Guest Post: Don’t steal their struggle

NACE Education Adviser Hilary Lowe goes in search of the perfectly pitched challenge…

Building on NACE’s professional development and research activities, we continue to explore and refine the concept of ‘challenge’ in teaching and learning for high achievement – the central tenet of much of our work and the heart of provision for very able learners.

What do we mean by challenge?

The notion of challenge is multi-faceted and goes further than designing individual learning and assessment tasks. It merits a subheading which makes it clear what we mean. As a provisional and necessarily evolving definition:

“Challenge leads to deep and wide learning at an optimal level of understanding and capability. It encompasses appropriate learning activities but is more than that. Its other facets include, for example: the learning environment, the language of classroom interactions, and learning resources, together with the skills and attributes which the learner needs to engage with challenging learning encounters. These encounters may take place both within and beyond the classroom.”

Some of these building blocks coincide with pedagogical approaches and theoretical perspectives which enable challenging learning for a wide group of learners. It is important therefore that we also interrogate these perspectives and adapt related classroom practices to ensure relevance and application for the most able learners.

Our work on challenge in teaching and learning is part of a wider campaign that will also explore and promote the importance of a curriculum model which offers sufficient opportunity and challenge for more able learners.

Below, we focus on the design and delivery of challenging tasks and activities in the classroom which are likely to enable more able learners to achieve highly and to engage in healthy struggle.

Pitching it right: keep the challenge one step ahead

If teaching for challenge is providing difficult work that causes learners to think deeply and engage in healthy struggle, then when learners struggle just outside their comfort zone they will be likely to learn most. Low challenge with positive attitudes to learning and high-level skills and knowledge can generate boredom within a lesson, just as high challenge with poor learning attitudes and a low base of knowledge and skills can create anxiety. Getting the flow right, ensuring the level of challenge is constantly just beyond the learners’ level of skills and knowledge and their ability to engage will then create deeper learning and mastery.

By scaffolding work too much and for too long, and stealing the struggle from learners, we can undermine expectations and restrict the ranges of response that our learners could potentially develop unaided.

Implications for planning and teaching

What then are the implications for planning and for using every opportunity inside and outside the classroom to “raise the game”? Challenge should involve planned opportunities to move a learner to a higher level of achievement. This might therefore include planning for and finding opportunities in classroom interactions for:

  • Tasks which encourage deeper and broader learning
  • Use of higher-order and critical thinking processes
  • Demanding concepts and content
  • Abstract ideas
  • Patterns, connections, synthesis
  • Challenging texts
  • Modelling and expecting precise technical and disciplinary language
  • Taking account of faster rates of learning
  • Questioning which promotes and elicits higher-order responses

When considering the level of challenge in your classroom, ask:

  • Do you set high expectations which allow for the potential more able learners to show themselves?
  • Have you reflected on prior learning and cognitive ability to inform your plans?
  • Is your classroom organised to promote differentiation?
  • Do you plan for a range of questions that will scaffold, support and challenge the full range of ability in your class?
  • Can you recognise when learners are under- or over-challenged and adapt accordingly?
  • Are you using examples of excellence to model?
  • Will learners be challenged from the minute they enter?

Share with your learners your expert knowledge, your passion, your curiosity, your love of the subject and of learning. Have high expectations – and resist the urge to steal their struggle!

Challenge in the classroom: upcoming NACE CPD

New for 2020, NACE is running a series of one-day courses focusing on approaches to challenge and support more able learners in key curriculum areas. Led by subject experts, each course will explore research-informed approaches to create a learning environment of high challenge and aspiration, with practical strategies for challenge in each subject and key stage.  

Details and booking:

An earlier version of this article was published in NACE Insight, the termly magazine for NACE members. Learn more about NACE membership



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