What Challenge is and why it is important

We challenge students by providing them with work that requires them to think deeply and engage in healthy struggle, entering the ‘Stretch Zone’ which is where real learning takes place. The ‘Stretch Zone’ is different for each student, so whilst it is important to challenge the most able, we must not forget that it is important to challenge students of all abilities.

Keep in mind these principles when thinking about challenge:

            It is not just about the most able.

            We should have high expectations of all students, all the time.

It is good for students to struggle just outside of their comfort zone, as that is when they are likely to learn most.

In order to Challenge students successfully, they need to be open to the idea. This requires students to have a ‘growth mindset’ making them more likely to understand that hard work, effort and learning from failure are vital to their future success. Students with a ‘fixed mindset’ are our biggest challenge. To them effort feels fruitless and contributes to a negative self-perception. The temptation is to give these students easier work, but because the work needs no real effort or deep thinking, it is unlikely that they are learning. These students need to be encouraged to develop a ‘growth mindset’ through more challenging work and an understanding that we believe that they can do it!

Struggle is key to deep learning, but a careful balance needs to be found. Students need to move out of their ‘comfort zone’ and into the ‘stretch zone’, whilst avoiding pushing them too far into their ‘panic zone’, as learning will not take place there. The real challenge is, that for each student the boundaries will be different!

The expectations for all students should be set high, irrespective of their starting point. Differentiation will be key here, and it can only be successfully done if we know our students, have a deep knowledge of the subject content and are able to identify which parts our students will find difficult.

Literature to read:

50 Quick Ways To Stretch And Challenge More Able Students – Mike Gershon

Making Every Lesson Count – Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby

The Learning Rainforest – Tom Sherrington

How to Teach – Matt Bromley

An Ethic of Excellence – Ron Berger

Videos to watch:

Webpages to visit:

Different strategies to try:

Direct Challenge

Challenge will be different for each student. What one finds challenging, another will find easy. To overcome this, try direct challenge:

Be clear on what your students need to know next in order to progress.

As students are working on a task, move around the room observing the work they are producing.

Ask students specific questions that will move them on or provide them with specific knowledge that will allow them to approach the task in a more sophisticated way. The phrase “Now try…” might be useful

To make it manageable:

Focus upon a set number of students each lesson

Plan tasks that will allow you to do this

Plan your questions in advance

Know Your Subject

A lack of knowledge on your behalf will be a barrier to student achievement. Keep up to date with latest journals, websites and research papers. Challenge yourself to read five books a year, go to the theatre, visit art galleries, subscribe to journals, watch world-beating athletes in action, immerse yourself in your subject! Write your own answers to exam questions, and then get them marked by colleagues. Where you have struggled, your students will struggle as well.

Share Excellence

Use the display space in your classroom to show an enlarged version of an excellent written response to a challenging question. This sets the standard of expectation high and gives you something to refer to when describing what excellence looks like. It is hard for students to achieve excellence if they do not know what it looks like. By displaying what excellence looks like you are making the following statements about your values:

            You have high expectations of what students can achieve

You accept that hard work and effort are needed to master new ideas and achieve excellence   

You accept that students need to keep going when things get tough

You promote the idea of excellence as the status quo

The Long Haul

Lessons are building blocks and should not be viewed as single entities. They are part of a well-designed Scheme of Learning which guides students towards an end goal. Challenge is about having a clear but realistic vision about where your students need to go. Ways to engage students with the Long Haul:

  • At the start of the course get students to write a letter to themselves from the perspective of their future self, looking back when they have finished the course: Why were they successful?
    • Keep referring forward, show students how what they are doing each lesson will help them achieve the long-term goal.
    • Get students to reflect on their own work: Is it the best that they can do?
    • Use stickers on the front of books in which students have stated the grade that they are aiming for and how they are going to achieve it.

Make Them Single and Challenging

A single, challenging Intended Learning should be an aspirational target for all. Your expectations for all should be high, whatever their starting point. You need to support all students to reach, or go beyond, this point.

Scale Up

Know the expected knowledge, concepts and skills in your subject and teach your classes just beyond that point. So, at KS3 dip into GCSE level; at GCSE, dip into A level; at A level, dip into undergraduate work. In doing so, the most challenging concepts that the assessment criteria require them to know will not be the most challenging topics they will have been exposed to. Exposing students to content at a level usually considered above or beyond national expectations, sets the challenge. Set the challenge too high rather than too low, breaking things down into simple steps to allow students to achieve by the end of the lesson.

NB: Tell the students what you are doing. By doing so you are telling them that you believe they can do it!

Benchmark Expectations

When you have your first lesson with your classes at the beginning of the year, design a task for them to complete that will take them beyond what they believe themselves capable of. Here is a step-by-step process of how to approach this:

  1. Create the task. It should be one that has an end product.
  2. Show students examples of excellent finished pieces of work.
  3. Deconstruct the work together.
  4. Make structures and scaffolds available.
  5. Pit-stop during the lesson by showing excellent pieces of work that are being produced and critique it as a class.
  6. Ensure that students proofread their work before handing it in.
  7. Provide feedback.
  8. Ask students to redraft next lesson, using your feedback.

This outlines for students what you expect from them during every lesson for the rest of the year, and falling below this benchmark will not be acceptable!

Layer Their Writing

Students should recognise that their first attempt is not necessarily the finished product. They should learn that re-drafting is an important step in the learning process. Layered writing is one way to achieve this. Once students have completed a written answer, provide them with a ‘writers’ palette’. This is a grid of key words, phrases and key items (eg a quote) that students could have included in their work. Students read through their work, ticking off items that they have included. They then rewrite their answer, trying to include more of the words from the grid.

Plan for Progression

Planning should aim to ensure that learning develops over time. The SOLO taxonomy provides a framework for planning for increased complexity in learning.

To initially secure surface learning, students need to go from knowing a single fact about a topic, to knowing multiple facts. In order to move this towards deep learning, they will need to be able to link these ideas together before being able to apply it to other scenarios.

While there is discussion about how useful this taxonomy is for students, it provides a useful framework for teachers planning lessons.

Read for Breadth

Encourage your students to read around the subject:

  • Introduce students to subject specific websites
  • Post QR codes around the room
  • Encourage students to borrow subject specific books from the library
  • Place books and articles into students’ hands yourselves and ask for updates about how the reading is going
  • Send home subject specific reading lists
  • Set up a Twitter account and add links to useful pages
  • Set up a class blog and give students the responsibility of writing articles for it that others can respond to

Teach to the Top

Always pitch your lesson to the highest ability student in your class. If you make your curriculum content the most challenging that it can be, then all students will be stretched. It will also raise expectations and aspirations. You then differentiate the work as needed, allowing all students to make progress.

  • Plan the lesson’s learning, objective, resources and questions with the HA in mind. Do not dumb things down.
  • Find out what your students know before you begin a topic. You can then build on what they already know rather than teaching them the what they already know.
  • Celebrate intellectual curiosity by making it normal to attempt, and complete difficult, academic work.


  • Pitch material high
  • Use your strong understanding of the topic to create probing questions and tasks
  • Expect precise, extended answers from students
  • Use accurate subject specific terminology and expect your students to use it in return

Pitch it Up

Ensure that the curriculum is explored in depth. Take time to explore interesting questions, extended problems, wider reading, more artists, poets and composers, more practical examples instead of moving onto the next topic, choose challenging texts.

Establish routines for excellence

Bill Rogers states that “you establish what you establish”, so make sure that you are establishing excellence from the beginning. These include how work is presented, subject specific requirements such as terminology, rules for safety, noise levels when working and level of detail in both written work and verbal answers.

  • State what you expect specifically, modelling your expectations as well as writing them down.
  • Rehearse all routines multiple times so that students learn how to do what you are asking them to do.
  • Reinforce your expectations continually. As soon as you ignore it once, the message is that you no longer care and then standards will start to drop.

Frame the Challenge

The language you use matters! Below are some phrases that you can use to set your expectations:

  • You can’t do this. YET!
    • If it is not excellent then it is not finished
    • Working harder makes you smarter
    • Keep thinking about it. I’ll check on you again in a couple of minutes
    • There is no such thing as clever (helping to pull students out of a fixed mindset)
    • What would you do if you weren’t stuck? (If you think that with a bit of thought they will get there)
    • I know that you can do it because last week…
    • If you are not struggling, then you are not learning
    • In this classroom we talk like…. mathematicians, historians etc