03 Levels of Challenge

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. 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!

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?

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).

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.

The learning pit

Video Player

An example of creating challenge

In these photos, you can see two children completing the same task but taking it on to their own level of challenge. They are building their names from base 10 to learn about place value and addition. One boy has kept to adding one-digit numbers and the other boy is adding 10’s and units. The underlying ethos of our classroom is to seek out challenge. Children are taught to develop a thinking routine of, “How could I make this trickier?” Therefore, they are always engaged and thinking about how to take their learning on to the next level.