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  • Writer's pictureThe Knox School of Santa Barbara

"Challenging" is the Wrong Goal

By Ian Byrd

If you’re a teacher, you’ve almost certainly heard someone say, “I want to challenge my students.” I know I used to say it all the time. But then one of my sixth graders said to me, “Mr. Byrd, I don’t really want to be ‘challenged.’”

This has stuck with me for years. It has kept me awake in bed. Sometimes I hear those words echoing through the house at night.

I totally get what this student meant. When faced with yet-another-worksheet, students don’t long for something “more challenging.” When they’re bored at school, they don’t hope for a “challenge” to come along.

“Challenging” is the wrong goal.

Consider this: you can create a “challenging” task that is also boring and uninspiring and kills kids’ interest in the topic. You can assign a “challenging” fill-in-the-blanks worksheet, a “challenging” true/false question, or a “challenging” timed math test.

If you asked me to alphabetize the US state capitals in under 90 seconds, I’d certainly be “challenged,” but would also feel stressed out and frustrated.

Something can be “challenging” and also be at the very bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Something can be “challenging” and also impede learning.

Wait, What Does “Challenge” Even Mean?

Let’s look up “challenge” in a thesaurus:

(n) problem, difficult task, test, trial

(v) disagree with, dispute, take issue with, protest against, call into question, object to

(v) test, tax, strain, make demands on; stretch, stimulate, inspire, excite

Yuck! “Challenge” has some seriously negative connotations. Yet… those last three words (stimulate, inspire, excite) start to get at my true goal. I definitely want “inspired” students, but I don’t want them to be “strained.” I want an “excited” class, but I don’t want learning to be a “trial.” I hope kids are “stimulated” by my lesson, not “taxed.” So what is a better word for something that “stimulates, inspires, and excites”?

Instead, “Interesting”

So here’s the word I use now when I’m planning lessons: interesting. I want to “interest” students. A student who is interested will work over the weekend simply because they want to know more. An interested student will stay in from recess by choice to keep at it. An interested student is intrinsically motivated.

I think this is a new motto of mine: great teachers make lessons interesting – not merely challenging. Their students are surprised when the bell rings because they were so darn interested! They stay after school to do a bit more. They come back on Monday having kept at it all weekend… by choice.

When faced with boring schoolwork, students long for something interesting.

Challenging Comes Along For Free

And here’s the big bonus: if it’s interesting, you get challenging for free! I’ll happily sit through an hour-long lecture that I find interesting. I’ll get through that challenging book if (and only if) it’s interesting! I’m motivated to get out of bed in the morning when there’s an interesting problem waiting for me to work on. But, I’d hit snooze if my day is filled with just “challenges.”

So let’s make “interesting” our first goal. And then, once kids are motivated and excited to learn, they’ll take on the challenges.

So What Is “Interesting” Like?

First of all, you don’t get to say, “but the content isn’t interesting.” That’s a copout. EVERYTHING is interesting – you just haven’t found the right angle yet.

And, I’ll give you a shortcut, starting your lesson by saying “today we’re going to learn about X” is not interesting! You need to set up the drama, conflict, and ambiguity first.

Here are a few examples of (in my opinion) interesting tasks I’ve been working on:

· Do kids “get” fractions? Don’t give them harder fractions; ask them to ponder which is more powerful, the numerator or the denominator?

· Rather than just memorize rays vs. line vs. line segments, let’s wonder which is longer and ponder the nature of infinity?

· Get students thinking about how paragraphs are interlocking systems of sentences. Let them work backward to put broken paragraphs back together.

· Can we change the punctuation in a sentence to completely change that sentence’s meaning?

· What if we wrote in the style of another person?

· My favorite example of all time: finding something actually interesting about dividends and divisors!

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