Sunday, September 13, 2015

What is Challenge?

I had an interesting conversation with my college age daughter yesterday.  I was on the phone with my sister. She was telling me about the math course my brilliant-in-math nephew is doing in Florida. The course is all online and, as he masters concepts, he moves on.  Apparently, he keeps getting all 100s on his tests.  My sister is very proud.  I said, "He needs to be challenged more."  That's when my daughter, Ali, jumped in, saying, "Why do teachers always think students need to be more challenged?"

After we spoke for a while, I realized she and I weren't talking about the same thing and that made me realize that many teachers probably think the way she does. In her school world, challenge means work.  More challenge means more rigorous work.  I used to think this way.  If a child was getting all 100s on tests, give that child more work.  But now I know better.  I think.

So let's talk for a bit about the Zone of Proximal Development.  The ZPD has been defined as "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers." (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).
If we think about this ZPD, we should be teaching children in the middle zone.  The inside zone is too easy for them.  That's where they get all 100s and don't learn anything new.  And the outside zone is the place many of us want to be with children.  But this learning is too difficult.

Ali explained to me that she didn't understand why she had to read a book and then write an essay about it.  Why couldn't they just have a discussion and enjoy the book?  Why did it have to be more "challenging?"  
I explained it this way.  If her college English professor assigned Dr. Seuss books, she would be learning nothing.  The challenge is in the books that are assigned.  The professor has her reading books that have new vocabulary, new ideas, and new styles.  The assignment itself might be in the zone or not, depending on what it is. 
I used to give reading assignments that had children look up every word I thought would be new. Then they had to use those words in a sentence.  I had them answer endless questions, both literal and interpretive.  Many of the questions I had them answer on paper were the exact questions we discussed in reading group.  What was my goal?  I'm really not sure.  I thought it was to see if they understood the book.  But I think it was really to make sure they read.  

So how do I give assignments that are challenging without being out of reach (rewrite the book, making the minor character the major character) or too easy (name all the characters in the book and list them in alphabetical order)?  

Some ideas:
1. Run a book club with some classmates about the book.  Be sure they understand all the symbolism you learned about while reading.
2. Have a book discussion in Edmodo about the chapters you read each night.  Write about the parts of the book that surprise you.
3. Write an essay (yes, an essay) explaining whether or  not this book should be used in class as a reading book.
4. Write a book review.  Would you recommend this book?
5. Tell me the next book to read since I loved this one.

So how about assessment?  Think carefully about the last time you worked on a book with a group. Did you know, from your discussions, who understood the theme and who didn't?  How did you know?  Was one child so involved in the book that he came to group and overshadowed everyone with his discovery about what the title really means?  Did one child start a conversation that led to a disagreement?  Who opened their books to prove their side?  And what did you do about the child that just sat there during the whole book club saying nothing?  Maybe that child is too shy and needs support to be drawn out.  Maybe that child has difficulty formulating her ideas quickly enough for a conversation.  Maybe she didn't read the book because it was too difficult to understand.

Now we get back into the zone.  How can we be sure we have the quiet child in the zone?  Ask her to write a book review.  Contact the author and see if she can have a conversation about the book with the student.  Is the student more motivated?  Ask the child why she isn't joining the conversation.  If you have a respectful environment, she will know she won't get in trouble for saying she didn't read because she didn't understand what she was reading.  Then you can try an easier book.  Or give her a reading partner.  Or be her reading partner until she is vested in the story.

Do I have to give her a test on the book?  Not really.  I know how to keep her in the ZPD so she will continue to make progress in school.  

And as for my nephew, hopefully, his teacher will move him into more challenging lessons on the computer so he can move out of the middle zone and into his ZPD.  He deserves to make progress, too.  And I hope that soon, my daughter sees challenge as something positive, not something a teacher "makes" her do.

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