Challenging Activities


Teaching Complex Thinking

Challenge students toward cognitive complexity.

Students at risk of educational failure, particularly those of limited standard English proficiency, are often forgiven any academic challenges on the assumption that they are of limited ability, or they are forgiven any genuine assessment of progress because the assessment tools are inadequate. Thus, both standards and feedback are weakened, with the predictable result that achievement is impeded. While such policies may often be the result of benign motives, the effect is to deny many diverse students the basic requirements of progress — high academic standards and meaningful assessment that allows feedback and responsive assistance.

There is a clear consensus among education researchers that students at risk of educational failure require instruction that is cognitively challenging; that is, instruction that requires thinking and analysis, not only rote, repetitive, detail-level drills. This does not mean ignoring phonics rules, or not memorizing the multiplication tables, but it does mean going beyond that level of curriculum into the exploration of the deepest possible reaches of interesting and meaningful materials. There are many ways in which cognitive complexity has been introduced into the teaching of students at risk of educational failure. There is good reason to believe, for instance, that a bilingual curriculum itself provides cognitive challenges that make it superior to a monolingual approach.

Working with a cognitively challenging curriculum requires careful leveling of tasks, so that students are motivated to stretch. It does not mean drill-and-kill exercises, nor it does not mean overwhelming challenges that discourage effort. Getting the correct balance and providing appropriate assistance is, for the teacher, a truly cognitively challenging task.

Indicators of Challenging Activities

The teacher:

  • assures that students – for each instructional topic – see the whole picture as a basis for understanding the parts.
  • presents challenging standards for student performance.
  • designs instructional tasks that advance student understanding to more complex levels.
  • assists students to accomplish more complex understanding by building from their previous success.
  • gives clear, direct feedback about how student performance compares with the challenging standards.