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

If not now, when? Raising Achievement

‘Garry was brilliant,’ …. ‘He told us exactly where the Italians were and he really motivated us with things like: ‘If not now, when? If not you, who? How much do you want this?’ We knew then that we wanted it more than them.’ (Greg Searle, Gold, Barcelona Olympics)

In the Barcelona Olympics the Searle brothers trailed the Italians by two lengths at 1250m…with 15 stokes remaining it was still more than a length…rising to the if not now, when? and the if not you, who? challenge…the brothers showed extraordinary courage and determination to overhaul the Italians in the last stroke to win Gold. (Click picture to view the race)

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It is probably true that when it comes to raising achievement (RA) a whatever it takes” mindset and culture is key and Term 4/5 is the engine room of opportunity to ensure that students perform. Where there is a focus on quality first teaching and a balance of being deliberate, precise and rigorous on strategies and approaches that matter… there are no limits to what can be achieved.


This begs the question: How do Academies/schools raise achievement most effectively ahead of summer exams? After all, “If not now, when?” … “If not you, who?”

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.” (Malcolm Gladwell)


What if we always kept central that it is quality first teaching that matters? – what students receive every lesson, every day is what raises achievement and this is best achieved through strong, precise and deliberate teaching over time. – This is the “flywheel” (Collins), the “One Thing” (Keller). Keep the main thing, the main thing…

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What if we also understood that RA approaches have much to inform us about everyday teaching, assessment and practices? So that RA is not about a sticking plaster or a bolt-on (panic) approach, but is built into effective progress-focussed teaching across all Year groups.


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What if we realised that urgency is important when raising achievement and that it is crucial that this is communicated to encourage and insist on a move to action for both students and staff? We need to “amplify a need” to secure action that makes the difference.

What if it was the superheroes in our midst that led RA – each teacher, tutor, mentor, leader taking responsibility for RA and believing that anything is possible and being the change and impetus to move students to action? …the deliberate action that enables students to achieve. Blog: Connected Collaboration and Deliberate Altruism

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What if we are very clear about who is responsible for student performance? Class-level responsibility is key to RA – teachers being accountable for students – where there is quality conversation (support and challenge) around what can be achieved with a group of students – teaching becomes more focused on RA.


What if we reward teaching that is outcome-orientated? We value and reward teachers who achieve progress over time; placing more weight on outcomes and progress achieved than performance in observations. And what if we support and reward teaching that is more deliberate and grounded in formative assessment, so that it enables planning to close gaps and secure greater progress. (blog: progress over time)

What if we show a boldness of leadership that reshuffles students, alters groupings and changes staffing to ensure students get the best opportunity to perform? (they only get one shot) And What if where behaviour limits progress teachers and leaders are tenacious and quick to remove this barrier?

What if we fully recognised that Raising Achievement is not about doing more and stacking strategy on strategy … in the push to raise achievement… “not everything matters equally?” (Keller) see Strategic leadership | fanatical discipline and deliberate delivery. We should deliberately seek “marginal gains” (David Brailsford) but resist the temptation just to add strategy on top of strategy – such approaches are high energy, spread impact thinly and are often counter productive.


What if we embedded deliberate practice within teaching and RA? Deliberate Practice occurs when students…

1. …are be motivated and exert effort to improve their performance.

2. …engage in tasks that take into account their pre-existing knowledge.

3. …receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of the results of their performance.

4. …repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

What if based on sound formative and summative assessment that allowed a deep understanding of what students are able to do and not do we used DTT and DDI to close gaps in understanding?…

  • DTT – Diagnosis, Therapy, Test, Diagnosis, Therapy, Test….
  • DDI – Data Driven Instruction.

What if using DDI allows for greater professional conversation around how to secure concepts with students? Why are there gaps shared by students in their understanding? If we focus on understanding how effective our instruction is then teaching will more quickly RA of students.


What if, like the Oakland As, RA is consistently Data Driven? If we ask the right questions and measure the most important performance indicators (the gaps) we get a sense of impact/performance and we direct teaching, planning and intervention to efficiently and effectively close gaps. See blog: Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown. Coyle What if we borrow and use more of Dan Coyle’s ideas on learning and performance? He identifies three important conditions that support learning:

  • Maximise reachfulness in the presence of an expert
  • Embrace the struggle – “You will become clever through your mistakes.”
  • Encourage theft – use feedback and copy others.

Dan Coyle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aq0pHpNy6bs (17 mins)

What if RA is based on the assumption that anyone can learn anything? That the physical development of myelin to secure pathways in the brain enables learning – it is practice that counts and that Dweck’s Growth Mindset ideas are central to highlighting what is possible?

“We all have the ability to profoundly change our levels of talent, our level of skill. Where clusters of great talent emerge there has been a culture created where individuals are constantly reaching and repeating, making mistakes, receiving feedback, building better brains, faster more fluent brains…inside the brain myelin acts like insulation on the pathways and connections in the brain – each time we reach and repeat we earn another layer – signal speeds in the brain start to increase from 2 mph to 200 mph – neuro broadband – (or the difference between normal and great).” (Dan Coyle)


What if Mock exams were regular and deliberately delivered, perhaps in this sequence? Quality teaching…Walking Talking Mock…Visualisation/deliberate instruction/preparation…Mock Exam…question-level feedback…moderation…diagnosis…DDI/DDT…deliberate results day…quality first teaching/intervention that precisely closes gaps.

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What if these Mocks are externally marked or moderated? such that a accurate “Actual Performance” is measured? …completed in exam halls, under full exam conditions, with full exam papers? …including all access arrangements?

What if Mock performance precisely informed what is taught and better still how it is taught (DDI)? What if Covey tables or similar identified specifically the gaps and opportunities for marks and that this is owned in subjects and at class-level? (remembering that some marks are easier than others)

What if fine grading was used across all subjects and that the criteria for each fine grade is consistently applied? And what if feedback from each exam provided question-level analysis and specifically directed students to when and how they can close gaps in understanding?

What if parents evenings were also results evenings where students receive results and specific question/area-level feedback on what is known and where the gaps…and how, where and when the gaps can/will be closed?


What if we meticulously had a plan for the seconds, minutes, hours and days prior to am and pm exams – that this tapered preparations, supported students and was consistent, dependable and reassuringly routine?

What if the period before and during the exams was precisely timetabled to make the very best use of the time available, such that quality teaching input existed up to each exam and that lessons and teachers whose courses had completed made an Academy contribution to support the preparation for other exams?

What if we also focused on student well-being, praise and reward? Cohort performance is often linked to cohort ethos and approach, such that there is a collective and wide-held value placed on performing and achieving? This can often be tangible and obvious – where cohorts tip outcomes improve. What approaches can be used to create a sense of belonging, a Year group sense of we are in this together and “your success is also my success?”

What if RA is a whole Academy drive such that a 100 day plan (to… 50 day plans) leading up to and through the summer exams is owned by all? And even better if this is translated into subject plans…that are very specific, deliberate and precise. What if there is a clear focus on the key students that make the difference the “key 34” the “critical 25” the “golden 28”?


Maybe then we would exploit a “whatever it takes” and “if not now, when” mindset that assumes everything is possible and ensures students perform and achieve. That we never let up on improving the quality of teaching as this is the most effective way of raising student achievement of students – what happens in every lesson really matters.

Maybe also we would be precise and deliberate about Raising Achievement, squeezing out the most from the strategies and approaches that matter the most.

…enabling students to perform unusually well.

March 2015