‘Just challenging enough’

One of the great mysteries of teaching is how to find the right level of challenge for your students. Ask too little, and they are bored senseless. Ask too much, and they will give up.

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky became famous for identifying the “zone of proximal development,” which is education-speak for “teach them something that’s just challenging enough.”

Vygotsky’s theory makes a lot of sense – students are engaged by content that is challenging but do-able – but it’s hard to implement when you have 30+ students with differing capabilities and no simple way to identify what those capabilities are.

We can’t even agree on what students are ready for in general.

Are high school students capable of analyzing the Federalist Papers?

Are middle school students capable of understanding Shakespeare?

Are kindergarten students capable of learning to read?

A frequent complaint about the Common Core State Standards is that they require students to apply critical thinking skills or read literature that is way beyond their capacity.

While the Common Core expectations of K-2 students are excessively academic, I can’t agree with complaints about the rigor of middle and high school curricula. Our kids are capable of way more than we usually give them credit for, and we dumb down too much in an effort to avoid failure and head off frustration.

We end up teaching lessons that are so basic and content-thin that they turn our students off to learning and compound the problem.

In math, it happens through a false set of prerequisites. We assume, for example, that if kids haven’t mastered arithmetic, they can’t even begin to think about algebra. But research published in the Harvard Education Letter suggests that introducing children to abstract concepts at younger ages, even 3rd grade, plants a seed for better understanding of algebra later.

The same is true in literature and history. You don’t have to stair-step from easier books to Shakespeare. Research at Georgetown found that exposing 3rd and 4th graders incrementally to Shakespeare – using performance-based methods – improved students’ interest and ability to understand Shakespeare when they got to high school.

The key here is “scaffolding,” in education-speak. The teacher’s job isn’t to assign students a herculean task, then sit back and watch them fail, but to make challenging material accessible to students by providing supports.

For example, I knew many of my regular Gov students weren’t capable of reading and analyzing the Federalist papers independently. They were easily frustrated by the vocabulary and long sentence structure.

But I knew they could understand the concepts, so rather than give up, I broke down Federalist 10 into smaller segments for a jigsaw activity. Each small group read one part, then created a political cartoon to illustrate Madison’s main point. While they were working, I was able to circulate and “translate,” explaining what key vocabulary words meant in the 18th century.

In the end, each group shared and explained their cartoon, then the whole class was able to discuss whether Madison was right about the dangers of factions and whether popular sovereignty is in fact dangerous.

Yes, I could have just lectured and told them what Madison said. But they would have forgotten most of what I said, and they wouldn’t have built their reading skills, their vocabulary, their collaborative skills, their speaking skills or their confidence.

As I noted above, some of what we’re doing in school today is developmentally inappropriate. Expecting kindergartners to sit still – seriously, for three hours out of each day? – to learn academic content is a terrible idea.

I’m also no fan of the fact that common core means more standardized tests, and that this drives more instruction to be rote and test-oriented

But I do support the idea that we should challenge our students more. With our support, there are very few limits to what they can understand and do.

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