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Our role in challenging the most able: Addressing the wasted years in Key Stage 3 English

Written by: Ben West
7 min read
Ben West, Achievement Lead and Teacher of English, The Garibaldi School, UK

Understanding the secondary context

Ofsted’s ‘Key Stage 3: The wasted years?’ report (2015) noted how ‘there was a lack of challenge for the most able pupils’ in one of five of the routine inspections analysed (p. 4; see also Glew, 2007). As synthesised by Hughes (2005), frequent references to the lack of challenge in schools had been noted in Ofsted reports in previous years; these reports attribute the lack of challenge at Key Stage 3 to the fact that, too often, the secondary English curriculums ‘do not build sufficiently on pupils’ prior learning’ (Ofsted, 2015, p. 20). If students are not adequately challenged in Key Stage 3 there is the potential for ‘stalling’ – where a student’s attainment in Key Stage 3 is the same as or worse than it was at the end of their time in primary education at Key Stage 2 (Ofsted, 2015).

This article, which stems from a larger piece of research in school, offers an overview of what might be understood by the term ‘challenge’ within the secondary English curriculum. Although anchored within English, its principles may be useful when considering the transition between the Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 curriculums across all subjects.

Difficulty and depth

As understood by Nottingham (2016), challenge in the classroom is what ‘makes a situation more demanding or stimulating, and is used to encourage pupils to learn more than they otherwise would’ (p. 52). Nottingham’s definition begins by implying that challenging situations – tasks, activities and discussions – in the classroom should be used to increase the level of demand placed on students. This is not necessarily new thinking: as teachers, we have at our disposal a number of tools to do this. We might, for example, decrease the time given to a particular task, or construct tasks that require students to analyse and evaluate evidence as opposed to simply identifying it. The most interesting part of Nottingham’s definition, however, is the latter part, which suggests that challenging situations can act as a means to motivate students to engage in learning that extends beyond their present task. Similarly, Allison and Tharby (2015) conceptualise challenge as ‘the provision of difficult work that causes students to think deeply and engage in healthy struggle’ (p. 14). They imply that only when students are guided to think in a deep, meaningful way, and struggle whilst doing so, are they being sufficiently challenged.

In my experience, open-ended activities that encourage students to explore a range of evidence and make an informed argument facilitate this well. In a classroom setting, for example, I might build an English literature lesson around a deliberately problematic statement relating to a text and ask students to present a case in response to it. I recall a lesson on the character Eric in JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, during which students had to put forward a logical argument in response to ‘We are all products of our own upbringings’; this facilitated healthy discussion around values, privilege, class and the extent to which we are in control of own opportunities in life. The success of the tasks lies in the construction of the statement, which, for us as teachers, is the difficult part – open-ended enough to provoke worthwhile discussion with no obvious answer, and specific enough to activate schemas that are relevant to the text, make links between their existing knowledge and apply it to a new situation. The link between provoking depth of thought and challenge is also highlighted by Fisher et al. (2012), who relate the former to ‘lively discussion, sustained inquiry, new understanding as well as more questions’ (p. 54). It is a fine balancing act, but these observations serve as a helpful check and balance when planning, especially for our questioning, and go some way to helping us actively avoid Glew’s observation of the ‘tendency to plan and provide for the middle range’ (2007, p. 1).

Effectively building on prior learning

When considering challenge, it is useful to do so in tandem with Vygotsky’s (1978) notion of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (hereafter ZPD). Although his work was originally situated within the domain of development and developmental psychology, in his seminal work Vygostky defines the ZPD as ‘the distance between the actual development level… and the level of potential development under adult guidance’ (1978, p. 86). Vygotsky’s principles have since been applied to educational contexts (e.g. Ritchhart, 2015), in which  the ZPD is referred to as the gap that exists between what a student can do without support and what they cannot do at all. In order for learners to develop optimally and sufficiently build on prior learning, we must give them learning opportunities that do not force them too far beyond their level of potential development so as to frustrate or demotivate them, but also that provide enough support so that they can complete the task with some level of independence. Cherry (2016) conceptualises the ZPD as constantly changing: as teachers, it is our job to ‘realise that the zone of proximal development is a moving target’ because ‘as a learner gains new skills and abilities, this zone moves progressively forward’. Given that learners can develop new skills within the space of a lesson, careful planning is necessary for us to allow for points of departure and points of advancement.

One example that might illuminate Cherry’s observation can be understood through an example of story planning used during a Year 8 English lesson that I taught on creative writing. The Year 8 class were provided with an image of a picturesque beach and asked to describe it. I began by using a visualiser to plan with the students in a step-by-step approach, asking them to look beyond the obvious beach and sand, and consider the task in an abstract way using examples of metaphor, e.g. life is a journey. During the lesson, I worked with the students to link parts of the beach to parts of a journey, e.g. the foundations of grains of sand to family and friends. I then provided students with a different image, this time of a garden, and students completed the process on their own. Some students focused on conceptual metaphors of the mind and struggle, and one even linked the structural components of a tree to the structural components of society. Throughout this, I focused on the why and the how, guiding students to discuss their choices and defend their links from the concrete of the garden to the abstract of their metaphors. This can also be read as an example of a Systematic Approach to Problem  Solving, coupled with a worked out/partially worked out problem: the use of the visualiser, questioning, pauses and discussion of the abstract facilitated students to move within their ZPD during the lesson itself, and each time students had made progress towards one skill, the ‘moving target’ of the ZPD shifted slightly further away. It was possible to use students’ prior knowledge from several domains – metaphor, beaches and their own life experiences – in new work, therefore going some way to challenging the students.

Challenge and motivation

It is often noted how high-attaining students are the most motivated to learn when they are presented with learning opportunities that intrigue them and encourage them to solve problems (Ritchhart, 2015). It is our job, as teachers, to search for opportunities that pique students’ interests, and frame tasks in ways that motivate them to extend their knowledge and apply it to different contexts. This is difficult, as my colleague explained to me when she was exploring an extract from Roberto Canessa’s (2017) recount of Uruguayan Flight 47 plane crash with her Year 9 students. When faced with having to teach students how to use persuasive language as part of the non-fiction scheme of work, she felt that tasking her students with another letter or speech to their local MP would be an ineffective repetition of previous persuasive writing tasks. Instead, she used her understanding of persuasion to explore less obvious forms that the task could take, wanting to frame the task so that it gave her students a specific set of parameters and a real-life context within which to work. After some thought, she devised a series of tasks that would lead students to write closing statements as lawyers in a mock trial on survival: by using visual stimuli and examples of the conventions of legal closing statements, she was able to guide students to apply their prior knowledge of survival and persuasive writing to an entirely new domain.

A fine balancing act

Challenging work must carefully account for students’ prior knowledge and be delivered with the intention of improving this. As this article has explored, we must constantly draw on our expertise in our subjects to adapt work to avoid repetition and regurgitation: the wasted years. Planning for challenge is complex, and ensuring the right level of challenge is in itself a challenge. As teachers, we must finely balance learners’ specific prior knowledge, the opportunities that tasks provide to facilitate deep thought and intellectual discussion, an appreciation of students’ progress as a moving target in relation to their ZPD, and an understanding of the link between motivation and challenge, to ensure that our students are sufficiently challenged and not simply left to get on with it.


Allison S and Tharby A (2015) Making Every Lesson Count: Six Principles to Support Great Teaching and Learning. Carmarthen: Crown House.

Canessa R (2017) I Had to Survive: How a Plane Crash in the Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives. New York: Atria Books.

Cherry K (2016) The zone of proximal development as defined by Vygotsky. Verywell Mind. Available at: (accessed 12 February 2019).

Fisher D, Frey N and Pumpian I (2012) How to Create a Culture of Achievement in Your School and Classroom. Alexandria: ASCD.

Glew E (2007) Meeting the Needs of Your Most Able Pupils. London: Routledge.

Hughes M (2005). Lessons are for Learning. Stafford: Network Educational Press.

Ofsted (2015) Key Stage 3: the wasted years?. Available at: (accessed 5 July 2020).

Ofsted (2019) The education inspection framework. Available at: (accessed 7 July 2020).

Nottingham J (2016) Challenging Learning: Theory, Effective Practice and Lesson Ideas to Create Optimal Learning in the Classroom, 2nd ed. Oxon: Routledge.

Ritchhart R (2015) Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Vygotsky L (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas