Academic Extension to Challenge Students

Designing and implementing a school learning program which caters to the needs and interests of all students is a challenging exercise. Learning is definitely not a process where ‘one size fits all’. At St Catherine’s our students come from a variety of backgrounds and have an equal variety of interests inside and outside the classroom. Our teachers are experts at developing learning programs which are interesting, engaging and will stimulate the intellectual curiosity of our girls. However, ensuring this occurs at all times, for all students, is quite a stretch, even for our team of highly talented and skilled teachers.

Zone of Proximal Development

It is well known in education circles and indeed ask any parent, that boredom for a bright teenager is a very real and common experience. The most academically able students can often feel a lack of challenge, disengagement from a class, and downright boredom, when the learning being asked of them is too easy and lacking the right challenge and /or complexity.

When a task is pitched at just the right level of challenge, we often refer to this as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This was first described by renowned psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Put simply, the ZPD refers to the “difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner”. For our high achieving students, a regular class may at times, fail to match their ZPD.

In my previous Blue Ribbon article Being in the Zone, I wrote about the concept of flow, developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In essence, it is a state of mind in which a person becomes fully immersed in an activity. The activity needs to be at just the right level of challenge or complexity relative to the skill or ability level of the participant. The diagram above demonstrates the concept. The educational implications of this are clear. Provide learning experiences which are too hard, the learner will not cope. Provide opportunities which are too easy, and boredom will soon appear. For a learner to be in a state of flow or in the ZPD, the task needs to match a learner’s ability with the set task or challenge. Not too hard, not too easy, it has to be just right. It might be described as a Goldilocks zone.

Academic extension to challenge studentsAt St Catherine’s, we want to ensure all our students are provided with learning opportunities which stretch and challenge their thinking. In Years 7 and 8 we have developed the Honours Program which caters specifically to a select group of our high achieving academic students. A relatively small group of students are selected, based on academic performance and results of benchmark testing. Students can be invited to attend Honours classes each week in one of English, Humanities, Science and Mathematics classes. The program takes students beyond the normal classroom curriculum and challenges them with more demanding and intellectually enriching material designed to stretch their thinking.

This year for example, the Year 7 students in Science Honours, have been studying Hooke’s Law (Fs = -kx for the scientifically minded) which examines the theory of elasticity. Classes have examined this concept and the teacher, set the task of constructing a catapult and performing experiments, including examination of acceleration and how varying surface area affects the flight of a paper plane. Pushing the girls’ thinking to an even deeper level, the class analysed their results using techniques that are vital at VCE, such as data tables and graphing in Excel. With guidance from Mr Brown, the girls were able to find the gradient of a graph, find the R2 values to evaluate how good their data was and examine trendlines, again useful skills at VCE level. Not the usual Year 7 Science subject matter at all.

In Humanities Honours, the teacher has taken the students on an adventure in History exploring the life of Cleopatra in Ancient Egypt. The class examined a range of primary and secondary sources which you do not see in your standard Year 7 History texts. The students were required to evaluate the reign of Cleopatra rather than merely being required to remember some key dates and events. By contrast, the students to used a detailed template that consolidated the expertise and experience needed of VCE students in terms of the vocabulary and skills required to write well in History. The focus has been for the students to see history through the lens of an historian and write at a complex level to gain deeper understanding of the world around them.

These two examples of the Science and Humanities Honours programs are typical of the approach in the Honours classes at Years 7 and 8. The girls are stretched and challenged in their thinking. They are required to think deeply. This capacity to engage in Deep Work as described by Cal Newport (who is currently Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Georgetown University and author of the acclaimed book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World) is “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.”  This is an essential skill and disposition all students need to succeed academically.

While every student is supported to reach their individual potential in our classes, whether they are in the youngest of Year levels right through to Year 12, we must also ensure we enrich and extend the thinking of all students, including our most academically able, so they are never, ever bored. Our challenge as teachers, is to ensure they are in a state of flow as often as possible.

Mr Robert Marshall

Deputy Principal, Director for Teaching and Learning, St Catherine's School

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