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 I no longer think that “challenging” is the right goal.
“Challenging” Doesn’t mean “High Level Thinking”
If I asked you to alphabetize the US state capitals in under 90 seconds, you’d certainly be “challenged” – but you’d also feel stressed out and frustrated and never want to come to my classroom again.
Making you divide fractions may be challenging, but it sure doesn’t sound fun. Nor is it high-level. It’s just hard.
I wish I had realized this years ago. Something can be “challenging” and also be at the very bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy. We can assign a “challenging” fill-in-the-blank worksheet, a “challenging” true/false question, or a “challenging” timed math test. I created many tasks that were indeed a challenge. But they were also boring and killed kids’ interest in the topic.
⚠️ My students would purposefully bomb pretests because they learned that the “challenge activities” were such a pain.
- If a student can calculate 1.5 ÷ 0.5, don’t just give them the “more challenging” 0.015 ÷ 0.0005
- If a kid can already spell this week’s words don’t make them memorize some random difficult word like “Worcestershire”
This burns students out.
What Does “Challenge” Actually Mean?
Here are the synonyms for “challenge.” They’re not pretty.
- (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
“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.”
What’s a better word for something that “stimulates, inspires, and excites”?
When I’m planning lessons nowadays, I aim for interesting, not merely challenging.
- A student who is interested will work over the weekend 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 and wants to take on more to satisfy their curiosity.
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 don’t want “challenging.” They long for something interesting.
BONUS! Interesting Gives You Challenging For Free
And here’s the bonus: if something’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’re more likely to take on challenges voluntarily.
(All of this is also true for the word “engaging.” “Engaging” on its own isn’t a great goal. But if something is interesting, then you get “engaging” for free, too.)
So What Is “Interesting” Like?
To make something interesting, I need to set up drama, conflict, and ambiguity. I build on tools storytellers have used for centuries. I definitely don’t want to start with “Today we’re going to learn about X.” I’m not going to write the objective on the board (shudder).
And here are a few examples of (in my opinion) interesting tasks I’ve been working on:
- Can we adjust just the punctuation in a sentence to completely change that sentence’s meaning?
- Do students already understand fractions? Don’t give them harder fractions; connect fractions to a universal theme like power, conflict, or change. Which is more powerful, the numerator or the denominator?
- Get students thinking about how paragraphs are interlocking systems of sentences. Let them work backward to put broken paragraphs back together.
- 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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