Skip to main content

Elongate their learning

The phrase 'stretch and challenge' can be applied across the ability range. Mike Gershon shares his tried-and-tested methods

The phrase 'stretch and challenge' can be applied across the ability range. Mike Gershon shares his tried-and-tested methods

There are two ways to interpret the phrase "stretch and challenge". On the one hand it relates to whole-class teaching and the importance of stretching and challenging every pupil's thinking. On the other it relates to individuals and the importance of pushing the thinking of the most able pupils.

Both interpretations are equally valid and essential components of great teaching; both will be addressed in this article.

We will look at providing a range of strategies, activities and techniques that can be put to use by any teacher working with nearly any age group.

Stretching and challenging all pupils

As teachers, we know that it is not enough for our pupils to coast through lessons, picking up the minimum they need to get by. First, motivation and engagement are likely to sag if the work pupils are doing is too easy. Second, we want the very best for our pupils. We want them to love learning, to be stimulated by the lessons we teach and to develop intellectually.

This means it is vital that we strive to stretch and challenge all our pupils. The three key areas through which we can make this happen are planning; lesson structure and pace; and the expectations we convey.


Planning comes first. It prefigures what we do in the classroom and provides us with the resources and organisation needed to create great learning experiences. There are three areas to which we should pay close attention in order to ensure that all pupils have their thinking stretched and challenged. First is content. When creating your lessons, ask yourself if the content is sufficiently demanding. How close is it to what your pupils already know? Does it include conceptual and concrete material? In what kind of language is it couched?

Ideally, you should be aiming for material that is just beyond the point pupils have already reached - something just at the edge of their capabilities. This idea arises from Lev Vygotsky's notion of the zone of proximal development. Pupils are presented with information that, with the help of a skilled teacher, becomes fully accessible over the course of the lesson. This is the essence of education, where pupils are put in a position that enables them to move beyond their existing knowledge and understanding.

To judge whether your content is sufficiently challenging, elicit information from your pupils. During the course of your teaching and marking, observe how the class is coping with the material you present. Adjust the content of your lessons based on the information you receive.

It is probable, and natural, that your content will initially oscillate between slightly too easy and slightly too difficult. It is through trial and error that we come to develop a sound sense of what level of content a class can handle.

Do not be averse to plunging your pupils into the realms of uncertainty and mild confusion from time to time. This helps to keep their thinking sharp, stops them getting complacent and discourages automatic recourse to what has been proved to work. Use content aimed at pupils who are two or three years older, content that requires a high level of interpretation or content that challenges pupils' received beliefs.

Lesson structure and pace

Think of the worst training session you ever attended. It is likely that the time dragged, there was no sense of purpose and the convenor had given little thought to your experience of the event. This is what we want to avoid in the classroom. The easiest way is to ask yourself three questions when you are planning, and to keep these in mind when teaching:

1. Why are we doing this?

2. What am I expecting pupils to do at each point in the lesson?

3. What is the optimum amount of time for each activity?

The first question deals with purpose. If you cannot answer it, or if the answer is unclear, then it is time to think again. Pupils are unlikely to make significant progress if there is no clear rationale behind what you are asking them to do.

The second question focuses on how you are intending pupils to engage with the learning. Ideally, activities should be structured so that every pupil in your class is doing something. This includes listening, reading, writing, talking and so on. What it ought not to include is doing nothing, or being passive. We see pupils for a limited amount of time. If we are to ensure they are learning as much as possible, we must make every second count.

There needs to be a definite link between the answers to questions one and two. If an activity is included in a lesson and it does not serve a specific, intended purpose then this raises the question: what is it doing there? Jettison anything that does not help you achieve your aims: cutting away excess and unfocused activities will help to maintain a sense of drive and challenge throughout your lessons.

The third question deals with pace. It is important to remember that having good pace does not mean rattling through a series of activities with barely a pause for breath.

Good pace is about giving the right amount of time to each lesson segment. It involves constantly assessing what stage each pupil is at and being flexible enough to act on these judgements.

Examples of how you might do this include: moving half the class on to a new activity while the others continue with what they are doing; giving extra time to an activity because pupils have found it difficult; and truncating an activity after realising that pupils have understood it more quickly than you anticipated.

High expectations

Never underestimate the importance of having high expectations of all pupils. Learning is accessible to all. We know that every pupil can make progress given the right set of circumstances (including a great teacher). Here are five ways to convey your high expectations to pupils.

Reasoning: When pupils share their opinion with you, or when you hear them sharing it with a partner during discussion, push them to explain what underpins that opinion. Do not let unsupported assertions escape without a follow-up question, such as: "Why?", "Why do you think that?", "What reasons do you have for thinking that?" You can even train your pupils to start asking these questions of each other.

Products: Plan your lessons so that pupils are building up to creating some kind of product. This could be an essay, an extended piece of drama or a presentation. This will imbue your lessons with purpose and also show your pupils that you believe they can create significant pieces of work.

Success criteria: Make sure every pupil knows what the success criteria are for each major piece of work you ask them to do, and convey to them that it is possible for everybody to attain them. In a positive classroom, where what is required is made explicit, pupils will be more likely to push themselves to excel.

All, most and some: If you use the idea of "all, most and some" in your planning, do not share it with pupils. Consider how demoralising it must be for a pupil who knows they are not top of the class to see that noted down at the start of the lesson. It is akin to stating in advance what they are expected to achieve.

Formative feedback: Set your pupils challenging targets on a regular basis. Forget about sharing grades for the moment - keep those to yourself. Instead, tell pupils what they need to do to improve and give them the opportunity to do it. Pupils who receive the negative reinforcement of low grades are unlikely to respond to anything that stretches or challenges their thinking. And can you blame them? If they keep being told they are failing, how much harder are we making it for them to stay motivated?

Challenging more able pupils

So how do you push the thinking of more able pupils in the context of whole-class teaching? We will consider three approaches: Socratic questioning, evaluation activities and critical thinking techniques.

Socratic questioning

Socrates, an Athenian philosopher born in 469BC, appears in the dialogues of Plato interrogating his fellow citizens to draw out the assumptions, errors and misconceptions in their thinking. We can use Socrates' methods in the classroom to challenge the thinking of all pupils - particularly the most able.

There are four roles that Socrates takes on when asking questions: the gadfly, the stingray, the midwife and the ignoramus. Teachers can flit between these in order to question the views, opinions and judgements held by more able pupils.

The gadfly: Mimic the practice of the gadfly, which nips away at larger animals. This role involves asking lots of little questions that are intended to push thinking and avoid sloppiness. Example questions include: "What do you mean by that?", "But, what if ...?", "What evidence do you have?", "Does that always apply?", "How can you be certain that is true?"

The stingray: Administer a shock to pupils' traditional way of thinking in the same way a stingray unleashes its sting. Example questions include: "Imagine if X was not the case, what then?", "What if everything you've said was turned on its head?", "What if a great change happened?"

The midwife: An obvious analogy to the real-life role, whereby you ask questions that help give birth to ideas. Example questions include: "That's an interesting idea; could you explain it a bit more?", "How might that affect things?", "What made you think of that idea?"

The ignoramus: Imagine and emulate a character who has never encountered the topic you are currently discussing and play dumb to elicit and encourage explanation. Example questions include: "What does that mean?", "I don't understand; can you start from the beginning?", "So, do you mean that ...?"

Talking one-to-one with a pupil, you can use these different roles to help expand their thinking. Listen to what the pupil says and look for ways to respond in one of the above guises. Fix on to a pupil's assertions, claims or appeals and question them. This might help you to identify inaccurate use of a concept or over-reliance on a weak piece of analysis.


This is all about making judgements: "What do you think and why?", "Is this better than that, or vice versa?", "Which option should we go for and what reasons do you have to support your choice?"

Really good evaluation demonstrates a mastery of the topic. Pupils will be able to highlight the strengths and limitations of the issue before making a judgement about what ought to be done or what they believe is the best perspective on the matter.

Nearly every activity you do in the classroom can be supplemented by an evaluation task. This could link directly to, or be tangentially associated with, the topic.

Useful evaluation command words include: appraise, argue, assess, critique, defend, evaluate, judge, justify and value. Use them to frame questions and tasks for pupils who finish before their peers. Alternatively, you can build these into your PowerPoint or interactive whiteboard slides as extensions. You will then have them to hand as soon as pupils finish the main work you have set.

Using evaluation questions and tasks to challenge pupils has two added benefits. First, if you make regular recourse to them, pupils' ability to make reasoned judgements will improve. Second, these improvements will trickle into the rest of the work that pupils produce, both written and oral.

Critical thinking

This involves analysing the issue and reflecting on the best way to tackle it. It can be challenging for more able pupils because it asks them to alter their mindsets and to think differently. Three ways in which you can use critical thinking follow.

Analyse meaning: Have pupils analyse the accuracy and precision of their writing and speech. When they have finished an activity, ask them to review what they have done in view of the following criteria: How accurately did they convey the meaning they intended?, How precise were they in their choice and use of words?, How could they have said the same thing but more simply? Get them to amend or redo their work in light of their answers to these questions.

Self-criticism: Stretch pupils' thinking by asking them to reread what they have written critically. Ask them to revisit the work and develop a series of questions in connection with it. These will focus on issues thrown up by the text or questions that have not been answered in the text but ought to have been. When pupils have their list they should try to answer each question in turn.

Challenging debate: Ask pupils to look through their work and identify every instance where they have put forward an argument or a view. They should then come up with two pieces of evidence and two examples (additional to anything in the text) that could be used to support their argument. The process will stretch pupils' thinking and help them to significantly improve their arguments.

For further ideas on how to stretch and challenge more able pupils, see Mike Gershon's Challenge Toolkit resource, which is available to download for free at


Evaluation keywords:

- Appraise

- Argue

- Assess

- Critique

- Defend

- Evaluate

- Judge

- Justify

- Value

Socratic questioning roles:

- The gadfly

- The stingray

- The midwife

- The ignoramus

Stretch and challenge through planning:

- How difficult is the content?

- What are you asking pupils to do?

- Will pupils be learning actively?

- How will you adapt the length of tasks?

- Do pupils know why they are doing the work?

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you