Blogs of the week and Research Pod: (5) Challenge

This fortnight, we are focusing on the Challenge strand of the What Makes Great Teaching at Reigate School model. This week’s blog, from Durrington Research School in Worthing, focuses on one of the key proponents of how challenge for all can be achieved in our classrooms – Robert Bjork. He and his wife, Elizabeth Bjork, coined the phrase ‘desirable difficulties’, in other words, hitting the spot between as task being too easy so as to not cause any effort or hard thinking on the part of the student, or too hard so that too much working memory is taken up trying to make sense of the task for any meaningful learning to take place.

As an introduction to the concept of challenge, here is an extract from Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s excellent book, Making Every Lesson Count:

‘Put simply, challenge in education is the provision of difficult work that causes students to think deeply and engage in healthy struggle. It is unfortunate that all too often challenge is presented in the context of ‘challenging the most able.’ Fascinating, if controversial, research from Rosenthal and Jacobson in the 1960s into what they dubbed ‘the Pygmalion effect’, suggests that our expectations of students can have a profound effect not only on how we interact with them but also on the student’s future achievement. They found – and it makes uncomfortable reading – that teachers in their study would interact differently with those students of whom they had higher expectations. It is bizarre, morally questionable even, that we have come to believe that only those we describe as the ‘most able’ need or deserve to be challenged. Some overarching principles are needed to help us to use challenge in the classroom:

1. It is not just about the ‘most able’.

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

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

The link below takes you to Durrington’s blog post.,instruction%

Research Pod (1): Challenge.

If we turn to the world of cognitive science (the study of how our brains learn), we can see that what Robert and Elizabeth Bjork have to say in their paper ‘Making things hard on yourself but in a good way: creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning’ is supported by the idea that learning should be effortful. In other words, all students should be challenged so that they are thinking hard and so that learning is more likely to stick. The struggle zone that students need to be placed in are the desirable difficulties that are required for the correct level of challenge. However, in most classrooms, students will come to us with a varying range of levels of prior attainment, so what places one student in the struggle zone may not do so for another. Therefore careful use of scaffolding also needs to be employed.

Shaun and Andy in Making Every Lesson Count say that teachers need to ‘be responsive and support all students during the lesson to aspire to the bar… and beyond.’ Three examples of how different students may be supported are also given in their book:

”Less able’ Katy has not written a thing. You verbalise the first half of the sentence and she finishes it. Then she writes it down and off she goes. You come to Matt, incredibly able but prone to prolixity. He must cut out ten unnecessary words before continuing. Grace’s hand shoots up. You smile and motion it down. She smiles wryly back, sensing that, once again, you are encouraging her to be more resilient.’

As part of their concluding comments, Robert and Elizabeth Bjork comment on how students, not only teachers need to be aware of desirable difficulties and effortful study. This is important – if students do not understand why tasks have deliberately been made challenging, and why it will product more effective learning, we will not get their buy-in and they may switch off. Explaining this concept whilst they undertake a task will add to their extraneous load and reduce their working memory capacity, so taking time to familiarise students about WHY we wish to challenge them is vital. Here are Bjork and Bjork’s views on this in their concluding comments:

‘For those of you who are students, we hope we have convinced you to take a more active role in your learning by introducing desirable difficulties into your own study activities. Above all, try to rid yourself of the idea that memory works like a tape or video recorder and that re-exposing yourself to the same material over and over again will somehow write it onto your memory. Rather, assume that learning requires an active process of interpretation— that is, mapping new things we are trying to learn onto what we already know. (There’s a lesson here for those of you who are teachers—or parents— as well: Consider how you might introduce desirable difficulties into the teaching of your students or children).’

If you would like to read the entire paper, the link is below:

Blog of the week (2): Challenge.

This fortnight, we are focusing on the strand of Challenge from the Great Teaching at Reigate School model. This week’s blog comes from educator Blake Harvard. In this blog, he discusses the concept of ‘desirable difficulties’, a term put forward by Robert and Elizabeth Bjork which I elaborated upon in last week’s Research Pod section of the newsletter. He contemplates how we can encourage our students to resist always taking the easy route when it comes to study and revision, and accepts that to do so is human nature. Getting our students to see the benefits of ‘effortful’ retrieval and deliberate practice is key, he says, and talks through a range of methods that we can employ. Here’s the link to his blog:

Research Pod (2): Challenge

It would be remiss of any discussion on education research to ignore what the most influential paper of the moment has to say on challenge, so this week’s pod will look at what Barak Rosenshine has to say in his ‘Principles of Instruction’ (1968 and 2012) paper. I also firstly want to include a passage from the great Mary Myatt, from her book ‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence’. She says…

‘…pupils are keen to do difficult work. It is seen as a privilege to be thought capable of tackling demanding material. If we do not think this through and assume that challenge is only for some, then we are in danger of offering narrow narratives or by giving up on disciplinary rigour altogether for some pupils. If we are serious about narrowing gaps, we cannot be serious about signing up for a different diet for pupils of varying prior attainment. Apart from those pupils with significant additional needs, we should be making the case that the material studied is demanding, challenging and that access to that material is secured through talk, modelling and practice.’

Whilst challenge is not explicitly listed as one of Rosenshine’s ten principles, it is still a theme which runs throughout. For example, if high challenge levels are proving too tricky for some low prior attaining students, he states that scaffolding should be employed to assist those students in reaching the same points as others. However, he is clear to state that: ‘These scaffolds are gradually withdrawn as learners become more competent, although students may continue to rely on scaffolds when they encounter particularly difficult problems.’

Another of his principles is to ‘obtain a high success rate’, and goes on to say ‘in two of the major studies on the impact of teachers, the investigators found that students in classrooms with more effective teachers had a higher success rate as judged by the quality of their oral responses during guided practice and their individual work.’ His first principle, ‘Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning’ refers to the act of students engaging in retrieval practice (not re-study). This is again is challenging and effortful, and thus will make knowledge stick and be more easily retrievable when required for new learning to be ‘hooked’ to it, along with applying it in tasks and assessments.

In summary, challenge is a strand which runs through everything we do. As Mary Myatt says, without high levels of challenge for all, we risk giving some of our students a ‘diminished diet’, and we might never allow them to reach their full potential.

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