What does it mean to challenge students?

Lately, my oldest has been coming home from school saying, “Mom, school is haaaard.” He goes on to enumerate the ways, the subjects, the specifics. I empathize with him, of course, but secretly I’m just excited.

School should be hard!! If he feels it’s hard, then I am confident he’s being challenged and pushed. It is crucial to our educational philosophy at PCS to challenge our students! But, what does it mean to challenge learners?

  • It doesn't simply mean to assign difficult material, or just make things hard. To truly challenge a child you must engage her.
  • A brain must be proactively involved. Recently, I read a blog post about the “productive struggle.” The article explains how approaching lessons to generate a productive struggle prioritizes the student, builds authentic engagement, allow students to apply and understand that the material has a purpose, and provides opportunities to naturally evaluate (or “authentically assess) a student’s progress.

  • I loved this! A productive struggle creates new synapses, aha moments, leaps of understanding. An unproductive struggle doesn’t have meaning for a learner. He may be asked to do something but not know why or see the point, which means it may not be well-grasped, integrated or remembered.

  • What is the rubric for challenging students?   

  • The criteria for evaluating success cannot be identical for every child, as each student comes to us with different knowledge, capacities, skills, entry points, passions and perspectives. This is one of the reasons that grades can seem so arbitrary to us at PCS: an “A” or “B” relative to what or who? And why? Grades and grade levels are so ingrained in us, that we rarely stop to question their underlying meaning and efficacy. But surely, they do not allow us to truly know our children’s capacity and knowledge better than other more authentic assessments on which PCS relies.

  • This is not to say that benchmarks, assessments and evaluative tools are of no use. They are incredibly valuable, and we use them every day at PCS. But, here, we employ them using the context of each particular learner and the content of our curriculum.

  • For example, referencing the common core, state standards, and nationally recognized curricular tools, we know that, in general a 4th grade math student should be able to do division, circumference, radius, graphing to name a few.

  • We then take each 4th grader and consider what they know already about the subject. For example, one 4th grader may have no exposure to graphing because of prior schooling experience, another may have struggled with the concepts upon which graphing builds in 3rd grade, and yet a third child will have already mastered graphing concepts because of a particular proclivity or past experience. With all 3, we are working to get them to master the material, however, we have 1 topic, 3 unique fourth graders, 3 entry points, 3 (at least) ways to challenge and foster productive struggles and true meaningful learning. Using the integrated subject as much as possible to enter this learning- allows the student to immediately see why this skill matters and how it can be applied. And then the skills are built as necessary, using a variety of practice tools, in class, and in some cases at home.

The “productive struggle” can be witnessed at PCS every single day.  Whether it is in Kindergarten creating a solar system with legos, Lower Primary as facilitators urging writers to write four or more sentences on personal essays, or in Upper Primary watching small math groups tackle a lengthy word problem.  Learners are challenged: by an inquiry based curriculum, by the facilitators, and by one another.  And this challenging environment lends itself to in-depth and critical thinking in every subject.  How lucky are we?  School is hard, and it should be. ~ Liz

Kathryn QuigleyComment