What if one simple question could amplify the learning in your classroom?

We all want our children to be challenged; to stretch themselves, push through their limits, reach to the sky. We want this not only for the short-term gain of making progress in school, but also because with a positive attitude towards challenge, our children will go far in life, as well as learning in the classroom. When they’re presented with a new opportunity, like starting a new class or making a new career move, they will be more inclined to say “yes” and go for it; when they set a goal for themselves, like running 5k, they will be more likely to stick at it when the going gets tough; when something unexpected happens and life gets tricky they are more likely to think, “I’ve got this, I can find a way through this”, than breaking down, curling up into a ball and hiding away from the world (some more ideas on how to model this as an adult here).

So, as a Learning Power Practitioner, someone who mindfully and honestly examines their own practice and strives to empower children as learners, embedding a relish for challenge is very high on my agenda.

What is “challenging learning”?

In our learning power pioneers community, we’ve been wondering about what exactly challenge is.

  • How does having a growth mindset and a positive attitude to making mistakes relate to challenge?
  • Does our capacity to challenge ourselves change depending on context? Time of day? Company?
  • How would we define “challenging learning”?

And, more importantly, how can we embed challenge as a child-led intrinsic drive to succeed and be their very best? (There is a whole page dedicated to this on Learning Power Kids – see here)

Safety as a launchpad to challenging learning.

We thought the pre-requisite to challenge is creating a safe learning environment – what Kath Murdoch (@kjinquiry) describes as the “emotional environment” – somewhere we feel trusted, included, valued and seen. This involves connection with the children, forgiveness, and understanding, balanced with rigor and high shared expectations of behaviour (more on this in chapter 3 of Powering Up Children).

Once this is in place, we have a really great launch-pad to create excitement around challenge. Actually, once this is in place, creating a self-guided relish for challenge may not be so difficult. A few of the FS teachers in our school Learning Power Pioneers community decided to develop challenge just by simply commenting and asking the question,

“You’ve done that before. I wonder how you could make that a bit trickier and challenge yourself?”

Just that simple question, used at the right time, has produced some amazing results.

One simple question, powerful impact.

One teacher, Samira Vance (@samiravance3), posed this question to some children who were making paper aeroplanes (If you’re an FS teacher, you will know this well!). Challenged with the question above, the children decided to watch YouTube videos on how to build paper aeroplanes. Now, they were using new techniques, following instructions, teaching one another how to make the folds accurately. This led onto a curiosity in origami – Children were challenging themselves to make ever-more complicated creations. Another child said he was going to make a snowman. He had already made snowmen out of paper. When asked how he was going to challenge himself, he said “I will make a big one out of cardboard.” This activity required him be resourceful, reflect, problem solve and persevere to make his snowman out of cardboard. That morning, the children were highly engaged and challenging themselves in different areas in the environment which led to a very rich ‘sharing of learning’ at the end of the day. By challenging themselves, the learning they shared was of such high quality, that other children were inspired the following day and for the last two weeks it has just been a rolling snowball of challenge – inspire – collaborate. 

FS children challenging themselves to make origami animals
Child challenging himself to use You Tube to fold origami planes
Children collaborating to measure and cut origami creations

With my own class, some children planned to “go outside”. “What’s your plan for outside?” I asked. “We’re going to go on the bikes?” (Again, if you’re an FS teacher – familiar territory!). I posed the same question. One child said, “How about we make them police bikes and make them into a police station?” YES! Now, we had an incredible narrative to follow. There were traffic accidents, trouble in the park, a bank robbery all to take care of. The children were sharing ideas, co-operating, taking turns. Their imaginations ran wild – we had a CCTV camera created from a simple block – here we could keep an eye on any trouble. Blow up cows turned into police dogs – we had to make cages to fit. One child ran to get large card to make a sign “This is a police station” he wrote, “Rules – 1. when the alarm sounds, you go. 2) Don’t litter.” Genius.

Children collaborating to build a police station
Building a "police dog cage" to fit.
Police bikes, ready for emergency!
Police sign for police station

All from a simple question.

As one teacher in our group so eloquently put it, “The teacher is the strategy”. Just nudging the children with a simple question can produce great results and lead you to unknown and wonderful places!

So, how and when will you thread in the question, “How could you challenge yourself?” I would love to hear your results!

P.S. Don’t think this is restricted to FS. A Year 6 teacher in our group is planning to use this in maths lessons when children have finished challenges. I bet they will come up with some incredible ideas. And they will be all the more motivated and engaged because the learning and planning can from them …

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