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Approaches to challenge: Nothing that is rewarding, and worth doing, comes easily

By Neil Bunting

This is the first part of a three-piece post: CAR: Challenge, accountability, rigour – three key attributes that my school is focusing on this year.

Providing judicially considered challenge is essential in school, as preparation for real life, where we constantly experience being out of comfort zone.

approaches to challenge

How do we feel about challenge? Do we look forward to it and seize it with both hands? Or are we reticent, sluggish, perhaps scared of being exposed to feeling foolish, and look to avoid challenge if possible.

In my opinion, challenge should always be considered a positive experience, or a way of adopting a positive viewpoint on a situation that is new, or difficult to fathom.

One of the IB Learner Profile attributes, Risk-takers, can be misconstrued or considered culturally inappropriate. I think it refers to challenge and the importance of taking on new experiences.

Young children are often eager to be challenged: physically, intellectually, and emotionally. They often have something of the daredevil spirit of exploration that is replaced, all too often, by teenage self-consciousness, but we need as educators to keep burning the candle of curiosity, and challenge, in the classroom, right across the educational continuum.

We need to encourage a mindset that, as we grow, encourages the need to develop the skills to set our own challenges, and to constantly question both others, and ourselves.

Some ways to avoid stagnation and resting on our laurels could include learning new languages, reading authors that have never interested us before, trying a new sport or artistic pursuit, particularly something that has ever appealed to us before, or we think we cannot achieve. Real satisfaction and a sense of achievement can be found in doing something completely new, like learning a guitar when we—or others—have always considered ourselves to be unmusical.

Young learners far too often quickly accept, or they are told, that they are good at certain things, and other skills are beyond their capabilities. That is a tragedy and something we, as educators, need to strive to change beyond the stranglehold of a crowded curriculum.

Computer technology, and keeping up to date with software developments and new apps, is always going to be throwing up challenges, but those with a propensity for it will learn more easily – particularly younger people. It is also inspiring to hear of grandparents embracing iPads and the internet, and not considering themselves too old for the challenge.

This open-mindedness can also work the other way round with a younger learner embracing traditional hands-on craft, such as weaving or pottery.

Extreme sports and challenges, for example: bungee jumping and paragliding have become very popular with visitors, particularly young adults, seeking to push themselves and build up adrenalin, in places like New Zealand.

It is interesting to see this fascination with potential danger in an era where we tend to err on the side of caution in many aspects of our lives. In many places, we no longer allow children to walk to school, for example.

The recent incident with the Australian surfer, Mick Fanning, and his brave colleagues, in the World Championships in South Africa, demonstrated the real dangers that lurk in the depths of the ocean, but this unusual episode will not stop courageous surfers, including Mick Fanning, surfing for fear of sharks – although we all know they do really exist out there, and not just in Spielberg films.

The shark episode, looped time and time again on television news, was dramatic and very cinematic. It fitted perfectly with our cultural obsession with natural wild programmes on the world’s most deadly animals, reptiles etc.

But challenges do not need to be sensational, potentially deadly or even dangerous. For some people, flying on a plane or camping in the desert is a big deal, or sleeping in the dark, which takes some conquering.

The challenges created in a classroom to extend our learners knowledge, to learn new vocabulary, science experiments or math calculations are crucial.

Experienced educators, as intellectual leaders, know all of the students they teach and carefully tailor the challenge (the risk-taking) to fit the capabilities and needs of their learners.

They also model the notion of accepting challenges themselves wherever possible and are keen to learn and take up challenges with enthusiasm.

The educator looks to share those challenges with their students, for example, they might comically describe to the class their first attempt at skiing or playing golf, possibly with a video clip, looking to remove the learners’ feelings that it is wrong to feel foolish when they are doing something new and doing it badly.

Without challenge there can be no new learning. The sensitive educator might share the trepidation or awkwardness they felt themselves about doing something new—the stress they felt doing their driving test—so that learners think that those awkward feelings are perfectly normal and acceptable.

The skilled educator will constantly be looking to instill confidence in their learners to try new things.

The educator will also introduce the learners to role models in real life who have taken up challenges and been inspirational in the things they have achieved in their lives. Indeed, they might ask the class about people they know who have overcome challenges, because we can all think of great personal examples.

The Special Olympics 2015, in Los Angeles—described as the world’s largest sports organization for intellectual disabilities—received the coverage those competing clearly deserve. Such events can be highlighted for learners, demonstrating the capabilities people have in all walks of life for achieving their dreams, despite the challenges.

Neil Bunting is the Head of Secondary Programme at Greenfield Community School – a Taaleem school. Watch out for more posts from Neil as he explores common themes that weave through all IB programmes.