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Video transcript

Presenter intro: Peps McCrea

Whatever your subject or phase, there will always be challenging content that your pupils need to learn. All pupils, regardless of their starting point, need to encounter an appropriate level of challenge in order to move forward. Challenging content can be off-putting, but challenge is a necessary part of learning. If pupils are going to meet the high expectations that are set out for them, then we need to think about how we can make challenging content manageable and show pupils what to do when learning feels difficult. Thinking hard is rewarding and teachers need to show all pupils how to respond when they are faced with a challenge.

Presenter main

Challenge is about moving pupils on to the next step, whatever their individual starting points. For teachers, challenge is about knowing your pupils really well. This means their prior knowledge, their previous experiences of success, and their beliefs about their ability to succeed.

When teachers get the level of challenge right for their pupils, pitching work that is not too easy but not too hard, pupils are more likely to experience a high rate of success and be motivated to keep going.

Challenging content isn’t just about making things really difficult for your pupils or setting hard work. We don’t want to set pupils up to fail. Likewise, pupils might find some aspects of your subject more challenging than others. For example, your pupils might really struggle with drawing and painting but do brilliantly with sculpture.

As well as getting the level of challenge just right, teachers also need to think about how they can get pupils to embrace challenge. This can be a daunting task as most people tend to avoid things that feel difficult. How can teachers get pupils to see the value of challenging work and give it a go?

To begin with, creating a positive learning environment is an important first step. Teachers need to set high expectations, build trust, and encourage pupils to persevere with their learning. This may include teaching and modelling what to do when pupils face challenging content. For example, it may be useful to teach pupils to set a goal, identify a potential barrier, and then anticipate solutions: “I know I want to use more academic vocabulary, if I can’t think of the word to describe this idea I will look in the keyword bank that I have.” Praising pupils when they exceed your expectations is also important and will help to build a sense of momentum.

Teaching pupils strategies to self-regulate their emotions can also help them to embrace challenge. For example, it can help teach pupils how to recognize when they are feeling frustrated by a difficult task and how they can calm themselves down. Typical physiological signs include rapid breathing, sweaty palms, or a change in their tone of voice. Self-calming techniques include counting to 10, taking deep breaths, and thinking calming thoughts such as "I feel calm." The ability to self-regulate one’s emotions affects learning and so it’s important that teachers provide practical strategies as part of daily classroom activities.

Another way to help your pupils embrace challenge is to ensure the tasks you set are achievable. This is easier said than done. It requires you to know your pupils really well and set tasks that just push them outside of their comfort zone and give them clear guidance on how to complete the work. Complex tasks need to be broken down.

When pupils succeed at a challenging task, it helps them to see challenge as desirable. We want to support pupils to journey from a point where they are reliant on outside factors like praise to where they are happy to give it a go on their own. The more success pupils experience, the more likely they are to give it a go on their own.

One thing to be wary of here is that encouraging pupils to embrace challenge isn’t just about telling them that they can do it. Providing motivational speeches can easily backfire if they fail. We need to encourage pupils to try but we also need to ensure they have the support they need to be successful.

Presenter exemplification framing

In this next example, you will see a model of how to help pupils embrace challenge. As you watch, look out for the following:

  • Sets tasks that stretch pupils, but which are achievable, within a challenging curriculum.
  • Helps pupils to journey from needing extrinsic motivation to being motivated to work intrinsically.

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

In this example, I will model one way of helping pupils to embrace a challenging task. Imagine that I’m teaching phonics to a reception class.

“Now we’re going to learn a new sound called a split diagraph, and this may sound a bit tricky at first but we’re going to be practising lots and lots until you know it really well. Remember when set one sounds felt a bit hard to learn at first and now you know them really well? As we get better at this new sound, it’s going to feel great that we’ve learned something new and when you spot it in a book, it’s going to help you read lots more words.”

So how did I support pupils to master challenging content? First, I set a task that would stretch pupils but which was achievable. I was happy that pupils were ready to start learning a new sound as they have a really good understanding of set one sounds, individual letters like R, M, and A. So while the task was going to be challenging, it wasn’t out of their reach and I showed that I would support pupils to master challenging content by reminding them that they would have lots of chance to practice.

Throughout the model my language was consistent with our school values. In our school we talk about the importance of feeling proud when we put effort into our learning. Reminding pupils that they will feel good after learning something new together reinforces the shared goals that we are working towards.

I also wanted to help pupils to journey from needing extrinsic motivation to being motivated to work intrinsically. To do this, I reminded them of an example when they have faced and overcome a challenging situation in the past and sharing the progress that they have made. Lots of pupils initially struggled with set one sounds but they are now much more confident and enjoying their phonics sessions. I also linked this learning to one of their own long-term goals, getting better at reading. This helps them to see the value of the task. Setting challenging tasks for your pupils is a really important part of learning. It needs to be done in a supportive way so that pupils can experience success.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we have explored the importance of setting goals that challenge and stretch, and some of the strategies that you can use to do this. Before we finish, read through the key ideas that we have covered. Which ones do you feel best illustrate the model?

  • Set tasks that stretch pupils, but which are achievable, within a challenging curriculum
  • Support pupils to master challenging content, which builds towards long-term goals
  • Help pupils to journey from needing extrinsic motivation to being motivated to work intrinsically

Presenter summary

When we get the challenge right we provide our pupils with stories they can tell themselves of mastering difficult content. This, in turn, can help them next time they’re faced with a difficult task.