What is a challenging curriculum?

“High expectations,” an “aspirational approach” or even “no excuses,” are commonly written on school websites. Successful schools carry these values through into the classroom. But how do schools give all pupils opportunities to reach their potential, regardless of their prior attainment? The answer lies in providing a curriculum that delivers the right level of challenge for learners.

We can find the ideal level of challenge by planning tasks in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Here, tasks are too difficult for learners to complete alone but can be achieved with guidance from a more knowledgeable teacher and peers. A challenging curriculum incorporates these tasks and guided interactions, to move pupils towards their potential.

The Gradual release of Responsibility Model

To help pupils succeed at challenging tasks, we can use the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model. Also known as “I do, we do, you do.” Here, the teacher uses explanations and modelling, then guides pupil practice, before observing independent practice by the pupils. The model can be used over a series of lessons, or even several times within a single lesson.

“I do” – Explain and Model

During this stage, the teacher makes links to prior learning and breaks the content down into small chunks. The teacher explains carefully sequenced main ideas and vocabulary. Visual aids and concrete examples help contextualise abstract concepts and misconceptions are addressed.

Next, the teacher introduces the steps needed to solve a problem or complete a task. As they walk the pupils through the steps, the teacher models their thought processes by thinking aloud. This includes ‘tricky’ parts and common errors.

“We do” – Guided practice

The teacher repeats the steps, using worked examples. The teacher uses targeted support and questioning as the pupils begin to practice using the steps of the method themselves.

“You do” – Independent practice

Pupils then move on to independent practice, using the steps to complete tasks on their own. Teachers might still use some scaffolds during this stage. However, the aim is to gradually remove the scaffolds, until the pupils can work unaided. The independent practice should focus on the same types of problems introduced in the “We do” section of the lesson.

A science example

In key stage 2 science, pupils learn to write a full conclusion. Initially, pupils can easily suggest answers based on their own common sense observations (and misconceptions). However, they need teacher guidance to use scientific reasoning to develop their ideas. It is therefore necessary for the teacher to direct pupils through the relevant substantive and disciplinary knowledge. Eventually, pupils are expected to be able to formulate conclusions independently and evaluate the quality of evidence.

I have developed the “PREEEN” method to help pupils meet the challenge of writing a strong conclusion. Below is one example of how it can be used in a biology lesson. We can teach these steps in one lesson or over time. The teacher might need to keep reminding pupils to include examples of data at the evidence stage. Whilst a relatively simple step, it is often omitted by pupils. (You may teach the ‘Evaluate’ and ‘New’ section separately, as part of the evaluation stage of the scientific method write-up).

  • Point out the findings/ causal link
  • Refer back to the prediction. Was it correct or incorrect?
  • Evidence from your results to support the findings
  • Explain your findings using relevant science that you have learned.
  • Evaluate the quality of your method and results
  • New and improved investigation you could carry out to gain more confidence in your results

This is the first in a series of blogs designed to support delivery of the HEP Science resources. A comprehensive curriculum to maximise progress in key stage 2 science! For more resources and updates, follow me on Twitter @Advisoryscience