Challenge all learners

Challenge all learners

Ensuring that the brightest pupils fulfil their potential goes straight to the heart of social mobility, of basic fairness and economic efficiency.’1

Image result for increasing challenge

A report published by Ofsted “The most able students, Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools?” – June 2013, focussed on the progress of high ability students in both selective and non-selective schools.

  • 65% of high ability students attending a non-selective school do not gain A/A* in Maths and English GCSE.
  • 27% of high ability students attending a non-selective school did not gain a B grade in Maths and English GCSE.

The gap continues to grow at Level 3 provision, and even further in applications and admissions to Russell group Universities. The report notes that “In too many lessons observed by inspectors, teaching is not supporting our highest attaining students to do well.”

The key findings through inspections were:

  • In many schools, expectations of what the most able students should achieve are too low.
  • Schools do not routinely give the same attention to the most able as they do to low-attaining students or those who struggle at school.
  • In over two fifths of the schools visited for the survey, students did not make the progress that they should, or that they were capable of, between the ages of 11 and 14. Students said that too much work was repetitive and undemanding in Key Stage 3. As a result, their progress faltered and their interest in school waned.
  • Students did not do the hard work and develop the resilience needed to perform at a higher level because more challenging tasks were not regularly demanded of them. The work was pitched at the middle and did not extend the most able.

If children are pushed to achieve this will:

  • Inspire and motivate them
  • Enable them to fulfil their potential
  • Maintain their engagement

Why does it matter?

It allows us to provide a differentiated curriculum with children aiming for their best. It ensures that all students are suitably engaged in their learning and hungry for improvement. Higher expectations are for the benefit of all: “a rising tide lifts all ships”.

What characteristics are seen in lessons where learners are challenged?

  • Teachers ask open ended questions and where necessary set open ended tasks  
  • Pupils are encouraged to develop higher order thinking skills (HOTS)  
  • Pupils are encouraged and given responsibility as leaders & facilitators
  • Teachers help pupils to develop skills which critique their own and others work
  • Pupils are encouraged to have a go and not fear mistakes
  • Teachers give expert guidance on what exemplar (eg A*) answers/responses look like; this approach is adopted for pupils across all groups
  • Pupils literacy skills are constantly tested orally, in writing and with reading
  • Teachers use specific techniques such as “SOLO” (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) (About SOLO taxonomy)
  • Teachers ‘flip the classroom’ so that pupils prepare work at home and arrive to lessons ready to apply their knowledge; this ensures no time is wasted
  • Pupils are encouraged to experiment
  • Feedback on pupils work makes it clear how to improve including next steps
  • Teachers make time in lessons to give this feedback



1. A Smithers, and P Robinson, Educating the highly able, Foreword by Sir Peter Lampl, Sutton Trust, 2012;

CPD Briefing: Questioning


As teachers we inevitably ask questions all the time to gain what knowledge our students have and what they have learnt from us.  This would include questions such as:-



Why Ask  Questions?

Teachers ask questions for a variety of purposes, including:

  • To actively involve students in the lesson
  • To increase motivation or interest
  • To evaluate students’ preparation
  • To check on completion of work
  • To develop critical thinking skills
  • To review previous lessons
  • To assess achievement or mastery of goals and objectives
  • To stimulate independent learning


In general, research shows that instruction involving questioning is more effective than instruction without questioning.


One important finding is that questions that focus student attention on important elements of a lesson result in better comprehension than those that focus on unusual or interesting elements. Questions should also be structured so that most elicit correct responses.

Throughout our teacher training days, we have traditionally classified questioning according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, a hierarchy of increasingly complex intellectual skills.


However, over a period of time this has been adapted in various ways, such as ‘Thinking Hats’, but the basic concept still remains the same.


Types of Questions

There are many types of questions but the main ones are normally focused around 6 areas:-

  • Knowledge – so students can recall data or information
  • Comprehension – students can understand meaning
  • Application – students can use a concept in a new situation
  • Analysis – students can separate concepts into parts; distinguish between facts and inferences
  • Synthesis – students can combine parts to form new meaning
  • Evaluation – students can then make judgments about the value of ideas or products


Some researchers have simplified classification of questions into lower and higher cognitive questions. Lower cognitive questions (fact, closed, direct, recall, and knowledge questions) involve the recall of information. Higher cognitive questions (open-ended, interpretive, evaluative, inquiry, inferential, and synthesis questions) involve the mental manipulation of information to produce or support an answer.

Question: Which type of questioning do you normally lean towards within your own classroom practice?


How many questions and when?

  • How many questions should a teacher ask?
  • At what point during the lesson?
  • Who do you normally direct your questions to?

Frequent questioning has been shown to be positively related to learning facts, but simply asking a greater number of questions does not facilitate the learning of more complex material. Just as with higher cognitive questions, it may be necessary to include explicit instruction to promote student learning of complicated concepts.

Teachers often pose questions prior to reading. Research shows that while this strategy is effective for older students, those with high ability, and those interested in the subject matter, it is not as effective for younger students and poor readers, who tend to focus only on the material that will help them answer the questions.

The most commonly used questioning methods are the least effective.

Take for example the “volunteers” approach: you ask a question; hands go up; you choose someone to answer; they answer; you comment on that answer.


Question: What is wrong with this?

  • Many students keep their hands down, and may not even listen to your questions.
  • You only learn whatone student thinks, not how all the rest would have answered.
  • Students don’t discuss their answers and correct each others’ misconceptions.
  • The best students answer quickly, so there is little time for the others to think out their own answers.


You can of course choose a series of students to answer without using ‘hands up’, this is the ‘nominees’ approach. But:

  • This can be scary for many students.
  • A student who has just answered will guess that it will be ages before you ask them again. So they may stop listening.
  • You still don’t know what the majority of students think.

Compare these very common approaches with the much more effective “Assertive Questioning” approach (see redirecting section).



Wait-time is another crucial factor in questioning techniques. Wait-time can be defined as the amount of time a teacher allows to elapse after he or she has posed a question. (A less frequently used and researched definition is the amount of time that a teacher allows to elapse before responding after a student stops speaking.) While traditional wisdom advocates a brisk pace of instruction to maintain interest and cover more material, research shows that slowing slightly to include more wait-time promotes achievement.

In the classrooms studied, the average wait-time after a question was posed was one second or less. Students perceived as slow or poor learners were afforded less wait-time than students viewed as more capable. This amount of wait-time is not sufficient for students, particularly for those that experience difficulty.

Studies show that for lower cognitive questions, a wait-time of three seconds is most effective in terms of achievement. Shorter or longer times were less positively correlated with student success.

For higher cognitive questions, no wait-time threshold was observed. Researchers noted that students seemed to become more engaged and successful the longer the teacher waited (within reason, of course).

Increased wait-time is related to a number of student outcomes, including improved achievement and retention, greater numbers of higher cognitive responses, longer responses, decreases in interruptions, and increased student-student interactions. These outcomes are quite similar to those observed with an increased frequency of higher cognitive questions. In fact, researchers believe that a causal relationship may exist between the two: higher cognitive questions require more wait-time, and more wait-time allows for the implementation of higher cognitive discussions.

Redirecting, Exploring and Responding

A teacher’s response to students’ answers is just as important as the question asked. A response may redirect students when an incorrect answer is given or students misinterpret the question. Teachers may probe for further explanation when a partial answer is given.

You get the best representative feedback on understanding if you ask questions like:

‘Why did your group think that?’

‘Did any other groups get that answer?’…’Why?’

‘Has anyone got a different answer?’ ….’Why?

Acknowledging correct responses is necessary and effective especially to students that respond well to praise.

Bouncing questions from one students to another is also an effective strategy in building upon the main question but also ensuring that students understand the question in the first place.

Assertive Questioning

With Assertive Questioning:

  • All students are thinking – “the teacher might choose me”.
  • All students are talking and checking each others’ thinking – they need to agree an answer with its reasoning. Group members will be cross if one of their number misrepresents their group’s answer to the class. So peer-pressure increases participation.
  • You get detailed and representative feedback on all the class’s thinking, and can eventually correct misconceptions before they take root.
  • There is lots of thinking time.
  • Students are usually very comfortable to give answers, as they are answering for their group not as an individual.


Thought provoking questions – Buzz Group

Buzz groups work on a thought provoking question. The teacher asks individuals to give their group’s answer.  These individuals are nominated by the teacher.  The teacher gets a number of answers saying just ‘thank you’ after each, and perhaps ‘why did your group think that?’. The correct answer is not given away.  The teacher then encourages the class to discuss these various answers, and to agree, and justify a ‘class answer’.  Minority views are allowed, but the aim is consensus. Only when the class has agreed its answer, does the teacher ‘give away’ the right answer. The teacher reviews the class’s thinking.


How can teachers make use of these findings? Teachers often have little training in questioning techniques, so being familiar with the research is a good place to start. Improving in this area requires a reflective and metacognitive approach. For example, teachers may choose to:

  • Plan and write out the questions to be used in a lesson. How many are lower cognitive questions? Higher cognitive questions? Is the percentage appropriate for the age and ability level of your students?
  • Anticipate possible student responses, especially partially correct or incorrect ones. How will you probe for further information or redirect?
  • Ask a colleague to observe a lesson, paying particular attention to the types of questions and student responses. Meet to discuss the observations and plan for improvement.
  • Videotape yourself teaching a lesson. When you watch, record your wait-time for each question. Also note if you provide longer wait-times to certain students. Or examine your feedback. Are you specific and focused on the students’ responses?
  • Seek out resources and professional development that can help you improve your questioning techniques. If possible, start a study group with colleagues.

Further Resources

Geoff Petty Questioning.

Which questioning strategy?


Geoff Petty

Prof John Hattie’s







CPD Briefing: Stretch and Challenge


We all know that we need to be stretching students whatever their starting points, we know that we have to challenge every child in a class. This however has to be achieved without increasing work load or work sheets.



Pygmalion in the Classroom (Pygmalion in the Classroom Rosenthal, R.; Jacobson, L. (1968)


I have spoken about this before – the bottom line of the research was that teachers expectations were the key factor in students performance.

The researchers randomly allocated students to a group using a fake test they then labelled these children as high ability’ bloomers’ . All of the students received the same teaching and yet the bloomers made significantly more progress.

The research looked into possible reasons why but came to the conclusion that it was the interactions between the teacher and pupils.

The teacher believed they had potential —> The pupil believed the had potential —> The pupil made progress…

Recent work by Carol Dweck on Growth Mindsets supports such conclusions with an emphasis on providing high challenge and positive, specific feedback.

In June 2013 research by Ofsted The Most Able Students painted a fairly damming picture of current practice. Some of their recommendations are below.

  • develop a culture and ethos so that the needs of the most able students are championed by school leaders
  • help the most able students to flourish and leave school with the best qualifications by providing first-rate opportunities to develop the skills, confidence and attitudes needed to succeed at the best universities
  • improve the transfer between primary and secondary schools so that all Year 7 teachers know which students achieved highly, know what aspects of the curriculum the most able students have studied in Year 6, and use this information to plan and teach lessons that build on prior knowledge and skills
  • ensure that work continues to be challenging and demanding throughout Key Stage 3 so that the most able students make rapid progress
  • evaluate the quality of homework set for the most able students to ensure that it is suitably challenging
  • give the parents and carers of the most able students better and more frequent information about what their children should achieve and raise their expectations

Prompts for Questions

  • Do all students on our classes make good or better progress?
  • Do we meet the needs of every student?
  • How do we cater for high ability EAL students?
  • How do low expectations affect progress? (the Golem affect)

Further Reading

Golem and Pygmalion

Golem affect

Growth Mindsets Video




Stretch and Challenge without Handouts