Five ways to put challenge at the heart of your lesson

Challenge is not something that should be saved for the most able pupils, says one department head, who shares his strategies for providing challenge to all

Mark Enser

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When I first started teaching, many moons ago, “challenge” was talked about as something we needed to offer to the most able; known as the “gifted and talented” in those days. Challenge was an add-on to the end of your lesson, an extension task, or more of the same task, to keep those G&T students busy while everyone else caught up.

Things have moved on, though, I am happy to say. We are now all urged to make sure that challenge is at the heart of every lesson.

Over the last two years, my department has had a real focus on making sure that all pupils are being challenged in each and every lesson. Here are five things we have found useful in achieving this.

1. Know what excellence looks like

To challenge pupils to produce the very best work they are capable of, you first need to agree on what this looks like, for your subject and for your key stage. What challenging concepts should students know by the end of the year or course? What skills should they be able to demonstrate?  Look to the expectations of the key stage above and see what could be brought down. We have spent a lot of time deciding on the standard we are aiming for; we bring along pupils’ books to meetings and pick through them to discuss whether we have the same standards. We photograph and log the best pieces of work.

2. Share what excellence looks like

Once you have decided what excellent work looks like, you need to share this with your pupils. This could be through displaying the work you have logged or creating model answers of your own. But it isn’t enough to just show examples; students also need to understand what makes a piece of work excellent. One way to achieve this is to model producing this work live in front of the class. I have found this very effective at raising the standard of their work, as you can explain the thought process of an expert in the subject out loud as you go.

3. Support them in achieving excellence

A common idea put forward by the proponents of Growth Mindset is that anyone can improve if they try hard enough. One criticism of this is that if pupils don’t feel they are improving, sooner or later they will give up. So start the year, or the topic, with a heavily scaffolded piece of work that allows them to see what the finished product will eventually look like. This scaffolding may involve a writing frame, prompts, and exemplar material ─ whatever is needed to ensure that what they produce is of the highest quality. Pupils need to practice getting things right. Then, over time, remove this support so they are creating this work on their own.

4. Secure knowledge – then apply it

Challenging work, in many subjects, involves taking what you know and applying this in a new context. Too often, though, you see classes who have been asked to apply knowledge they just don’t have in the name of “challenge”. One example of this I have seen was at the end of a lesson on the geography of the UK where pupils were asked to answer the question “Should Scotland leave the UK?” This is certainly a challenging question and one that vexes many, but not one these pupils were equipped to answer. They first needed to know a lot more about the issue in order to form any kind of meaningful conclusion. Knowledge first, and then application.

5. Don’t tell me you are finished

On the wall in my classroom there is an A3 poster right by the whiteboard. It simply says “Don’t tell me you are finished. Ask me, is it excellent yet?” I put it up one morning and my classes picked up on it immediately. They started asking “is this excellent?” as they worked; giving me the perfect opportunity to have a look and suggest improvements. I am not a huge fan of marking (what teacher is?) but I am a big fan of feedback. As pupils are working, I’ll check their work and discuss areas for improvement. We have made redrafting part of our culture and pupils correct their work before submitting it. They can do this because they have a good idea of what excellence looks like.

Mark Enser is head of geography at Heathfield Community College. He blogs at

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