Stretch and challenge?

The title of this blog is a phrase (and associated philosophy) that emerged around the mid-2000s. I could be wrong about the timing, but I do remember having a ‘S+C’ column in schemes of work when I was a Head of Department, so unless I was a man ahead of his time, I think that resinates the approach to 2005. A strong counter-argument is that the term was clearly influenced by Stretch and Vern’s 1996 seminal dance classic I’m Alive, and the likelihood of education’s policy-making heavyweights taking almost a decade to make this link seems unlikely.

Overall, it’s a good idea (Stretch and Challenge, not Stretch and Vern) – ensuring each topic has activities to develop and extend the thinking of the most able pupils. It also ensures that teachers don’t mistake teaching the syllabus for teaching the subject. It is often easier to understand the syllabus material if extra content is explained.

Unfortunately, it also gave rise to a new form of terrible PD, where consultants and School managers gave workshops on how to incorporate S+C activities into one’s teaching, usually for the supposed benefit of Ofsted. This infographic is a favourite:

Image result for stretch and challenge

We’re only missing The Twilight Zone for the full set. I’m particularly pleased that the Stretch Zone involves the pupils being ‘alive’ (a further nod to Stretch and Vern). This also raises the stakes somewhat, implying that too much time in the Comfort or Panic zones will lead to death.

It’s relatively easy to incorporate extension activities within specific subjects. Almost any topic/concept/genre etc can be developed in terms of breadth or depth. All one needs is the time to be able to explore and a teacher with the inclination, interest and knowledge to be able to deliver. Both these essentials cannot be taken for granted.

The most joyful form of learning can take place with extension and enrichment that is not specifically linked to curriculum subjects. When one is freed from the constraints of syllabus and associated assessments and examinations, we open up a purer form of learning. This non-examined curriculum is where one gets a true sense of the academic culture and priorities of a School. It’s advice I give to prospective parents – to look beyond the median ATAR headline figure. Look at uptake in the IB, in higher level Maths and English. Look at the ambition in the Performing Arts programme, the books read in the School Library. Look to the opportunities in the non-examined curriculum.

Accelerating pupils through Year 11 Maths in Year 10 and Year 12 Maths in Year 11 is not extension. It’s teaching the minimum content quicker, and if it leads to the subject being dropped in Year 12, it’s an even more pointless strategy, suggesting that mastery of a subject pales into insignificance when considering tactics to maximise ATAR. Gifted and Talented classes where children work on their own passion projects can lead to the child extending themselves, but that’s the point: they are doing it themselves, meaning they are perfectly capable of doing that independent of their teacher.

Our approach to the non-examined curriculum is to create a sense of enjoyment and achievement in learning and understanding. We aim to teach things that boys would not come across in the usual scheme of things. We decouple this from the standard curriculum because a sense of freedom is brought about in learning without assessment. Links between topics appear naturally and these links strengthen over the years children are involved in our programme. The focus on knowledge is clear and the fallacious argument that because one cannot teach all human knowledge it is pointless to teach any is not one we entertain.

This approach is not possible without dedicated, inspirational and knowledgable colleagues, and it’s a significant undertaking, with 14 teachers and almost 200 boys involved in our programme. It’s also one of the things I am most proud of, and though I expect it does benefit our median ATAR in an indirect manner, I wouldn’t care if it didn’t. Some things are just worth doing.

We’re six and a half weeks into the academic year and we’ve already run sessions on the following:

Constantinople; Frederic Remington and Tom Roberts at the Art Gallery of South Australia; the Classical Languages of Architecture; King Kong (1933) and the Northern States’ fear of black migration; Hannah Arendt and The Banality of Evil; The siege of Leningrad and Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony; really big numbers and counting apples and oranges; indigenous empires in world history; Al Capone and Bugsy Malone.

That’s in Years 7 to 9, and there’s far more Stretch and Challenge where that came from.

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