I have been thinking about challenge over the past few weeks, specifically, in edu-babble, ‘challenging our most able students.’
I think it’s one of those things that many of us don’t really understand quite as well as we think we do. Often, so called ‘stretch tasks’ are just more time consuming versions of the main activities and aren’t actually more difficult at all. For example, in a history lesson, a task such as ‘write a paragraph describing a feature of a trench”, is actually no easier than ‘write a diary entry from a soldier fighting in World War One.”
This often happens because of poor subject knowledge. Too often we assume that just knowing what is in the textbook or directly on the exam specification is enough to be able to teach effectively. It is not. If we do not know our subjects beyond the level at which we teach them, planning challenge is impossible because we simply don’t know the more advanced material. This leads to examples like the one I gave in my first paragraph, with differentiation being in the format of the task rather than in the rigour of the material itself.
Genericism is also partly to blame here. A non-specialist observing a lesson is unlikely to know which parts of a topic are more challenging than others, which can lead them to overstate the importance of the means of expression. Writing a diary takes longer than writing a description, so it must be harder, right? Of course not, but such thinking is too common even if it isn’t explicitly expressed. This leads to inappropriate planning as attention is diverted from the content itself and on to more generic, vague competencies. In my World War One example, the diary task is actually historically inappropriate, with disciplinary accuracy being sacrificed for ‘creativity’ and ‘engagement’. This is unfortunate because, even if such a task were more challenging, any challenge is not be within the discipline, so is arguably irrelevant.
The 2014 Sutton Trust Report into “What makes great teaching?”, while fairly non-committal on specific teaching strategies, is very clear on the importance of sound content knowledge to good teaching:
“As well as a strong, connected understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content.”
This is quite logical. If a teacher only knows the content at level to which they are teaching it, it is impossible for them to know how this material connects to more difficult concepts which then makes it impossible for them to know how students are best supported in moving from easier to trickier material. For example, in history, one way to easily increase challenge is to introduce different interpretations, especially when these challenge conventionally held ones. The harshness of the Treaty of Versailles is generally taught unquestionably as a cause of World War Two to Year 9, so introducing the work of Dr Margaret Macmillan, who claims that the cause of the War was that the Treaty was not in fact harsh enough, is a major challenge and students who grasp this will have been meaningfully stretched. This interpretation can be further fleshed out by describing previous examples of treaties in which losing countries were entirely obliterated making it impossible for them to fight any wars in the future. But, of course, if the teacher does not know about Dr Macmillan, or previous examples of peace treaties after the end of major wars, they simply cannot challenge the class with the material. Indeed, really shaky subject knowledge might actually result in a teacher being completely unaware that the conventional interpretation has been challenged at all, which would make them and their classes blissfully but regrettably ignorant and inevitably lower the level of challenge in lessons.
I would suggest, as a minimum, that teachers should know their subjects at least to the level above the one at which they teach. This can, as Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby point out in the excellent Know Thy Subject chapter in Making Every Lesson Count, help teachers anchor their teaching at a higher point, which is an easy way to make the idea of challenge appropriately subject specific. Schools need to recognise and prioritise this. It is not enough to just acknowledge that subject knowledge is important and then just leave it at that, or give a tokenistic one hour per fortnight to work on it. Improving subject knowledge must be in the lifeblood of a school. Teachers need time to do it, and schools should support its development by giving it at least equal time and resource as they do to more generic pedagogy. Of course teachers must take responsibility too, and should see the improvement of subject knowledge as both a professional duty and a perk of their role.
I think perhaps, as we so often do, we’ve over-thought it. At its most fundamental teaching is the passing on what we know to those who don’t. We cannot pass on what we don’t know. Our most able students should know lots and lots and, to learn more, they need a teacher who knows more than they do.