if used well can glean excellent responses from a number of learners. If used poorly, the teacher may only be able to assess a small number of learners at a shallow level.
What this means?
When planning questioning, think about how you will get large numbers of learners to respond and how you will explore their thinking, so that feedback can support the clarification of learning
4.3 Peer Assessment – Peers check each other’s work against criteria.
Peer assessment can be useful in providing learners with more autonomy in the learning process and a better understanding of assessment requirements. It is however, not without its limitations. What if they mark their peers work wrongly, or don’t understand success criteria? Learners need to know what ‘good’ or ‘correct’ looks like, therefore, peer assessment may be more beneficial with more objective methods of assessment, such as multiple choice question tests, or calculations. It can initiate good debate in the less objective methods such as essays however. (Race, 1999).
What this means?
Plan peer assessment in where you feel it will add value to learners and when using peer assessment, ensure that success criteria is clearly understood. 
4.4 Self-Assessment – Individuals assess themselves against criteria.
As with the above, a useful method to empower, give autonomy and aid reflection. In self-internalising the standards, learners have the opportunity to identify their own strengths and areas for development. In fact, Hattie (2009) suggests a 1.44 ES (which is MASSIVE). Once again, be wary of misinterpretation of success criteria.
What this means?
It is arguably essential to include self-assessment as often as possible.
Step 5. Planning for wider development
After all of the above is complete, take a moment to look through the scheme and identify opportunities that may arise for the development of the below areas. This isn’t a case of ‘shoe-horning’ in these things, but thinking about and planning to take the natural opportunities.
5.1 English and maths development
It is a moral responsibility of every teacher to develop learners English and maths skills. The UK currently sits 21st and 23rd for Literacy and Numeracy respectively in the OECD rankings. This is abysmal. Furthermore, GCSE grade C or above results in Further Education are 6.5% for English and 7% for Maths.
What this means?
Within every lesson, there will be opportunities to enhance or develop skills within both areas. Get learners to create a glossary of key technical terms, or check and correct SP&G after each piece of written work for example. Moreover, get them to interpret graphical information which is pertinent to the session.
5.2 Employability skills
In Further Education, we are the bridge between school and employment. It is important to provide learners with opportunities to make improvements in some of the core skills expected by employers.
What this means?
If there is an opportunity for learners to work as a group, perhaps give team roles, where one learner is leader, another note taker etc. Giving learners a chance to fulfill a particular role and receive feedback on it will help to improve their skills. Try to think about the natural opportunities that might occur in the learning.
5.3 Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
Not only is it a moral responsibility, we actually have a legal one to promote EDI and foster good relations between learners and staff under the Equality Act (2010).
What this means?
  • Are lessons challenging for all learners?
  • Do learners have fair access to the learning?
  • Do learners get the opportunity to work with one another?
  • Do learners and staff respect one another?
  • Are class discussions and examples diverse and reflective of society?
So there we have it. My five steps to a successful Scheme of Work. Of course, this is just the beginning. Once you start to teach, what happens in the classroom isn’t utopia and plans will change. Scribble on your schemes, move them around as you see fit, but ultimately have the learners at the heart, not managers. We do this to benefit learners.