What do we really mean by classroom challenge?

How we can enable learners to take themselves more seriously as students? How we can encourage them to take more responsibility for their own learning and what can we do that will help to make risk-taking a safer option in our classrooms. If we agree that we want our learners to see themselves, for example, as strategic, speculative and social learners how can we help our students to develop those skills, with a focus on creating more independent learning situations in our classrooms?

How can we avoid the dangers of being positioned as their ‘Life Support Machines’, keeping them going for as long as possible, with the only measurable output from them on their own behalf being a pulse? Or becoming the even more familiar ‘Knights in Shining Armour,’ dashing to their rescue way before there is any distress expressed, in order to keep them ‘on track’ and to make sure they don’t feel uncomfortable or get demotivated. And we have all at some point become the ‘Echo Chamber’ happily over praising and paraphrasing students comments for the others who weren’t listening and helpfully adding a little rigour too. We have become accustomed to accepting our students first sound bite responses too readily, not planning spaces for them to think and not properly grilling their responses. And our students know all of this. So what’s their incentive to change? The less they do, the more we do on their behalf. They get their thinking done for them and then handed out to them on a platter. It’s no wonder they so often complain of boredom.

The thinking below is a way of mapping what we would want our students to become and ways we believe will help to encourage it. It is also designed to build upon some of Guy Claxton’s work on resilience, reflectiveness, reciprocity and resourcefulness. The significant factor in all of this is that it is up to you and your school to adapt and adopt approaches that make sense in your context. These are useful strategies in their own right, but they must take part in a wider framework that only your school provides. Firstly a look at strategic independence focusing on ways that we can get across to our students what we want them to aspire towards.

Encouraging Strategic Independence

Reflective, Evaluative, Adaptable, Logical, Responsible

In the film, Austin Powers, before Dr. Evil was sent back in time to 1969, his minions made him a clone. The clone was identical to him in every way but was “one-eighth his size”. Upon being introduced to his clone, Dr. Evil immediately declared, “Breathtaking. I shall call him… Mini-Me”. Later in the film he adds, “Mini Me, you complete me.”

It is hard for students to take responsibility when they are sometimes given so few opportunities in school to exercise any. They become trapped in a ‘locus of control’ cameo role. They don’t see themselves as independent reflective individuals, but more passive receivers of the teacher’s wisdom. It’s not about how much effort they put in that matters, but whether they get the right notes given to them to conveniently regurgitate at the right time. And the problem with Mini Me’s is that they just aren’t that successful in the long run. There needs to be a substantial transfer of the accountability issue.

To begin with, it is probably a smart move to let your students understand your high expectations of them through the tasks that you set, and the language that you use. Using complex and technical vocabulary helps them to start to think and express themselves with the precision necessary to eventually see themselves or start to become scientists/linguists/historians. Be really specific about what you require your students to do in an activity and don’t backtrack if they initially resist or complain. What you believe they can achieve can have a significant impact on their self-esteem. Keep your ambitions on their behalf high and make your expectations and their responsibilities clear.

Keep reminding your students to focus on what their learning priorities are, in terms of their own learning journey. Encourage them to compare their past and present results to start forming the basis of a focused discussion and ensure that they know how each activity can contribute to their learning, where they can take it next and how they can evaluate it themselves.

Clarify that consistently achieving top marks and easy success really just means that the challenge was insufficient, and that it is only through increased effort and determination that they will they really achieve. Show them that finding things pretty difficult is a significant part of the learning process and that encountering difficulty is actually where they start to learn.

On occasion take your students ‘behind the curtain’ of your lesson to help them to access and understand your teaching and learning intentions. If the lesson needs to be adapted during class discussions and veers away from where it was going, let the students know why that shift is often a significant learning moment. Have an element of choice (either in the task or in the response) built into the lesson, allowing students to exercise self-direction. Allow them to exercise critical autonomy. Take their views seriously enough to interrogate and scrutinize them.

Encourage students to understand the benefits of peer assessments and the importance of reflecting on their own and others’ achievements. Students should get used to being their own first marker and editor.

Don’t be afraid to set high challenge beyond syllabus tasks and don’t allow the specifications to define the learning; even though that may be a tough call it is necessary one, especially if you want to explore the genuinely interesting aspects of your subject that might encourage your students to want to take it further.