Taking the lid off – stretch and challenge in the classroom

Although I fully understand the critique of the wider impact of selective education systems, a perspective I have is that, when I worked at a highly selective grammar school for several years, I saw forms of teaching that I had rarely seen before and I’ve rarely seen since. It remains the case the many of the best lessons I have ever seen were at that school. Tom Sherrington advocates a ‘teach to the top’ approach for all pupils. He offers some practical guidance in SecEd.

The key ingredients in those lessons were very simple: confidence and high expectations. In that undoubtedly privileged context, teachers developed habits around high challenge, high trust and high intellectual demand that were fully embedded in the culture.

Now, in my work as an education consultant and teacher trainer, one of the areas I am asked to support schools with most often is “stretch and challenge”. In some schools, particularly mixed comprehensives working hard to raise standards on multiple fronts, it can be difficult for teachers to balance supporting students who struggle with learning as well as stretching more confident learners as fully as they would like. This can be seen in student outcomes or through an evaluation of students’ overall curriculum experience.

There is a recognition that, unless an appropriate curriculum and appropriate approaches to teaching are put in place, it is possible for students to coast and underachieve. It is certainly my experience that children can be under-challenged all too often.

In my book, The Learning Rainforest, I explore this area in detail. One of my strongest convictions is that the best approach to differentiation in a classroom is to adopt a “teach to the top” approach; it’s a total philosophy that should inform everything you do. In my training I suggest that there are broadly three aspects to addressing the “stretch and challenge” challenge.

Attitudes and mindsets

To a great extent, this is the key to it all. Unless teachers have the belief that students can tackle difficult challenges, cope with a demanding load of independent study and can be expected to deliver excellent work week-in, week-out, then it probably won’t happen. Pushing the boundaries or “taking the lid off”, as I like to put it, doesn’t always come naturally and it’s important for teachers to try hard to find out what students are capable of if they are given the chance to fly.

This means selecting challenging texts, setting audacious levels of challenge in certain tasks and, crucially, eliminating any easy, gentle, simplified tasks that high attainers are not challenged by.

Routines – every lesson, every day

Teachers can make a massive difference to how they teach for stretch for challenge every single lesson: through the questions they ask, the extent to which they probe for better, deeper responses, the expectations they establish in terms of work habits, depth of written answers, expectations of recall and independent thought and, more generally, establishing a classroom culture where intellectual activity is celebrated; embedded, not icing on the cake. 

Read more advice on how to stretch your pupils Taking the lid off – stretch and challenge in the classroom

The Learning Rainforest: Great teaching in real classrooms, published by John Catt Educational  

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

Are you a trainee teacher, NQT, teacher, headteacher, parent or  just someone who cares about education and has something to get off  your chest in a Schools Improvement Guest Post? Follow this link for more details at the bottom of the page.

Don’t forget you can sign up to receive our daily email bulletin (around 7am) with all the latest schools news stories. Your details will never be given to anyone else and you can unsubscribe at any stage. Just follow this link.

We now have a Facebook page - please click to like!



Fewer university students say they are happy and believe lives to be worthwhile, survey finds
Parents to blame for science and maths skills gap because they put children off the subjects, industry leader warns
Categories: Learning, Primary, Secondary and Teaching.

Let us know what you think...