Stretch and Challenge | CLF Conference

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It is probably true… that consistently, deliberately and purposefully pitching learning just beyond a child’s present ability, that point between confusion and boredom, is perhaps the hardest part of teaching. This requires a depth of awareness of where each child is and specifically what each individual needs to do next to learn and make progress.

It is also probably true… that good lessons have the ability to stretch and challenge 80+% of children, whereas a great set of lessons stretches and challenges a different 80% each lesson. This requires teachers to become expert coaches who have a depth of subject and age-related knowledge, formatively assesses and use effective feedback to know where each child is with their learning, has the ability to use this to plan for progress, has an in-built ethic of excellence and the in-lesson awareness to intervene with effective questioning, explanation and modelling. Effective coaching happens when there is a consistent application of these elements over time, so that…

“…success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities (provided by teachers and others).” (Malcolm Gladwell)

The following reflects some of the best practices across the Federation and identifies the key aspects for securing stretch and challenge in all classrooms…


What if… Ofsted are right? that the stretch and challenge of all children should be based on having consistently high standards of what each pupil can achieve, including the most able and disadvantaged…and assessment that informs planning for pupils who are falling behind in their learning or who need additional support enabling pupils to make good progress and achieve well?

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…and that when looking at books… there is the level of challenge and evidence that pupils have to grapple appropriately with content, not necessarily “getting it right” first time the work is not too easy?

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What if… the ability to plan for and to challenge and stretch children is impossible without a depth of knowledge that encompasses…

  • subject/age-related understanding of standards and expectations – that enables appropriate pitch as well as igniting an interest and passion around specific and well-ordered content?
  • a deep understanding of the key concepts and importantly the key mis-conceptions that are built into the progression of a subject or area of learning?
  • knowledge of exam and age-related expectations to provide precise planning, task setting that ensure that children are stretched and challenged around the appropriate content?
  • Knowledge of pedagogy – how to plan to pitch learning, plan lessons, activities and other elements of pedagogy to secure progress.

What if.. one of the key levers in stretching and challenging children is the subject passion from teachers who inspire young people to achieve more. Teachers have huge influence – and with that opportunity comes great responsibility:

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What if… this passion is particularly portrayed through the language we use? It is language that motivates and perhaps more importantly inspires interests that enhance young peoples lives. What if… we analysed our own use of language and identified phrases and approaches that automatically set limits (often unknowingly) on what children can achieve or indicate limits to what we believe is possible?

What if… planning to stretch and challenge requires:

  • lesson objectives that genuinely stretch children based on where they are in their learning.
  • feedback and previous progress is the basis for the planning of each lesson – teachers show the flexibility required to respond and pitch lessons by child.
  • flexibility within lessons enable learning, tasks, questioning to be altered to maintain challenge and pitch.
  • peer-to-peer learning is used to support and accelerate progress.
  • different tasks are required to stretch children who are at different points in their progression.
  • lessons and content need to increase in depth rather than breadth to support increased challenge and stretch.
  • absolute clarity around what the age-related or exam-expectations are to direct learning appropriately and stretch in the right areas.
  • have high expectations of what is possible and what children can achieve.
  • Build resilience in pupils who develop GRIT and a growth mindset to spend more time outside of their comfort zone.

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What if… children do not produce their best work often enough and tread water in the mediocre? It might be that we rarely stretch and challenge students to produce their very best work and that much of the work produced falls in the bottom quartile of what what they are capable of?

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What if… children were stretched and challenged to produce work that is skewed to the right, toward excellence and not left where it probably sits at present?

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What if… there is an ongoing and accessible record of a child’s best pieces of work so that there is an immediate benchmark to build from (perhaps at the front of each book).

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What if… children can fly if they truly believe they can? 

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The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.” (from, Peter Pan)

What if… teachers always started from the position that all children can achieve their potential? and What if… this was portrayed in the manner, language, optimism and challenge that teachers have for their classes/children?

What if… we understood that a child’s beliefs can limit what they believe to be possible and worse still that as teachers and educators our beliefs can also limit what others believe that can achieve?

“Tread carefully on the dreams of children; they are fragile”

“…and release them to achieve their podium position…”

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What if… to stretch and challenge individuals practise needs to be …intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for (their) current skill level, combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.”  (Malcolm Gladwell) … enabling children to  over-perform.

What if… creating these conditions and the opportunity to stretch and challenge children requires teachers to be expert coaches who…

  1. Opportunity – creating the opportunity for children to learn and work just beyond their present ability.
  2. Competition from like-minded individuals – create a ethos and atmosphere of sharing and feedback that balances competition and co-operation.
  3. develop GRIT – supporting children to focus on long term goals, ignoring short-term distractions. Often re-doing and re-drafting for example.
  4. seek Deliberative practise – based on precise feedback support children to practise and apply understanding.

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What if… this seeks to…

“replace the patchwork of lucky breaks, context and arbitrary advantages that determine success…with a system (learning) that provides opportunities and the conditions for all to feel success.” (Malcolm Gladwell, adapted)

What if… planning, tasks and activities are informed by Blooms and SOLO taxonomy? That these frameworks support children to be appropriately stretched and challenged.

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What if… we sought more often to escalate lessons and tasks from closed to open and (more often) to challenge children to apply, analyse, synthesis and evaluate their developing understanding. What if… too often children spend time doing what they can already do?

What if… we pitch lessons in the proximal zone? and that the real challenge is to plan learning so that as many children are kept in their proximal zone for as long as possible, just beyond what the child is capable of, supported by a peer) … or in a state of FLOW (that area between boredom and anxiety)?

What if… good lessons stretch and challenge 80% of students, but that in great lessons this is a different 80% each lesson? seeking to pitch and stretch all children over time… an ability that should not be under-estimated.

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What if… stretch and challenge also came from teaching to depth and seeking mastery around the key ideas and concepts.

More generally, in top performing education systems the curriculum is not mile-wide and inch-deep, but tends to be rigorous, with a few things taught well and in great depth.

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What if… we stretched and challenged children based on a development of a growth mindset (Dweck) – where an anything is possible. What if… it was the absolute expectation that children had to meet the standards. …ensuring, of course, that we do not set the bar too low.

What if… we are prone to underestimating what children are capable of and that this can be highlighted through modest lesson objectives. What if… by setting the bar high and seeking marginal gains we can expect more from children.

“People with Growth Mindsets and who show GRIT achieve more when they engage in deliberative practice … it is this practice that achieve marginal gains (Steve Peters), inching toward excellence.”

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What if… teaching focused more on the journey; on stretching and challenging children to seek “near wins” (Sarah Evans)

“The pursuit of mastery is an ever onward almost.” … “Grit is not just simple elbow-grease term for rugged persistence. It is an often invisible display of endurance that lets you stay in an uncomfortable place, work hard to improve upon a given interest, and do it again and again.”(Sarah Evans)


Maybe then…  children will spend more time in their proximal zone thanks to the expertise and pedagogical understanding of the teacher. A teacher who consistently, deliberately and purposefully pitches learning just beyond a child’s present ability, that point between confusion and boredom, so that children are kept in flow more often. Teachers, as expert coaches, use assessment and formative feedback, strong subject and conceptual knowledge to use elements of pedagogy that stretch and challenge all children over time.

…and maybe then, as teachers, we can be the spark of numerous ignition stories that are born out of an unswerving desire to stretch and challenge pupils; increasing the chances of individuals to be inspired and fall helplessly in love with a future passion…

“Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story – the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion.” Dan Coyle

Dan Nicholls

October 2015

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Disadvantaged children | think low attainment not low ability

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“What if… we view disadvantaged children as low attaining and not as low ability, instil a deep and widely held belief in what is possible and then set eye-watering targets that underline our ambition to overcome the inertia of context.”

It is probably true that… Primary and Secondary schools need to do more to close the gap in attainment between disadvantaged and advantaged children; perhaps seeing it more as low attainment and not low ability or delayed progress and not that there is a limit to a child’s potential. We know that gaps appear early (ages 0-4) and widen through a child’s education. All of which has a deep impact on the child’s life chance and success that ultimately leads to generational cycles of poverty and disadvantage.

Which begs the question… what does it take to close these gaps and disrupt the loop of unequal opportunity and outcomes?

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What if… education reinforces early advantage and accumulated advantage for advantaged students and inadvertently creates conditions where early attainment gaps widen?… do we disadvantage the disadvantaged?

Malcolm Gladwell identifies in Outliers that we often perpetuate early advantage. He exemplifies through the Canadian Ice Hockey League where those children selected at 4 and 5 years old, are generally the oldest and largest children; having their birthdays in Jan, Feb and March. These children enter the hockey Academies, experience great coaching, many hours of practise (largely deliberate in nature) and of course they thrive, out-strip their slightly younger peers and go on to be professionals. Not because they are more gifted or talented than those children born later in the year, but because they were a quarter to fifth older and larger than their peers when selected…what happened next just served to prove the selectors and scouts right.

“Autumn born students showed higher attainment and made more academic progress over KS3.” (DfE, 2012)

What if… as educators and teachers we are complicit in the widening of gaps and perpetuating the early advantage of students from advantaged backgrounds?

“Within the complex landscape of differential attainment, socio- economic disadvantage appears to be the most consistent predictor of attainment, particularly for children and young people from white ethnic groups.” (Ofsted)

What if… we recognise that low attaining disadvantaged children on entry to Primary and Secondary school are actually low attaining and not low ability. What if we are actually see “delayed progress” and not fixed ability or limit our belief in what disadvantaged children can achieve.

What if… there is a wide-held and embedded belief in the ability of all disadvantaged to achieve and attain – life enhancing qualifications and skills that will break the generational cycle of poverty? What if… we did not assume that this belief exists? The type of belief that enables and levers success for disadvantaged students needs to be to depth and has to live and breath in the organisation – it has to be felt and ubiquitous in all that happens.

What if… we build in greater ambition for disadvantaged students? At the start of secondary why do we not set low attaining disadvantaged children a full level of progress each year?

What if… we understand that this higher ambition and action seeks to close early gaps in literacy and numeracy for example – because these gaps disenfranchise children from their education and maintain the loop of poor outcomes, with each generation.

What if… we understood that disadvantaged students are prone to “self de-selection”. They are more likely to see an opportunity, chance or activity as not for them and de-select themselves. What if we had a policy of “meeting them there” – to ensure that disadvantaged children attend extra-curricular events and attend trips etc. … and to deliberately plan lift the cultural capital for each child.

What if… we understand that disadvantaged students are more likely to have an external locus of control and more likely to assume that their experiences and opportunities in life are determined by others and that they are not in control of their own destiny (internal locus of control). All of which links to the self-esteem and self-confidence that is more prevalent in advantaged households, where there is an assumed progression and a greater internal locus that expects individuals to take control of their future; making things happen.

What if… we understood that not all disadvantaged students are disadvantaged and that there are many advantaged students who are disadvantaged? Do we use our own understanding and soft intelligence to identify our actual disadvantaged cohort?

What if… we sense-checked our pupil premium spending to ensure that the strategies we are using are not in fact enabling advantaged students to flourish further,(obviously no bad thing) but that they targeted at enabling disadvantaged to close the gap and achieve. This can only be born out of a deep understanding of what being disadvantaged really means.

What if… we realise that pupils premium spending should be proportionate to the numbers of disadvantaged and that only by measuring impact can we truly understand what and how we close the attainment gaps?

What if… we gained a deeper understanding of what it means to be disadvantaged – not because we intend to mis-understand the complexity of socio-economic disadvantage by creating unhelpful generalisations, but so we can find a language, approaches, strategies and teaching that unlocks and reverses the disadvantaged inertia that slows/delays progress.

Key factors can include: worklessness, low parental education, lower ambition, less well informed choices, poor home study routines, poor diet, overcrowding, alcoholism, violence, chaotic homes, lower access to books, tables, further resources, reduced cultural capital, visits, newspapers, discussion, debate… (obviously these are generalisations – there are many disadvantaged backgrounds that support and provide conditions for children to thrive and achieve beyond that achieved in advantaged households.)

“Students’ academic attainment and progress are strongly influenced by the education level of their parents. Influence of Fathers’ qualification levels only half as strong as mothers. Positive parenting experiences, especially the early years Home Learning Environment (HLE) helps to promote better longer term outcomes.” (DfE, 2012)

By understanding context we can inform the quality of provision that enables all children to exploit their one chance.

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What if… we understood that gaps in attainment happen early ages 0-4 and that these gaps typically widen through Primary and Secondary education. “Success is what sociologist would call accumulative advantage.” (Gladwell, 2008)

“Overall, attainment gaps are present from the early stages of education and progressively worsen during transition and through each phase.” (Ofsted)

What if… we understood that these gaps widen because of the Matthew Effect: “it is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success.” (Gladwell, 2008)

Differences in academic attainment and social-behavioural development related to background emerged early (at age 3) and remained fairly stable to age 14. (DfE, 2012)

What if…  the quality of Nursery education is a key determining factor. It is not uncommon for gaps to be significant at Reception and that this often directly relates to whether the child has attended Nursery and then whether this is of good quality.

What if… we understood that the summer holiday break (in this instance in the US) has a greater impact on disadvantaged children than advantaged children exemplify the home-advantage of advantaged children…

“The wealthiest kids come back in September and their reading scores have jumped more than 15 points. The poorest kids come back from their holidays and their reading scores have dropped almost four points. Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during the school year. But during the summer, they fall far behind.” … “Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way that privileged kids learn while they are not in school.” (Gladwell, Outliers, 2008)

What if… we took seriously our collective system leadership responsibility for supporting families and by extension all children to make strong progress between 0 and 4. Fully exploiting the potential offered by all-through Academies. This connects the dots and works to remove/improve damaging transitions.

What if… all leaders and teachers are leaders of learning? And that this is never divorced from an on-going and deep dialogue about how we best-teach and support all children to close gaps. Indeed we have a moral obligation as leaders to close these gaps, because only then do we enhance life chances, break the generational cycle of poverty and leave a legacy that we can be proud of.

“Disrupt the loop of unequal outcomes.” (Ofsted)

What if… targets for disadvantaged students were set to close gaps (not to maintain them)? Too often we set targets that simply maintain the gap (for example 4 levels progress for all). And in this moment we limit what is possible and set our ambition for disadvantaged students – we are confirming previous disadvantage – we are seeing disadvantaged students attainment as their potential and limiting our ambition for them. Disadvantaged students need the opposite of this … to be offered a deep belief in them and their ability and that with the appropriate provision delayed progress can be reversed – not least because we should see low attainment not ability and that progress is delayed not a reflection on the child’s ability or potential.

What if… we understand that quality first teaching is what matters for exploiting potential and enabling accelerated progress of disadvantaged students? Indeed quality teaching has a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged children (and in contrast to summer holiday progress, above)…

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…underlining that disadvantaged students make greater progress than advantaged students when they receive quality teaching – perhaps highlighting the appetite of disadvantaged children to learn, again reflecting delayed progress not innate ability.

“The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, such pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers … For poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher can result in a deficit of a whole year’s learning.” (Ofsted)

What if… we realised that where Academies only go as far as identifying disadvantaged students on seating plans (or similar) that this could be limiting potential of disadvantaged students; as teachers make unhelpful assumptions about the child’s potential and become content that this child is keeping pace (or slightly behind the progress of advantaged children!)? Quite the opposite is required; disadvantaged children need to outstrip the progress of advantaged children – targets need to reflect greater gains in progress.

What if… we enabled a continuous discussion and strategy-sharing between teachers and pastoral staff to identify strategies and approaches that specifically support disadvantaged children – and that these are made explicit and employed to support students to make accelerated progress.

What if… we recognised that it is the quality of feedback (built-in, not after the event – that is particularly important for disadvantaged children) and what is done with it as well as the quality of differentiation that has the strongest opportunity to accelerate the progress of disadvantaged students.

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success–the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history–with a society that provides opportunities for all.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

What if… we considered the language that we use in lessons and across the Academy when talking about children with low attainment or delayed progress? How often do we talk about ability as if it is fixed or imply that there are limits and ceilings for some children. How far do we employ a growth mindset approach and a language of effort and opportunity?

What if… we remember that effort and opportunity are the greatest determinant on success in almost every area of life? Dweck, Coyle and Gladwell provide compelling evidence that learning and progress is achieved through effort, deliberate practice and the development of myelin within the brain. Disadvantaged students are not wired differently or born less clever…all of which demonstrates that (almost) all gaps can be closed and rates of progress increased. (Accepting that extreme neglect in early childhood can create physical changes in the brain).

Perhaps all of this will help to disrupt the loop of unequal opportunity that hold disadvantaged children back; reversing the cycle of poverty.

“Children experiencing poverty face multiple disadvantages that often continue throughout their lives and all too often continue on to the next generation.” (Child Poverty Strategy 2014-17)


Maybe then…

  • There would be a deep and wide-held belief in the possibility of closing all gaps. That there is eye-watering ambition for all students.
  • We would not equate low attainment as low ability. Such that our targets should reflect an acknowledgement that this is delayed progress.
  • We would develop  a greater understanding of what it means to be disadvantaged.
  • We understand that the educational system actually reinforces and perpetuates gaps, because cultural capital and early advantage enables advantaged students flourish.
  • We use system leadership and connections to equalise access to early advantage when children are 0-4 and through Primary into Secondary.
  • We no longer set targets for disadvantaged that simply maintain or worse open gaps wider for disadvantaged students.
  • We would realise that we often put into place strategies and approaches (perhaps through pupil premium funding) that simply enable advantaged students to continue their “accumulated advantage.”
  • We continue to invest in quality first teaching (particularly feedback and differentiation) so that disadvantaged children are freed and supported to make progress.
  • We remind and promote that ability is not fixed and that through effort and deliberate practise everything is possible.

“Education and organisations should be judged by how well it supports its most vulnerable and disadvantaged to achieve and feel success.”

May 2015