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.
“Challenging” Is The Wrong Goal
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 wish for “a challenge.”
“Challenging” is really the wrong goal.
Consider this: you can create a “challenging” task that is also boring and uninspiring. You can give students a “challenging” fill-in-the-blanks worksheet, a “challenging” true/false question, or a “challenging” timed math test.
Something can be “challenging” and also still be at the very bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Using a thesaurus, here’s what you’ll find for “challenge”:
- (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
For the most part: yuck. “Challenge” has some seriously negative connotations. Yet, those last three words start to get at our 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 school to be a “trial.”
So here’s the word I use now, whether I’m planning lessons for Byrdseed.TV or running a workshop: 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. An interested student is intrinsically motivated.
A great teacher makes lessons interesting. Their students are surprised when the bell rings because they were so darn interested!
When faced with yet-another-worksheet, students long for something interesting!
I’ll happily sit through an hour-long lecture that I find interesting. I’ll slog through a challenging book… as long as it’s also (you guessed it) interesting! I’m motivated to get out of bed in the morning when there’s an interesting problem waiting for me to work on.
We will gladly face trials, battle through strains, and take on taxing problems once we’re interested. So let’s make that our first goal. And then, once kids are motivated and excited to learn, they’ll take on the challenges.
What Does That Even Mean?
Here are a few examples of (in my opinion) interesting tasks:
- 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 backwards 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?
And, of course, my favorite example of all time: finding something interesting about dividends and divisors.
PS: Well… now I realize that Dan Meyer posted his own take on challenging/interesting nine years before me. 😭
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