How do we challenge our students?
Excluding controlled assessment, the primary objective for any lesson is to ensure students are prepared for the exam they will sit at the end of the course. Therefore, everything you do in that lesson should point towards students achieving their potential in an exam. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for awe and wonder, for the love of learning, but ultimately lessons prepare students for exams.
There is a misguided belief that “challenge” is teaching beyond what is written in the specification. Ask yourself why that should be a goal given the students will never be asked about that extra body of knowledge in an exam. Leaders that have not thought carefully about this proclaim that it is about stretching all learners, and in particular the most able. About not having glass ceilings and not limiting learning. We believe in that too, as long as we recognise that students need to know what is important to know for exams and what isn’t. There is a real danger that too much challenge clouds the specification in a student’s mind, and therefore they don’t prepare adequately for exams because they are no longer clear about which aspects of the lesson were most important for those exams, and their work doesn’t reflect that either.
Of course having a broader understanding of the subject helps to link concepts together and begins to help you ask deeper questions about the subject. However, we have to remember this is a very, very high level skill and will not be necessary to achieve well at GCSE.
Therefore, to ensure absolute clarity for revision, Craig’n’Dave create resources that focus on the specification, and do not attempt to go beyond that. Students can be adequately challenged within the body of knowledge they need to know without going too much beyond it. This prepares them for exams in the best possible way.
Craig’n’Dave lessons should ideally be delivered using a flipped classroom approach. Students watch a video ahead of the lesson and then do short, simple activities to demonstrate and consolidate knowledge in the lesson. This increases lesson time because as a teacher you are no longer delivering content from the front of the class that is now in the video. Therefore, lessons can regularly be structured 50% theory and 50% programming within one lesson. The theory half is not intended to challenge students particularly. It is intended to embed core knowledge. Watching the video, making notes in a book and then completing simple activities gives students three opportunities to understand the subject matter. The goal here is to create meaningful, straightforward classwork that can be used later for revision. Without the clutter of additional, unnecessary knowledge and activity. The aim is not stretch and challenge, it is retention of knowledge.
At GCSE this is captured in structured workbooks. At A’level we challenge students to produce a response to a topic which we call a “structured learning record”, or SLR. This is a very open-ended task to analyse, distill and synthesise everything from a topic and is therefore extremely challenging for students.
As a teacher adopting a flipped classroom approach, instead of standing (or indeed sitting) at the front of the class, you now have time to go around the students and ask them questions about what they have learned from the videos. This is where you can inject challenge. Engage in dialogue to question their understanding and challenge them further. They don’t need to complete activities for this knowledge because it is not really important for answering exam questions. It just provides the stretch that observers are looking for. If you are observed, take the observer with you around the classroom, don’t allow them to sit down either! Ask students WHY things are the way they are and to EXPLAIN WHY they think something is the way it is. A skilled teacher will be able to provide challenge in this way. In doing so, you have also created differentiation. Remember to explain to an observer the challenge here is retention of knowledge!
Having freed up time in the lesson by adopting the flipped classroom approach, the real challenge everyone is looking for comes in the second half of the lesson. Rather than dictating the pace of progress with programming, CraignDave believe that students should be given a range of problems to solve, and can progress at their own rate. This means that for most of the time students are probably working on a different problem to their neighbour, but less confident programmers have also probably adopted a paired programming approach without knowing it. Since every student is working on challenges that suit them with no glass ceilings, the only limiting factor is the students themselves. A good teacher will ensure students aren’t just doing harder work, but are also working harder, and this is often the enemy of challenge. Making sure all students are engrossed in what they are doing. Programming has a way of doing that! Students that are drifting off task will need more support because they don’t feel confident in asking for help. Make a bee-line for them. Everyone else already has challenge as the programming problems get successively harder.
In conclusion, challenge needs to be applied where it makes the biggest difference. Not to all phases of a lesson. Retention of knowledge is the key goal simply because of the way our exam system works. Teaching only within the bounds of the specification is also a key goal so that students are not confused about what is important and what isn’t. Challenge comes from your questioning, interaction and student led programming.