Behaviour

9. Challenge

Video transcript

Presenter intro

Whatever your subject or phase, there will always be challenging content that your pupils need to learn. And challenging content can be off putting. But challenge is a necessary part of learning. If pupils are going to meet the high expectations that are set out for them, then we need to think about how we can make challenging content manageable and show pupils what to do when learning feels difficult. Thinking hard is rewarding and teachers need to show pupils how to respond to challenge in learning.

Expert insight

Challenge is about moving pupils on to the next step, whatever their starting point. For teachers, challenge is about knowing your pupils really well. This means their prior knowledge, their previous experiences of success, and their beliefs about their ability to succeed.

When teachers get the level of challenge right for their pupils – pitching work that is not too easy but not too hard – pupils may be more likely to experience a high rate of success and be motivated to keep going. 

Challenging content isn’t about just making things really difficult for your pupils or setting hard work. You don’t want to set pupils up to fail. Likewise, what’s challenging for your pupils in one lesson or one area of learning might be drastically difficult in another. For example, your pupils might really struggle with drawing and painting, but do brilliantly with sculpture.

As well as getting the level of challenge just right, teachers also need to think about how they can get pupils to embrace challenge. This can be a daunting task as most people tend to avoid things that feel difficult. How can teachers get pupils to see the value of challenging work and give it a go? 

To begin with, creating a positive learning environment is an important first step. Teachers need to set high expectations, build trust and encourage pupils to persevere with their learning. This may include teaching and modelling what to do when they face challenging content. For example, it may be useful to teach pupils to set a goal, identify a potential barrier and anticipate solutions: “If I can’t think of the word to describe this idea, then I will look in the key word bank that I have.” Praising pupils when they exceed your expectations is also key and will help to build a sense of momentum.

Teaching pupils strategies to self-regulate their emotions can also help them to embrace challenge. For example, it can help to teach pupils how to recognise when they are feeling frustrated by a difficult task and how to calm themselves down. Typical physiological signs include rapid breathing, sweaty palms, or a change in their tone of voice. Self-calming techniques include counting to ten, taking deep breaths and thinking calming thoughts such as “I can feel calm.” The ability to self-regulate one’s emotions affects pupils’ ability to learn, so it is important that teachers include provide practical strategies as part of the daily classroom activities. 

Another way to help your pupils embrace challenge is to ensure the tasks your set are achievable. This is easier said than done. It requires you to know your pupils really well and set tasks that push them just outside of their comfort zone, and give them clear guidance on how to complete the work. Complex tasks need to be broken down. 

When pupils succeed at a challenging task, it helps them to see challenge as desirable. Teachers want to support pupils to journey from a point where they are reliant on outside factors, like praise, to where they are happy to give it a go on their own. The more success pupils experience, the more likely they will be able to work towards this goal on their own.

One thing to be wary of here is that encouraging pupils to embrace challenge isn’t just about telling them that they can do it. Providing motivational speeches can easily backfire if they fail. We need to encourage pupils to try, but we also need to ensure that pupils have the support they need to be successful.

Presenter exemplification training

In this next example, you will see Ambition Institute coach Steve Farndon model how to help pupils embrace challenge. As you watch, notice how he achieves the following:

  • Sets tasks that stretch pupils, but which are achievable, within a challenging curriculum.
  • Helps pupils to journey from needing extrinsic motivation to being motivated to work intrinsically.

Exemplification

In this example, I will model how to use encouragement and a think aloud to show how I want pupils to tackle a challenging task.

Imagine that I am teaching a group of pupils in year 1 number bonds. The class are confident with number bonds of 10 and so we will now work on number bonds of 20. While it is achievable for the group, it will be a challenge. As pupils move to the next step in this learning sequence, the principles of using number bonds can be forgotten. 

In the starter activity, pupils have recapped number bonds of 10.

“Last week, we learnt our number bonds for 10 and everybody in the class did really well. Well done to all of you as I know it was hard at first but every one of you put in their best effort and it feels great that we know these number bonds.

Today we are going to work out the number bonds of 20. It’s going to be challenging as the numbers that we are using are bigger. We are going to use the same strategies as we did with 10 and with lots of concentration and hard work we will get there as a group. 

Let’s start by using the counters. I need to start with 20 counters as that is the number we are wanting to work out the number bonds for. Let’s count them together as a class. Ready. 

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,15,17,18,19,20. (counting 20 counters on the visualizer) 

So on my worksheet I have three circles, one with the number 20 in it (pointing to the 20 on the visualizer). To start with I am going to put all of my counters into the top circle. I have 20 in the top circle, zero in the bottom circle……. hey, that adds up to 20, that means I have my first number bond, I am going to write it on my worksheet here.

So, my first number bond is 20 + 0 = 20. (writing on worksheet on the visualizer) 

How do I work out the second number bond? I think I need to move one counter from the top circle into the bottom circle. So that means that I have 1 counter in this circle and then 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,1,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19 counters in this circle. I think that is my second number bond. I am going to write that on my work sheet. My second number bond is 19+1 = 20. (writing on worksheet on the visualizer) Shall we try that as a group?”

There are a number of things I want to draw your attention to in the model. 

Firstly, I supported pupils to master challenging content by setting tasks that stretch pupils, but which are achievable. 

I was happy that pupils were ready to tackle the challenge as they were confident in their number bonds of 10. So while the task was going to be challenging, it wasn’t out of their reach. Through my modelling, I demonstrated how they could succeed by building on a strategy that they had already used (moving counters), narrating my thoughts as I went to make the steps really clear: first I move a counter from one circle to the bottom, then I add up the counters, then I write the numbers in each circle on my worksheet. 

I also wanted to help pupils to journey from needing extrinsic motivation to being motivated to work intrinsically. To do this, I gave them of an example of when they have faced and overcome a challenging situation in the past and sharing the progress they had made. Pupils initially struggled with the concept of number bonds, however, with practice, they overcame this and mastered number bonds of 10. And I reminded them of how it feels good to try something difficult and succeed. 

Following the think aloud, I would have done a number of ‘we do’ steps with the class, checking for understanding and achieving a high success rate before moving onto and independent practice task, scaffolded by the worksheet used in the model. In supporting pupils to achieve success, it will build their levels of intrinsic motivation around the task.

Setting challenging tasks for your pupils to tackle is important for pupil progress. However, this must be done in a supportive way, both by emphasising the importance of hard work but also through modelling and scaffolding to make the task achievable.

Presenter next steps and summary

In this video, we have explored the importance of setting goals that challenge and stretch, and some of the strategies that you can use to do this. Before we finish, read through the key ideas of that we have covered. Which ones do you feel model best illustrated?

  • Setting tasks that stretch pupils, but which are achievable, within a challenging curriculum.
  • Supporting pupils to master challenging content, which builds towards long-term goals.
  • Helping pupils to journey from needing extrinsic motivation to being motivated to work intrinsically.

When we get challenge right, we provide our pupils with stories they can tell themselves of mastering difficult content. This, in turn, might help them the next time they’re faced with a difficult task.

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Teaching challenge

While pupils in Ms Sterling’s class are generally keen to give tasks a go, they often take the safe option and seek support from their teacher or peers whenever possible. How can Ms Sterling help pupils to adopt behaviours that make them more open to challenge?

Key idea

Pupils who experience success are more likely to be motivated, resilient and open to challenge.

Evidence summary

The role of success

Part of Ms Sterling’s job is to maximise pupil learning – this means providing the right level of challenge. However, as well as offering challenge, it is also important that tasks enable pupils to experience a high success rate. This balance is a tricky one to strike.

Evidence suggests that if pupils struggle but are ultimately successful with a task, it is more likely they will remember the material (EEF, 2017). Where pupils have experienced success, they are likely to put in more effort, be more motivated and show more confidence in the future (Coe et al, 2014). This is because where pupils believe in their abilities to complete a specific task, they are more persistent at that task. Their investment is driven by their perceptions of success and failure, particularly if they have limited experience of meaningful success in the past (Gutman & Schoon, 2013).

Establishing high expectations of success

Research suggests that teachers should aim for pupils to be successful around 80% of the time (Rosenshine, 2012). Ms Sterling can build pupil expectations that they will succeed in a task by:

  • Offering rewards and praise: Providing extrinsic motivation when pupils attempt challenging work. Using positive reinforcement more than negative works best (IES, 2008).
  • Attribution: Linking effort and success for pupils when introducing or framing tasks (Coe et al., 2014).
  • Avoiding lavish praise: If used without merit, praise can lower pupil confidence in their own ability (Coe et al., 2014).
  • Championing challenge Sharing how task effort will lead to future learning success. For example, directing pupils’ attention to others who have succeeded due to their effort, or saying: “this work is designed to be tough, don’t worry if you struggle, this will help you learn.”

These strategies rely on a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It is worth noting that while teachers can harness extrinsic motivation to help get pupils started, intrinsic motivation is likely to get pupils to stick at tasks, particularly when things get tricky (Lazowski & Hulleman, 2016).

Effective teaching raises success rates

Ms Sterling can increase the chance pupils succeed at challenging tasks by using her emerging expertise in:

  • How pupils learn (Deans for Impact, 2015), for example taking care not to overload their working memories.
  • Her phase or subject specialism (Rosenshine, 2012; Coe et al., 2014), for example ensuring pupils have had enough input before they attempt challenging tasks, especially with specific barriers they might experience if the topic is particularly tricky, or they have special educational needs.

Her classroom climate is also crucial: when Ms Sterling sets challenging work, there will be times when pupils fail. Building a classroom where pupils trust that failure is okay is therefore important to help pupils deal with failure as a natural part of learning.

Nuances and caveats 

The relationship between teacher expectations and pupil outcomes is indirect. Teachers can best convey high expectations by getting the balance of challenge and support right. This will ensure pupils experience success, which should increase their motivation and sense of self-worth, also supporting their resilience (Coe et al., 2014).

When engineering a high success rate for pupils, Ms Sterling must be careful not to remove challenge altogether. Setting pupils up for success in unchallenging tasks does not build motivation and can embed low expectations if pupils interpret this as low teacher expectations (Coe et al., 2014). Instead, Ms Sterling should ensure she provides enough scaffolding for pupils to be successful and withdraw the scaffolding as pupils get better at a task (Rosenshine, 2012). She can also explain why she is withdrawing scaffolding. 

Pupil success at a task is an indication that they have successfully learnt lesson content, but not a sure sign – ‘learning’ and ‘performance’ are different.

Key takeaways

Ms Sterling can support pupils to be more open to challenge if she understands:

  • Pupil motivation is driven by intrinsic and extrinsic factors, prior experiences and perceptions of success.
  • Teachers who give pupils experiences of success build not only motivation but also resilience and belief in their ability to succeed.
  • Teachers with knowledge of how pupils learn can better balance challenge and support and promote pupil success, which makes them open to challenge.

Further reading

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University. bit.ly/ecf-coe

References

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University. bit.ly/ecf-coe. 

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning.bit.ly/ecf-dea.  

Education Endowment Foundation (2017). Metacognition and Self-regulated learning Guidance Report. bit.ly/ecf-eef.   

Gutman, L. & Schoon, L. (2013). The impact of non-cognitive skills on the outcomes of young people. bit.ly/ecf-eef2.

Institute of Education Sciences (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom.bit.ly/ecf-ies.

Lazowski, R. A., & Hulleman, C. S. (2016). Motivation Interventions in Education: A Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 602–640. 

Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. bit.ly/ecf-ros.

Check

Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reflect

Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Sterling can support pupils to be more open to challenge if she understands:

  • Pupil motivation is driven by intrinsic and extrinsic factors, prior experiences and perceptions of success.
  • Teachers who give pupils experiences of success build not only motivation but also resilience and belief in their ability to succeed.
  • Teachers with knowledge of how pupils learn can better balance challenge and support and promote pupil success, which makes them open to challenge.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?