Elongate their learning

Elongate their learning

The phrase ‘stretch and challenge’ can be applied across the age and ability range. Mike Gershon shares his tried and tested methods

There are two ways to interpret the phrase “stretch and challenge”. On the one hand, it relates to whole-class teaching and the importance of stretching and challenging every pupil’s thinking. On the other, it relates to individuals and the importance of pushing the thinking of the most able pupils. Both interpretations are equally valid and essential components of great teaching.

Stretching and challenging all pupils

As teachers, we know it is not enough for our pupils to coast through lessons, picking up the minimum they need to get by. First, motivation and engagement are likely to sag if the work is too easy. Second, we want the very best for our pupils. We want them to love learning, to be stimulated by the lessons we teach and to develop intellectually. So it is vital that we strive to stretch and challenge all our pupils. The three key areas through which we can make this happen are planning; lesson structure and pace; and the expectations we convey.


When creating your lessons, ask yourself if the content is sufficiently demanding. How close is it to what your pupils already know? Does it include conceptual and concrete material? In what kind of language is it couched?

Ideally, you should be aiming for material that is just beyond the point pupils have already reached – something just at the edge of their capabilities. This idea arises from Lev Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development. This is the essence of education, where pupils are put in a position that enables them to move beyond their existing knowledge and understanding.

To judge whether your content is sufficiently challenging, elicit information from your pupils. When teaching and marking, observe how the class is coping with the material you present. Adjust the content of your lessons accordingly. At first, your content will probably oscillate between slightly too easy and slightly too difficult, but through trial and error you will come to develop a sound sense of what level of content a class can handle.

Do not be averse to plunging your pupils into the realms of uncertainty from time to time. This helps to keep their thinking sharp, stops them getting complacent and discourages automatic recourse to what has been proved to work. Use content aimed at pupils who are two or three years older, that requires a high level of interpretation or challenges their received beliefs.

Lesson structure and pace

When you are planning, and teaching, keep the following questions in mind:

1. Why are we doing this?

2. What am I expecting pupils to do at each point?

3. What is the optimum amount of time for each activity?

The first question deals with purpose. If the answer is unclear, it is time to think again. Pupils are unlikely to make significant progress if there is no clear rationale.

The second question focuses on how you are intending pupils to engage with the learning. Ideally, activities should be structured so that every pupil in your class is doing something. This includes listening, reading, writing, talking and so on. Nobody should be passive or doing nothing. We must make every second count.

There needs to be a definite link between the answers to questions one and two. If an activity does not serve a specific purpose, what is it doing there? Jettison anything that does not help you achieve your aims: cutting away excess and unfocused activities will help to maintain a sense of drive and challenge.

The third question deals with pace. That does not mean rattling through a series of activities, but giving the right amount of time to each lesson segment.

It involves constantly assessing what stage each pupil is at and being flexible enough to act on these judgements.

For example, you might move half the class on to a new activity while the others continue with what they are doing; give extra time to an activity because pupils have found it difficult; and truncate an activity after realising that pupils have understood it more quickly than anticipated.

High expectations

Never underestimate the importance of having high expectations of all pupils. We know that every pupil can make progress, given the right set of circumstances (including a great teacher).

Here are five ways to convey your high expectations:

– Reasoning: When pupils share their opinion with you, or with a partner during discussion, push them to explain what underpins that opinion. Do not let unsupported assertions escape without asking “Why?”, “What reasons do you have for thinking that?”. You can even train your pupils to start asking these questions of each other.

– Products: Plan your lessons so that pupils are building up to creating some kind of product – an essay, perhaps, or an extended piece of drama or a presentation. This will imbue your lessons with purpose and show them that you believe they can create significant pieces of work.

– Success criteria: Make sure that every pupil knows what the success criteria are for each major piece of work you ask them to do, and that it is possible for everybody to attain them. In a positive classroom, pupils will be more likely to push themselves to excel.

– All, most and some: If you use the idea of “all, most and some” in your planning, do not share it with pupils. Consider how demoralising it must be for a pupil who knows they are not top of the class to see that noted down at the start.

– Formative feedback: Set your pupils challenging targets regularly. Forget about sharing grades for the moment. Instead, tell pupils what they need to do to improve and give them the opportunity to do it.

Challenging more able pupils

So how do you push the thinking of more able pupils in the context of whole-class teaching?

Socratic questioning

Socrates, an Athenian philosopher born in 469BC, appears in the dialogues of Plato interrogating his fellow citizens to draw out the assumptions, errors and misconceptions in their thinking. We can use Socrates’ methods in the classroom to challenge the thinking of all pupils – particularly the most able.

There are four roles that Socrates takes on when asking questions: the gadfly, the stingray, the midwife and the ignoramus. Teachers can flit between these in order to question the views, opinions and judgements held by more able pupils.

– The gadfly: Mimic the practice of the gadfly, which nips away at larger animals. This involves asking lots of little questions intended to push thinking and avoid sloppiness: “What do you mean by that?”; “But, what if …?”; “What evidence do you have?”; “Does that always apply?”; “How can you be certain that is true?”.

– The stingray: Administer a shock to pupils’ traditional way of thinking in the same way a stingray unleashes its sting: “Imagine if X was not the case, what then?”; “What if everything you’ve said was turned on its head?”; “What if a great change happened?”.

– The midwife: Ask questions that help give birth to ideas: “That’s an interesting idea; could you explain it a bit more?”; “How might that affect things?”; “What made you think of that idea?”.

– The ignoramus: Emulate a character who has never encountered the topic you are discussing and play dumb to encourage explanation: “What does that mean?”; “I don’t understand – can you start from the beginning?”; “So, do you mean that …?”.

Listen to what the pupil says and look for ways to respond in one of the above guises. Fix on to a pupil’s assertions and question them. This might help you to identify inaccurate use of a concept or over-reliance on a weak piece of analysis.


This is all about making judgements: “What do you think and why?”; “Is this better than that, or vice versa?”; “Which option should we go for and what reasons do you have to support your choice?”.

Really good evaluation demonstrates a mastery of the topic. Pupils will be able to highlight the strengths and limitations of the issue before making a judgement about what ought to be done or what they believe is the best perspective on the matter.

Nearly every activity you do in the classroom can be supplemented by an evaluation task, directly or tangentially associated with the topic.

Use evaluation command words – appraise, argue, assess, critique, defend, evaluate, judge, justify and value – to frame questions and tasks for pupils who finish before their peers. Or build them into your PowerPoint or interactive whiteboard slides as extensions. You will then have them to hand as soon as pupils finish the main work you have set.

If you make regular recourse to evaluation questions and tasks, pupils’ ability to make reasoned judgements will improve and this will trickle into the rest of the work that they produce.

Critical thinking

This involves analysing the issue and reflecting on the best way to tackle it. It can be challenging for more able pupils because it asks them to alter their mindsets and to think differently.

– Analyse meaning: Have pupils analyse the accuracy and precision of their writing and speech. When they have finished an activity, ask them to review what they have done. How accurately did they convey the meaning they intended? How precise were they in their choice and use of words? How could they have said the same thing but more simply? Get them to amend or redo their work accordingly.

– Self-criticism: Stretch pupils’ thinking by asking them to reread what they have written critically. Ask them to revisit the work and develop a series of questions in connection with it. These will focus on issues thrown up by the text or questions that have not been answered in the text but ought to have been.

– Challenging debate: Ask pupils to look through their work and identify every instance where they have put forward an argument or a view. They should then come up with two pieces of evidence and two examples (additional to anything in the text) that could be used to support their argument. This will stretch their thinking and improve their arguments.


Evaluation keywords:

– Appraise

– Argue

– Assess

– Critique

– Defend

– Evaluate

– Judge

– Justify

– Value

Socratic questioning roles:

– The gadfly

– The stingray

– The midwife

– The ignoramus

Stretch and challenge through planning:

– How difficult is the content?

– What are you asking pupils to do?

– Will pupils be learning actively?

– How will you adapt the length of tasks?

– Do pupils know why they are doing the work?

Mike Gershon