Saturday, January 17, 2015

Challenge (in the primary classroom)

I have been thinking a lot about challenge in the primary classroom and what it actually looks like in practice. From experience, discussions with other practitioners and through social media, it appears to be something that is hot on the OfSTED agenda (see below). Whilst I don't believe that schools should be doing things for them, I do believe that getting the best out of children comes when appropriate challenges are planned for.  So what does that mean? If you look at definitions from the Oxford dictionary:

Challenge: A task or situation that tests someone's abilities. Makes demands on.

A challenge problem: one that offers interesting difficulties

So let's take into consideration the National Curriculum 2014, which states that

 ‘Decisions about when to progress should always be based on the security of pupils’ understanding and their readiness to progress to the next stage. Pupils who grasp concepts rapidly should be challenged through being offered rich and sophisticated problems before any acceleration through new content. Those who are not sufficiently fluent with earlier material should consolidate their
understanding, including through additional practice, before moving on.’

The important part (in my opinion) is that they are challenged, before being moved on. We've all had those conversations with parents who want their child reading books far beyond their understanding, or completing mathematical calculations that they are unable to apply in real life.
 The teaching standards state that a teacher must:

1. Set high expectations which inspire, motivate and challenge pupils


So how do you know if you are doing that? For me, it's not just about whether they are making progress, it's whether you are fostering curiosity and a love of learning through your teaching - and how much ownership children have. In my mind that (love of learning) is a much bigger challenge than showing that you have helped them move on 2 sub levels in a subject, in a term. In my year 2 class this half term it has felt quite easy, with the topic of the Great Fire of London. Yesterday, my TA came back from taking a group down to the library and, in her words, was completely amazed by what they know and how they were talking about it passionately. A great topic can inspire this passion for learning and children are continuing their learning at home because they are interested. Next week I shall become a teacher in role as the maid one day and Samuel Pepys another. Experience tells me that the quality of writing produced afterwards will be much higher than without the drama. Appropriate challenge in the form of engaging their emotions and creating opportunities for them to ask questions.

GFoL movie made (and acted) by a 6 year olds last year

Reflecting further on my own practice, there are many ways that I believe I offer challenge, not just through differentiated tasks, but through the way that I refuse to spoon feed children (I've written a bit about that here).  They are expected to try, to use their initiative and to consider previous learning that may help them solve current problems. I know when direct teaching is needed, to rectify misconceptions (or teach to prevent them) and when they just need to learn things by rote (in an infant style of course!) I started to list all the ways that I felt I challenge children, from open-ended child-led tasks in maths, to mantle of the expert and enquiry led topic work.  My list started to grow, but as always I want to learn if there is anything else I can do, so I decided to share it as a crowd-sourced document in the hope that others would contribute to it. When you look at it, consider how many approaches you have used in the classroom.


The OfSTED part

I have picked out some relevant parts from OfSTED guidance and have found this web page - OfSTED 2012: Challenging tasks matched to children's learning needs - interesting, especially the bullet points saying why and how.

Much of the following is lifted from guidance and is a little disjointed, but relevant to this post.

OfSTED guidance states that inspectors must consider whether teaching engages and includes all pupils with work that is challenging enough and that meets the pupils’ needs as identified by teachers. They will consider whether assessment is frequent and accurate and is used to set challenging work that builds on prior knowledge, understanding and skills.

Inspectors must consider the rigour and effectiveness of systems to drive improvement, including:

  • monitoring the quality of provision and children’s outcomes; the professional development of staff; evaluation of the impact of actions taken; and setting challenging targets 
  • (The lesson's) effectiveness depends on the impact of the quality and challenge of the work set.

Evidence of learning over time may include:

  • the level of challenge provided, and whether pupils have to grapple appropriately with content, not necessarily ‘getting it right’ first time, which could be evidence that the work is too easy (183).

And under grade descriptors:

Outstanding - Provision across all areas of learning is well planned and based on regular and precise assessments of children’s achievement so that every child undertakes highly challenging activities.

Good -  Learning opportunities are well planned and based on regular and accurate assessments of children’s
achievement so that every child is suitably challenged.

Jackie Debeere has written about the perfect ofsted lesson, which is a good read.

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