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☰ Challenge – Higher Order Thinking

Head's Blog

Challenge – Higher Order Thinking

Posted on November 27 2017

I was fortunate enough to spend the beginning of this term back in the classroom teaching full time. I covered the Year 4 class and loved every moment of being ‘back on the shop floor!’ But I had to ask myself: were these children being under-challenged by me, my methodology and materials, my expectations of them? Would they learn more if I demanded more of them? And if so, what is the right kind of "more" to demand?

These seem to be interesting questions for us at Forest Park as we are actively engaged at challenging our pupils this year, more than ever before. We've called the area we are investigating "Challenge – Higher Order Thinking Skills". Our starting point is an assumption that learners may become more deeply engaged by having higher micro-demands placed on them, in multiple ways, moment by moment, in every lesson, by adopting a different attitude (i.e., expecting more) and by using a range of small teaching and learning interventions.

Challenge does not simply mean "making things more difficult". It's a demand that comes precisely at the point where the learner is capable of taking the next steps forward – and helping the learner meet that demand, rather than ignore it. This is a doable demand. On the other hand, simply making things more difficult (e.g. setting exercises that are too hard) is an unhelpful, undoable demand.

Here are a few snapshots from successful Forest Park lessons laced with challenge. What thread runs through them?

• A pupil says the right answer to the teacher's question. The teacher doesn't say "Good" and close the matter, but rather says: "Can you explain how you got to that answer?"

• The teacher does not just collect answers from the first two or three students who volunteer, but puts questions to a range of people around the class, intuitively adjusting the difficulty to what she knows of each student.

• The teacher gets children to listen and comment on each other's answers, rather than designating any as correct or incorrect herself, at least until it is useful to do so.

• Once a child can say a correct answer, the teacher then says "Now, can you make your original mistake again … OK …. and now the correct answer again?"

• The teacher withholds saying "excellent" or "very good" the first time a child tries something, and instead gives precise feedback indicating how he/she might upgrade some aspect and make a tangible improvement.

In each case observed above, the teacher is starting from where the pupil is and then hoping to go further, however good the pupil is. Nothing is being done just to "get it right". The teacher is not concerned with closing down a question in order to move on, only with pushing, nudging each child further along the road, from whatever their starting point. At Forest Park we systematically identify such "challenge" features, talk about them and develop a wider use of them in our staff meetings and discussions. We recognise when we are or aren't challenging enough and adapt our approach so that it aims higher next time.

Picture these two fictional experienced teachers. They both teach well and get good feedback from students and in formal observations. How would you describe the difference?

Teacher One focuses mainly on the activity and "what the children have to do". She is concerned with the steps of the task, the instructions she must give, the carrying out of the activities, the gathering in of the right answers.

Teacher Two is similarly focused on all those things, but is primarily pushed along by the question: "What do the pupils have to do in order to do all those things?"

So, for example, Teacher One might set a grammar exercise for pupils to do in pairs and, at the end, go through the answers with the class. As each child calls out a correct answer, she acknowledges it and says "good". When there is an incorrect answer, she invites other pupils to call out their answer and praises the ones who offer the right answer.

Teacher Two handles the feedback a little differently. When pupils call out answers, she does not immediately say if they are correct or not. Sometimes, she invites other children to say if they agree, or asks for a pupil to explain an answer, or proposes an alternative answer and asks the class to decide who is correct. Sometimes she asks children to play around with the answer, e.g. trying to say it using a different verb, or in exactly seven words or starting with the word "If ...".

Her aim is not just to put a "tick" next to the right answer, but to swim around it, to explore the language and the higher order thinking that lies behind the question, and to involve as many children as possible in that.

I think it is clear that Teacher Two is getting closer to the actual learning moves of the children and I am fortunate that, at Forest Park, we have an abundance of ‘teacher two’ staff who are working incredibly hard to change their teaching habits to challenge our children even further. It is this persistent, but gentle, upping of challenge that is in fact more motivating and engaging for Forest Park pupils. Our teachers are finding a different, more active, more interventionist role for themselves, moving away from merely "covering curriculum material", operating ritualised lesson stages and standing back to "let whatever happens happen".

At Forest Park we have rediscovered our role as a "teacher" and are working hard to ensure our pupils learn more because we expect and ask much more of them.    

Nick Tucker

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