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Rising to the Challenge: Insights for Success

For years, we as educators have been asking the wrong question: Are we effectively challenging our students? After all, who would say no to this truism?

Believing this is true can cause us to become complacent. If we think that we are doing something correctly, whether it’s real or just perceived, our brain no longer desires to grow in that area. It is not until we change the question to where challenge is present in our classroom that we challenge our thinking in ways that inspire action and change.

Frequently, our own biases prevent us from realizing success, and thus we must confront them (e.g., Only the brightest can be, or deserve to be, challenged; Most students don’t care so why should I; Some students will never get it). Once we begin to realize that ALL students deserve the right to be challenged in a way that’s developmentally appropriate then we can begin to forge a manageable plan. Any plan that seeks to maximize classroom challenge should include four essential components: 1) clarifying the problem, 2) creating a culture of challenge, 3) planning and assessing challenge; and 4) facilitating and implementing challenge.

Clarifying the problem

A powerful exercise to start with is going through your roster and identifying which students are most successful and least successful and which students are consistently highly challenged and poorly challenged in your classroom. This will illuminate where the problem and gaps exist. Many assume that success and challenge are equivalent, but students can earn “A’s” in class without being challenged and students can earn “C’s” while being highly challenged. The goal is to ensure that all students are successful in learning the material while being challenged to think deeply and thoughtfully in the process.

Creating a culture of challenge

If a guest visited your classroom, how would they describe your classroom culture? Is humor used to demean or does it build students up? How are students labeled—implicitly and explicitly? While labels are often not explicitly stated, our body language, how we group, and the way we informally interact is more than sufficient to convey expectations, or the lack thereof, for each student.

Regardless of race, gender, or other categories that we assign, we must believe that all students can be highly successful and challenged in our class. A climate of challenge and high expectations includes how we question, engage, and differentiate for all our students. Additionally, much has been written about how stressed and anxious students are today. This rampant anxiety seems to stand in juxtaposition to challenge. But anxiety becomes appropriately minimized when students learn to struggle through progressively more challenging, though developmentally appropriate, situations.

This scaffolded development ensures that students are prepared, not overwhelmed, when they are confronted with significant challenges in school–and in life beyond school. After all, our world no longer is seeking people who just know a bunch of facts, dates, and algorithms—we must be able to think through complex problems without being overwhelmed in the process.

Planning and assessing challenge

Lesson plans that include standards and objectives are necessary and helpful for framing learning experiences, but they are not solely sufficient for classroom excellence to exist. Try creating a mental video that walks through the habits, behaviors, experiences, culture, and interactions that you value. Be sure to visualize your interactions with all your students in your mental video. Think through the routines that have been established—what needs to be reinforced or tweaked? Which students have become disengaged in your class, and how can you get them back on track? These intentional actions will help make your instruction and culture focused and purposeful. Formative assessments and periodic checks to recalibrate are essential for challenging all at appropriate levels.

Facilitating and implementing challenge

We all want to be successful with our students, but how we define that success varies greatly. Too often, we get trapped advocating for one end of a dichotomy: traditional versus progressive, creativity-focused versus knowledge-focused, discovery learning versus direct instruction.

To facilitate and implement challenging learning experiences requires us to look at the ways we enact challenging lessons while troubleshooting through common obstacles. For instance, inquiry-based learning is predicated on students exploring concepts before a formal explanation occurs. Learning how to regularly do this may require some practice and creativity on our part, but when successfully done, it deeply engages all learners and provides many opportunities to differentiate and deepen learning experiences beyond rote memorization. Overcoming a failure to act by our disengaged students is one of our greatest challenges as educators. Thus, it becomes essential that we find opportunities to help scaffold learning from where the learner is today. Some will be full of facts but possess little conceptual understanding while others are good thinkers but need some fundamentals to hold their ideas together. When students are challenged through rich, rigorous curriculum that is embedded in an encouraging culture, then ALL students, begin to take a risk to challenge themselves.

teachers ASCD Jeff MarshallJeff Marshall is a teacher, researcher, author, and consultant for teacher effectiveness. He holds a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from Indiana University and is associate dean of research and graduate studies at Clemson University. His sixth book, and third with ASCD, Rise to the Challenge: Designing Rigorous Learning that Maximizes Student Success, is available now.