Words of Wisdom: Providing intellectual challenge in diverse classrooms


I wanted to share an excerpt from Paul Dufficy’s book ‘Designing Learning for Diverse Classrooms’. I think it really nicely sums up intellectual challenge in classrooms and it provides some guiding principles for tasks that will challenge and extend students in the zone of assisted performance:

Intellectual challenge in classrooms comes about, however, when we ask children to think about the world in new ways. The map for this new thinking is the curriculum, but as van Lier (1996) suggests, it is not the territory. The territory of intellectual challenge lies in the nature of the tasks, activities and projects that require engagement with this new thinking.

Classrooms with little intellectual challenge sometimes do fall back on ‘pointless busy-work’. Consider the following sample list of common classroom tasks:

  • Learning times tables;
  • Using a mnemonic to aid memory;
  • Reading aloud;
  • Memorising a poem or a role in a play;
  • Doing practice examples from a textbook;
  • Copying facts/notes from an overhead projector;
  • Completing a find-a-word.

If these and other similar tasks represent the sum of activity in a classroom and come to be seen as ends in themselves, then while some children might be task-challenged, none will be intellectually challenged.

On the other hand, intellectually challenging tasks are more likely to be met successfully when there is a strong skill-base. For example, knowing times tables automatically allows children to get to the heart of a challenging maths problem quickly. Knowing a poem or a role in a play by heart allows for more emphasis on interpretation and stagecraft. Using a mnemonic to recall the order of the planets gives a child purchase on the topic and allows for a more productive dialogue about the solar system.

So it is not a matter of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Rather, it is the case of developing and using skills – in fact, re-emphasising skills – in order to move into the territory of intellectual challenge. To engage children in intellectually challenging activity, we must aim for the zone of assisted performance. It is here, just beyond current ability, where the architecture of a child’s mind will reconfigure. Of course, not all children are at the same point of departure, so it seems to me that intellectually challenging work for all will occur in tasks, activities and projects that are broad in scope and allow for individual variation.

These tasks are likely to have the following features:

  • they make connections between what is known and what is not
  • they employ already developed skills productively
  • they involved problem solving, critical thinking and a sharing of knowledge
  • they have ‘designed-in’ scaffolds to assist in-depth examination of ideas
  • they allow for degrees of self-direction and responsibility
  • they allow for creativity and originality
  • intrinsic motivation will outweigh extrinsic motivation
  • they are multi-modal
  • they give children a sense of increased competency.

Dufficy, P. (2005). Designing Learning for Diverse Classrooms. Newtown PETAA. p. 30-31.

I wanted to include this excerpt because it is one that I want to continue revisiting. I feel that one of the big challenges for teachers is in designing tasks that provide the appropriate level of intellectual challenge in diverse classrooms.

Say no to pointless busy work!


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