Building in open-ended opportunities for children and levels of challenge

This week, I have really been thinking about how to take the cap off children’s learning and encourage them to seek out challenge (as well as adjust their learning down a level when it is too tricky). As I mentioned previously,  one option for organising and targetting teaching is to put children into “ability” groups and teacher differentiate learning objects to meet each child’s needs. Although this might seem like a good idea from a) an organisational point of view, and b) to specifically target children, research shows that if children are grouped in this way they are effectively pigeon-holed for the rest of their school lives (i.e. If you start off in a “low ability” group, you tend to stay there until you leave school). In my experience, the children themselves are very aware of their pecking order in classes that are organised in this way – i.e. “Low ability” children tend to have a low self-esteem and often develop a learned helplessness where they wait to be spoon fed . “High ability” children often become used to always getting the “right” answer and are afraid of a challenge. Carol Dweck’s research into Growth Mindset encouragingly shows that once we start to loosen up the boundaries of these groups, children begin to believe in themselves more and become more willing to take risks. Again, in my experience, this is what happens – children who previously were unconfident and felt that they “couldn’t” would try out new things and find that in fact they can. It is an absolutely joyful thing for a teacher to see a child gain confidence in this way (and parents have often reported on their children gaining in confidence at home from this more fluid way of grouping children).

So, in the light of this research and empowering the children in my class, we have introduced chilli challenges this week in maths. The basic idea is the same as going to an Indian restaurant. One chilli challenge would effectively be the “easiest” option and a three chilli challenge would be the “hardest”. I have purposely put “easiest” and “hardest” in inverted commas because, of course, what is easy for one child might not be easy for another and ALL options should pose some level of challenge for all children – and this is exactly how you have to sell it to the class. I put a lot of emphasis on the children knowing themselves as learners and make it clear that doing a one chilli challenge is a very wise choice if you know you still need to practise that skill. We also emphasise challenge and help the children to understand that learning should involve grapple and struggle at some point (otherwise it’s too easy and you’re practising – although there is of course a value to practising too!. )Essentially, the children can also move fluidly between the levels – I have been saying to them, “If you have practised and you are beginning to find your level easy, move up” and equally, “If you start a level and it’s too tricky, move down”. I have been making the levels and activities clear to the children, then they have quickly chatted to a friend to choose which one they think would suit them. My role has been to “nudge” them in the right direction. I.e If a child chooses a level I know will be too easy or difficult for them, I will gently suggested they start from another level. I am always surprised how well the children know themselves as learners though! I plan beforehand which group I think will need most adult support and focus my attention there when we get off the carpet. When this group is underway, I circulate to discuss the children’s learning with them and “nudge” them on/extend their learning.

Below are some exciting examples of maths learning using chilli challenges this week. Both groups of children are learning to count in 5’s.

The first pair of children is made up of a Year One and Year Two child. They have taken on chilli challenge two, which was ordering numbers in 5’s as far as they can go. I told them they could use anything in the classroom to help them and we talked about making links with different areas of maths learning. They have ordered the numbers, written the numbers in words, ordered the numbers in 5 minute intervals (which led to a class discussion about what 30 minutes would be and 60 minutes …) AND written minus numbers. It’s worth noting that all of this came from the children – all brilliant ideas, showing a really in depth understanding of counting in fives.

The second photo also shows a mix of Year Ones and Twos. They have taken on chilli challenge three, which is counting backwards in fives. To begin with, they tried to do this in their heads and quickly got stuck. They used a 100 square on our IWB to learn to count back in fives by writing the numbers on pieces of paper and moving them around.  They then began to match Numicon to their numbers. This was a really useful lesson for them in learning to start from what they knew and to not get down if they found something too tricky – these are children who might otherwise be used to “getting the answer right” – by learning in this way, they are building awareness of themselves as learners and building up resilience to making mistakes. An absolutely essential if they want to confidently face the range of challenges they will face in adult life.

It’s quite tricky to see in the photo, but two children have written the numbers counting in fives up to 100 on pieces of paper and the other children are sorting out Numicon to match the numbers.


Since this is the first week we have opened up learning in this way, there have been some minor hitches! Some children found it hard to lock onto learning without adult support. Some independent activities I planned were too tricky for the children to do by themselves. This is a learning curve for both me and them and it’s just a case of planning my activities carefully and targeting children who might need more support to lock on to their learning. I have been sharing these thoughts with the children as we go. When I told them we were going to do more of our maths learning like this, the class cheered, so I will persevere and find a way to make it work for all of them!

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