Getting More Challenge Into Our Schools

2752291Parents demand a lot, ask a lot, and expect a lot from schools. Whether the demands fall under the educational, communication, or security aspects of schools, the noise is usually loud and constant. Rarely am I surprised by what they want, and nearly all the time I agree with them and want to move my school forward in ways that address what’s on their minds.

Among the many things parents want to see in the schools that enroll their children, probably the one word that seems to be on everyone’s top priority list is the word challenge. It doesn’t matter what kind of school we’re talking about—public, private…sectarian, non-sectarian…highly selective and fully enrolled schools or schools who are desperate to fill seats. It doesn’t matter. I hear it from administrators and educators everywhere—everybody is asking for more challenge.

Parents have been inserting this into the school-home dialogue for a number of years now. Is this a true reflection of a dumbing down of curricula? Have standards really slipped in our schools? Is it a superficial demand — that is, will a parent be satisfied with an honors designation on the transcript, whether or not the designation really means anything? Or is there something purely educational that parents are after? Is it about the fear of their children being bored? Is it reflective of parents who are so anxious and crazed about ultimately getting their kids into the Ivy League?

I believe it is a complex phenomenon that no one really fully understands. This is not to dismiss the demand at all—quite the contrary, our schools have to be places that challenge and stretch our students in all the core cognitive areas, plus in all the other developmental ways. Schools have to be places where students experience plenty of probing, complex, intellectual, and yes, very hard problem-solving and critical thinking tasks. Schools can’t be places where learning is always easy, comfortable, and superficial.

What I find is that there is often a gap between what parents are conceiving is the issue and what teachers know about this matter of providing challenge—and here I’m focusing my attention on the early childhood through the elementary school years.

It would serve schools, and faculties, and of course parents best to have a continuous professional dialogue among teachers and administrators, a dialogue that will branch out and engage parents also, on this topic of challenge—how to incorporate challenge into teaching and learning, what it looks like at different grade levels, what it looks like for different learning styles and ability levels.

The dialogue has to happen because I encounter lots of confusion over this topic of challenge. Unfortunately, teachers and parents are all over the map when it comes to this concept—is it about dishing out more homework? Is it sending ten math worksheets home to reinforce computational skills and accuracy?  Is it marking up that fourth grader’s paragraphs with lots of red ink? Is it about having the highly capable students working through the next several chapters on their own while  the teacher devotes more time to the slower students?

Once I had a second grade teacher who complained of being harassed by a few mothers who kept pestering her about her math class. The mothers were complaining that the class was too easy for their kids. Exasperated, this teacher essentially copied off math pages in the third grade math workbook and dished them out each day to a few of her second grade math wizards, explaining to me, “Their moms keep asking me to give them harder homework, but these kids can’t do any of it—I want to prove to these moms that their kids are not ready for more challenge!”

One of the myths of gifted and talented schools is that the teachers there have it easy—the myth says that these teachers don’t really need to teach because these kids can do everything themselves. The teacher simply needs to dish out tough assignments to these kids who are supposedly being intellectually nourished and enriched by the exposure to more difficult content at a faster pace. Real teaching, goes the myth, is really about working with those who have learning differences—it’s about how effective you are with the bottom of the class. But I reject these notions. Great teaching is about the great teaching we do for every child.

Here are two things I know for sure: one is that dishing out homework sheets from chapters that exist a few stations down the railroad tracks is not the approach teachers should take, and nor should it be what parents need to get worked up about; the second thing is that teaching gifted and talented children requires a great deal of sensitivity, complexity, and understanding in one’s teaching.

The key for incorporating greater challenge is to keep the conversation moving, among and between the various constituents and teams in the school community: grade level teacher teams, administrative teams, parent focus groups, professional learning support people. It’s a crucial conversation to have—and here’s where all of these conversations ought to begin: What does challenge look like?

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