03.Levels of Challenge

The aim in a Learning Powered classroom is for children to relish a challenge. You want them bounding into the classroom, asking what challenging learning is on the menu today; talking to their peers and saying, “This really isn’t tricky enough yet. Shall we try something a bit harder?”; showing a deep understanding and belief that the best, most exciting learning happens when you have to stick at it – when it’s not easy first time. It’s not about getting the right answer; it’s about grappling with multiple answers and sometimes still needing to take a break and come back to solve that problem. This is important for several reasons:

  • The more children relish challenge, the less likely they are to give up. You will find them grasping challenging concepts you couldn’t have imagined possible.
  • This means accelerated progress
  • This also means a happier class – people are happier when they are wrestling with difficult learning. Check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s study on happiness, Flow.
  • Children will see mistakes as opportunities to learn.
  • You will find progress, new ideas and learning flow much more readily and easily because the children want to learn – they are hungry for it.

So, how is this hunger, obsession, with challenge achieved? Here are some ways I have found successful in developing a relish for challenge:

Create open-ended challenge

Based on Carol Dweck’s research into growth mindset, I mix the children in my class up as much as possible and create levels of challenge that they can lock onto at their own level (even better if the children can start to create their own levels of challenge!) Not only does this teach the children independence and reflection skills, as they have to think about where they are with their own learning, it takes the cap off children’s learning – children you might otherwise have thought of “low ability” will suddenly shine and challenge themselves in ways you may never have thought possible.

I use chillis as a metaphor for challenge, like you might find on a menu at a Thai restaurant. Sometimes I ask the children, “What might a 3-chilli challenge look like today?” I’ve had classes where they’ve come up with 5-chilli challenges and succeeded in their quests! The point is to create an excitement around challenge and involve the children in that process.

The children constantly impress me with how accurately they can access their own levels of challenge. But if they don’t (i.e. they go for something too easy, or over-stretch themselves), you just need to “nudge” them in the right direction with a bit of questioning. For example:

  • Is that really challenging enough for you? I think you might be ready for a bit more of a challenge. Why don’t you try the next level?
  • I can see you’re finding that a bit too tricky and are stuck. How could you make your learning a bit easier so you can get started?

Or by using specific praise to encourage children around challenge:

  • I can see this has been really tricky for you today. Why don’t we try again tomorrow? Fantastic learners know when to take a break then come back again.
  • Wow! You really stuck at that and then you finally got it! How does that feel?

Using language around challenge and risk-taking

I include language around challenge in the dialogue and “Learnish” in our classroom. Taking risks in learning and exploring challenging learning is frequently celebrated, thus raising the profile of challenge and making it part of our classroom ethos. Within weeks of drip-feeding this relish of challenge, there is a buzz around learning and pushing yourself in our classroom. I often here children excitedly sharing (in review or just to their friend), “I challenged myself today!” By learning that when they push themselves, they learn and discover new things, the children begin to learn more rapidly and are always hungry for more. This supercharges their learning (see here) and is one of the many reasons children bound through the door, exclaiming, “What are we learning today Mrs Carlzon?!

I often use the learning ladder to help children assess how tricky their learning is. It helps them to link challenge with emotions and to visually see how much they are challenging themselves (see “learning environment” later).

Visual metaphors for challenge.

You can also use other metaphors for challenge, such as using James Nottingham’s Learning Pit, which is explained in more detailed in the embedded video.

The Learning Pit makes the struggle of learning visible to children, as well as encouraging collaborative problem-solving and discussion to ‘get out’ of the pit. The key is to make the pit integral to day-to-day teaching, rather than becoming wallpaper. I’ve seen schools engage children with the learning pit in a variety of ingenus ways, such as creating a competition to design a new Learning Pit, sharing teachers’ journeys in the Learning Pit and integrating the Learning Pit into Interactive whiteboard slides or whiteboards in the classroom. 

Another example of a visual metaphor you could use around challenge is Sylvia Duckworth’s iceburg metaphor. This helps children to see the effort behind the learning you can see on the surface.

Sylvia Duckworth's iceburg sketchnote showing the hardwork behind challenging learning.

Build challenge into the learning environment.

It’s always a good idea to maximise your learning environment so that it is reflecting and building on the skills you would like to develop. Here is an example of a poster we created to enable children to challenge themselves when joining in junk modelling. Some of the ideas are adult-chosen ideas, but some also came from the children experimenting with ideas themselves. It was really empowering for them to see their ideas on a poster we were using to inspire the whole of year one (see this page on giving children ownership).

Poster showing challenging ways to join models. Some ideas are child-discovered.

Here are some videos of the children developing these ideas. We showed these short clips to the class to further stoke the fires of inspiration. We had some great moving models during that term!

The children were proud that they’d tried out a new idea and had made it work. This is what we are aiming for in as many contexts as possible!

Hand holding book - Powering Up Children


You can now order Powering Up Children from amazon. A comprehensive guide to learning power with real teaching examples, and action steps to gently incorporate these principles into your own classroom.

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