Stretch and Challenge: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

Is your school embracing a stretch and challenge agenda? Find out what practical measures you can take to make sure everyone is thinking for themselves.

What is Stretch and Challenge?

Stretch and challenge can be described as an agenda or philosophy as opposed to an outright teaching strategy. The idea comes from the criticism that some children could be working at a greater depth or taking their ideas to new levels. We sometimes forget that learning is hard work, particularly the thinking part. It might seem that in some of your classrooms learners will do everything they can to finish as quick as possible and bypass any opportunities for an additional level of challenge. Adopting a challenge model in your school will require an in-depth understanding of the pupils. Revisiting concepts such as the zone of proximal development helps us reframe learning experiences and seek out opportunities for deeper thinking. In this article, we will provide some practical ideas for a stretch & challenge programme in your school.


Why is Stretch and Challenge an important agenda?

To answer this question, let's consider the curriculum as a vehicle for social mobility. Every school has a range of ability levels and challenge activities should be designed to move classroom thinking forward. The level of challenge should be suitable for the pupil which requires a certain level of differentiation. What is hard for me might be easy for you. We want every pupil to go beyond their current understanding and where possible, adopt threshold concepts, the type of thinking that changes the way you view the world forever. In many state schools, the pupil premium agenda skews curriculum access over a rigorous stretch & challenge programme.

To transform challenges into activities for the classroom, our members have adopted the universal thinking framework. This practical planning and delivery tool enable educators to design challenge teaching strategies that really gets everyone thinking. The learning actions extend the opportunities to provide challenge across a wide ability range. Instead of ability streaming, teachers can create lesson plans that have different tangents embedded within them. The learning objectives can be seen as a compass (giving the task direction) whilst the challenge activities are carefully mapped out to cater for the broad ability spectrum. This approach has meant that classrooms can take on adopt an 'access and challenge' agenda. Instead of just providing additional learning materials for those who have finished the task, the framework enables children to deepen their learning experiences by changing perspectives and looking at topics from different angles. The best performing schools see additional learning opportunities throughout the curriculum to develop advanced knowledge. This is not just 'more stuff' but new perspectives and ways of using that knowledge to achieve different goals.

Designing activities to really stretch pupils
Designing activities to really stretch pupils


Designing and assessing challenge activities

Using frameworks such as solo taxonomy and blooms enables educators to explore the academic potential by subtly reframing the learning objective. These types of frameworks enable teachers to design learning experiences that can move classroom thinking into new territories. Mary Myatt recently discussed the idea that schools often talk about 'doing the romans'. Using a framework for teaching enables educators to outline bespoke learning opportunities for the entire class ability range. The thinking and learning actions within our framework have also been used as an assessment method. For example, if we take the Roman topic, can a pupil:

1) Identify what the Romans have done for us?

2) Categorise those benefits into different criteria?

3) Provide local examples of those benefits?

4) Find suitable adjectives to describe these benefits?

5) Imagine what life would be like without the Roman occupation of Britain?

The UTF actions can be carefully ordered into an engaging assessment methodology that gradually increases with cognitive complexity. In other words, we are not asking the child to simply do 'more stuff', we are asking them to think about the concept in different ways thus developing a greater depth of knowledge. We have seen many schools create assessment procedures that put the student's cognitive abilities at stage centre. These can be facilitated 'on the fly' and challenge learners to adopt new perspectives on familiar knowledge. In time, our members have also used attitudinal challenges. This is the idea of entertaining a thought before accepting it.

Stretching a learners thinking with the Universal Thinking Framework
Stretching a learners thinking with the Universal Thinking Framework


Oracy for Stretch and Challenge

Challenge activities don't have to always involve writing. Asking students to elaborate in different ways about the curriculum content can be equally as impactful. Having to have superior writing skills might act as a barrier for embracing a stretch and challenge for all policy. We know that talk can extend thinking and that's why, in recent years, Oracy has begun to get the attention it deserves.

Why not challenge students to:

  • Explain their knowledge to another person.
  • Take on a different perspective that they are not necessarily comfortable with.
  • Prepare a speech to convince the rest of the class to take a particular action.

Stretch and Challenge activities using visual tools
Stretch and Challenge activities using visual tools

Neil Mercer's work has shown us that oral reasoning skills affect cognitive skills. Students can demonstrate an array of abilities through the spoken word without being anxious about the quality of handwriting or grammatical structure. Using the Universal Thinking Framework's question and answer stems enable classrooms to set up interactive experiences that develop pupils' passion for learning. Even though using a learning experience such as oracy doesn't always end up with written evidence in a book, progress can be documented with the right assessment approaches. Within our learning skills framework, you will find various scales that outline the type of behaviours associated with these competencies. The teacher can use the framework to document wider knowledge and skills progression.

Using resources such as 'Writers Block' to stretch students comprehension
Using resources such as 'Writers Block' to stretch students comprehension

A complex question can really provoke deep thinking. The bank of Socratic and exploratory questions embedded within the framework enable teachers to turn a basic question into a more complex task that advances the level of thinking. To go one step further, the graphic organisers included in the membership are an engaging tool for adding shape to your pupils thinking. Using these type of accessible resources causes the learner to really think about how all of the parts fit together, a gateway to critical thinking.

All of these resources are available for our members to use across their school. If you would like to talk anything through, please do get in touch for an informal conversation.