The search for stretch and challenge in lessons

It is not uncommon for inspectors, school leaders and teachers to loosely throw out the phrase “stretch and challenge”. Usually attributed to the teaching of the most able students but the phrase has no boundaries to which it can squeeze itself into an observation or motivational speech. The difficulty I have currently with the phrase it what does it actually mean in the context that it is being applied too?

Are we referring to curriculum design therefore the English baccalaureate becomes a structural strategy to provide students with adequate stretch and challenge? Therefore, the premise may be that if more time is given to academic based subjects then students are being challenged. In some corners some may point to progress targets being set too low, if we provide a glass ceiling they will hit it. The reoccurring argument is that challenge should be reflected in our expectations and student targets should be ambitious. Though, I do feel that this also forgets the science of motivation and the importance of self-worth in a student’s learning journey. I am not suggesting that targets should be low to build confidence but they should be strategically set or reset at certain points so that students see learning as a process and not shiver at the massive gaps between current performance and expected progress.

How about the lack of stretch and challenge due to schools coasting on expected progress figures and not pushing students to the next levels? I can see some validity in this assertion. It is an open secret that schools will bend and move expectations and resources around to ensure the best performance figures set by the government (and justifiable so considering that student outcomes are the key benchmark of school performance and a determinate to school leaders future employment). However, recent changes to the progress 8 measurements will now reward schools for aiming for A/A*s. At this point in time I see the promise in this change as more emphasis will be placed on the value of A/A*s. Though, this may be at the cost for those struggling on the other end of the spectrum. One concern I have is that this is not necessarily answering the stretch and challenge question. It is merely incentivising a government strategy which could easily translate to more time in particular lessons which may have indirect and unintentional impact in other subjects.

Nonetheless, the phrase sits more within what is taught in the classroom and rightfully so, however, I believe that aim is wrong because there is little consensus from those I speak to on what stretch and challenge actually means. A search online can uncover a range of gimmicks, anecdotes and activities that the majority of teachers use in the majority of their teaching anyway. For instance, peer assessment, asking “why” and “what if” questions, individualised feedback, group discussions, independent learning, providing students with extra work and in some examples rewarding early finishes to their work to go onto educational games. Questioning and feedback can be have an impact, in particular feedback which studies do suggest that good feedback with a clear purpose linked to next steps can be effective in improving student progress. The other examples worry me, in particular encouraging students to rush learning for a reward (even if the reward is more rushed learning). Surely stretch and challenge is not about speed of completion? And linking it to independent learning is difficult in that ignores recent findings that many students are novices, therefore the challenge that may be visible from such activities is not a product of deeper learning but of maxing out their working memory and struggling to understand the first steps of what is expected. Stretch and challenge cannot be a tick box exercise that treats it’s like an assembly line production of learning.

Is stretch and challenge not a process in learning instead of a product to enhance learning? What I am suggesting is that stretch and challenge comes from knowledge transmission. In short, what is it that they have to know? Can they apply it to different contexts? Therefore, the stretch and challenge can be measured by the movement of student performance to learning – progress. If there is a defined curriculum or body of knowledge necessary to reach an A* then that is the benchmark, that is the knowledge deemed necessary to know for the next stages of education. That is the stretch and challenge – learn the knowledge expected. If most able students are not reaching the top grades the question is not “what activity can help them?” but “why did not that not learn what they need too?” and the strategies is then answering the question “how do we make sure they do learn the knowledge necessary?”.

Government incentives, target setting, teaching and learning strategies are not the answer for answering the enigma of stretch and challenge, in particular in state maintained schools (I am certain that you won’t see many of the entertaining spectacles to stretch and challenge at Eton College). Therefore, I am suggesting that stretch and challenge is the result of answering key questions to “what needs to be learnt?”, “why it is not?” and “how to make sure it is?” than dropping the term lack of stretch and challenge into conversation which creates waves of unnecessary and ineffective responses by government and schools.






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