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Access, relevance, and stretch: Fostering deep learning through optimal challenge

The Newsela Team
May 26, 2021

As the lingering effects of the pandemic come into focus, teachers and district leaders are starting to see that it not only introduced new challenges, but also exacerbated ones that existed beforehand. One of the biggest was engagement: Students were disengaged before COVID-19, and they are even more so today. As schools resume their normal routines, educators have an opportunity to use this moment to finally address this — but to do so, they need the right tools. One of those is optimal challenge — that is, challenges that are accessible to all students, but that also provide the rigor for them to learn, all within their own zone of proximal development.

Providing this level of challenge for all students is one of the most difficult tasks an educator can undertake. To learn more about how to achieve it, Newsela recently held a panel with Dr. Rhonda Bondie, Happi Adams, and Dan-Cogan Drew. To our panelists, creating an optimal challenge for all learners meant providing three ingredients: access, relevance, and stretch.

Why pursue optimal challenge? 

Early in the pandemic, conversations in the education space centered around learning loss — but many now see that this was a flawed approach. As Happi Adams put it, “Personally, I have been pushed to grow in ways that I could not have imagined this past year. So now, consider how much our students have learned during the pandemic. ... It is shortsighted and counterproductive for me to assume that the institutional academic knowledge that I deem worthy of learning is in fact the pinnacle of learning. Students have been learning throughout the pandemic, whether or not I can recognize it, let alone whether or not I can measure it.”

How, then, to take full advantage of this new knowledge that students bring to the table? After the pandemic as before, the key is letting them explore their interests and take charge of their own learning. When learners are engaged, they will naturally pursue their curiosity to the farthest extent possible — and deploy all the skills they have in order to do so. When they reach the outer limits of those abilities, they will be set up for optimal challenge... and ready to take the lead in the deep learning needed to fill skill gaps. 

Using Optimal Challenge to Differentiate at Scale

Dr. Rhonda Bondie explained that when optimal challenge is accessible, relevant, and provides “stretch” to all students, it can be a powerful tool for differentiation. That is because differentiated instruction relies on authenticity and engagement: Students who connect with the material will drive their own learning, relieving the burden on the instructor to dictate every step of every learner’s progress. Building this connection means providing texts that connect to learners’ experiences, inspire their curiosity, and promote their senses of autonomy and belonging. These texts are high-interest, culturally responsive, and provide an accessibility level that meets learners where they are.

According to Bondie, “accessible” is not the same as easy. “Students need to be able to start the task on their own and know how to seek help when they realize they don’t know something,” she explained. “That independence allows them to steer their own learning and move at a pace that is optimally challenging for them.” 

Stretching learners’ capabilities will look different at different levels, and this is another area where differentiation can be challenging. According to Bondie, stretch is “a combination of effort and complexity.” She added that one way to ensure all learners have effortful, complex work is to provide a variety of entry points to engage with the material. “If you're adjusting or if you're offering a problem that invites more than one way to fit together, or... different types of thinking, we can start to adjust and assign for students different things to do with the numbers of parts,” she said. 

Discussion As a Space for Optimal Challenge

Class discussions are another opportunity to provide multiple entry points to the material. Adams noted that one way to do this is to let students generate the discussion prompts, allowing their interests to lead the discussion. No educator can know students’ interests better than the students themselves, and giving them the power to drive discussion encourages their agency. 

Another rule Adams uses in her classroom is that students can participate by adding their own response or by repeating what other students have said. The opportunity to repeat allows students who are shy or emergent bilingual to participate fully at a point of optimal challenge for them, while letting other students contribute at a level where they feel confident and fully engaged. 

Optimal Challenge Means Empowering Students

It is clearer than ever that when students are held back from exercising agency in the classroom, teachers are held back from achieving optimal challenge for everyone. Providing a classroom environment of optimal challenge means empowering both teachers and students with learning design that promotes student motivation. To learn more about why this is fundamental and how to achieve it, watch the whole session

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