How to challenge every student – the easy way

As an academy trust, our motto is simple: high challenge for all. It does not matter if a student is targeted a 3 or a 9 for their GCSEs; if they come to our school, they will encounter challenge. They are going to struggle. Ultimately, this process will shape them into better learners.

During my year as an NQT, there were lots of tidbits of info that I picked up on (here are 50 of those tips!), but few were quite so important as how to challenge our students. It’s a concept that many teachers – historians or otherwise – may struggle with, and I know that I certainly did when I first started. As a result, during one of my weekly mentor meetings, I was recommended to read Chris Runeckles’ Making Every History Lesson Count (which you can pick up here using this cheeky affiliate link).

Well, what a book. Runeckles speaks of six guiding principles to effective teaching, which can be applied in a classroom dedicated to History or, honestly, any subject taught in a secondary school setting. Runeckles focuses on challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, feedback and questioning.

There would be far too much content to squeeze into one post (my notes on the book reached nearly 5,000 words!), so today I’ve decided to focus on the first of his guiding principles – challenge – and the key takeaways I’ve gathered from my reading.

Leave no learner behind

It’s really tempting to let students with lower targets get by with only grasping the basics. Runeckles argues that we need to give them the opportunity to master everything. Consequently, be careful with your learning objectives: splitting them into ‘by the end of the lesson, all will…most will…some will…’ because this will give the impression that some of your students can skip out on valuable, challenging, learning.

My learning objectives now simply list what we will be looking at today, and generally work their way through Bloom’s Taxonomy in terms of difficulty level (describing, then evaluating, then creating, etc.).

To support this line of thinking, you should set high expectations early on – as early as your first lesson, in fact. While telling students the rules of your classroom, it’s beneficial to be up front about the level of challenge: every single one of them will be working hard. Avoiding this may lead to some thinking that your classes will be easy, or ‘the doss lesson’.

Don’t dumb it down

Equally, I’d avoid ‘dumbing down’ your content to make it more accessible. While on placement, I had to create a bunch of worksheets for learners’ differing needs, and that was time-consuming and often left them out of a higher level of thinking. They were no longer in what Runeckles calls the struggle zone – where students should be actively struggling, and overcoming those struggles, to grasp new content – they were instead in the comfort zone, and weren’t being challenged enough.

Of course, your school may have its own policies when it comes to differentiation, but I’ve found it’s a lot more effective to engage all learners with the same types of tasks and to differentiate upwards. For instance, you may have all learners sorting events onto a timeline in the correct chronological order, but you may challenge them by posing an extra task – explaining which event had the greatest impact on your topic. This gives every learner the opportunity to engage in high-level thinking and exposes them all to high-level vocab, which we should not be afraid of exposing to students.

It’s critical to bear in mind that you will only be able to challenge learners effectively by having a good grasp of subject knowledge yourself. Runeckles suggests a good starting place is buying the A-Level textbook for a GCSE topic you are studying, as this is a fairly manageable level of reading that will equip you with a greater depth of knowledge that you could sprinkle into lessons to upskill learners.

A word of warning

However, be careful with the level of challenge, and when you present it. Runeckles warns that we shouldn’t skip on storytelling, which is a really fundamental part of History teaching, as this develops understanding, in favour of critical thinking. Without a decent understanding, learners will not be able to move onto high level tasks that involve more brain power.

At the same time, we have to be mindful of the effects of cognitive load theory. If we present learners with too much challenging information at once, they will drift from the struggle zone straight into the panic zone, where they cannot process everything and learning becomes way less efficient.

Six holding hands for six guiding principles!

Challenging strategies

Here are the key strategies that Runeckles recommends for promoting high challenge for all:

For teaching higher-level vocabulary more effectively:

  • Use knowledge organisers, with your subject’s key terminology defined.
  • Set homeworks that will test understanding of tier 3 vocabulary (those subject-specific words).
  • Try out test sentences: provide sentences that use the new vocab correctly, and alternatives that use them incorrectly. Students need to select the correct usage.
  • Visuals: have students draw these new words to help explain them. This is known as dual coding, and personally worked really well for me when I was at school.
  • Highlight it: use self-assessment to have students read through their own practice answers and highlight any times they’ve used tier 3 language. This is really effective when used in conjunction with their knowledge organisers, so they have a list of the words they’re looking for.

Runeckles also recommends sharing excellence, which I’m looking to do more of in the forthcoming academic year:

Don’t forget…!

That heading applies to you and to your students: don’t forget that Herman Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve demonstrates that, the longer we go without revisiting new content, the more we forget about it. Runeckles insists that we should return to content over time and, as a result, we will be able to spend less time on a topic initially. This will be an invaluable tool for speeding along with content, which exam boards seem to demand of us these days.

You can read more about my thoughts on the forgetting curve and spaced repetition here.

Consider following me on WordPress to be the first to read about my other key takeaways from Runeckles’ other guiding principles when those posts go live. Until then, why not consider employing any of these techniques to see if they make any difference to your pedagogy? If you do, be sure to let me know how it works for you in the comments below!


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