Stretching and Challenging Pupils

As teachers, we know it is not enough for our pupils to coast through lessons. We want the very best for all of our pupils. We want them to love learning, to be stimulated by the lessons we teach and to develop intellectually.  So it is vital that we strive to stretch and challenge them.  This is true for all but of particular importance for more able pupils.

Ideally, we should be aiming to deliver lessons that take pupils just beyond the point they have already reached – something just at the edge of their capabilities. This idea comes from Lev Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: This is the essence of education, where pupils are put in a position that enables them to move beyond their existing knowledge and understanding. This is the point at which challenge excites interest without the difficulty of a task overwhelming a willingness to engage.

Never underestimate the importance of having high expectations of all pupils. We know that every pupil can make progress, given the right set of circumstances (including a great teacher) but equally we must always seek to ensure that our most able pupils are being stretched.

There are a number of ways in which we can convey high expectations and raise the level of challenge in our lessons:


When pupils share their opinion during discussion, push them to explain what underpins that opinion. Do not let unsupported assertions escape without asking “Why?”, “What reasons do you have for thinking that?” You can even train your pupils to start asking these questions of each other.


Plan your lessons so that pupils are building up to creating some kind of product – an essay, perhaps, an extended piece of drama or a presentation. This will imbue your lessons with purpose and show them that you believe they can create significant pieces of work.

Success criteria

Make sure that every pupil knows what the success criteria are for each major piece of work you ask them to do, and that it is possible for everybody to attain them. In a positive classroom, pupils will be more likely to push themselves to excel.

Socratic questioning

Socrates, an Athenian philosopher born in 469BC, appears in the dialogues of ­ Plato interrogating his fellow citizens to draw out the assumptions, errors and misconceptions in their thinking. We can use Socrates’ methods in the classroom to challenge the thinking of all pupils – particularly the most able.

There are four roles that Socrates takes on when asking questions: the gadfly, the stingray, the midwife and the ignoramus. Teachers can move between these in order to question the views, opinions and judgements held by more able pupils.

  • The gadfly: Mimic the practice of the gadfly, which nips away at larger animals. This involves asking lots of little questions intended to push thinking and avoid sloppiness: “What do you mean by that?”; “But, what if…?”; “What evidence do you have?”; “Does that always apply?”; “How can you be certain that is true?”
  • The stingray: Administer a shock to ­pupils’ traditional way of thinking in the same way a stingray unleashes its sting: “Imagine if X was not the case, what then?”; “What if everything you’ve said was turned on its head?”; “What if a great change happened?”
  • The midwife: Ask questions that help give birth to ideas: “That’s an interesting idea; could you explain it a bit more?”; “How might that affect things?”; “What made you think of that idea?”
  • The ignoramus: Emulate a character who has never encountered the topic you are discussing and play dumb to encourage explanation: “What does that mean?”; “I don’t understand – can you start from the beginning?”; “So, do you mean that…?”


This is all about making judgements: “What do you think and why?”; “Is this better than that, or vice versa?”; “Which option should we go for and what reasons do you have to support your choice?”

Really good evaluation demonstrates a mastery of the topic. Pupils will be able to highlight the strengths and limitations of the issue before making a judgement about what ought to be done or what they believe is the best perspective on an issue.

Nearly every activity you undertake in the classroom can be supplemented by an evaluation task, directly or tangentially associated with the topic.

Use evaluation command words – appraise, argue, assess, critique, defend, evaluate, judge, justify and value – to frame questions and tasks for pupils who finish ahead of their peers.

2Mike Gershon, Elongate their learning:

Working at the next level up:

Choosing a task from a higher level of study can be a productive way to both stretch and motivate more able pupils. Choosing a GCSE question for a Year 9 class to answer or giving an A level question to the most able Year 11 pupils can be an effective strategy.  It may be appropriate to provide support with critical research, resources and planning for the task but as a means of getting the best from a more able pupils and stimulating interest in higher level study in your subject it has a lot to commend it.

To achieve all of the above we need practical ideas that can be incorporated into our lessons, whether as planned activities or as strategies that we can adopt mid-lesson to provide challenge when and where it is needed.

The following are a range of such ideas:


  • Get an able pupil(s) to recap on the previous lesson’s learning
  • If your starter activity requires students to find examples set able pupils a higher target e.g. level 5 students find 5 examples, level 7 students find 10 examples
  • Learning logs can be used with all pupils as a plenary or a starter (to review the previous lesson)

Main tasks

  • If you are taking feedback during the lesson, enlist an able pupil to record the ideas on the board
  • Get more able pupils to TEACH their peers
  • Use an able pupil(s) to model their writing or thinking, by explaining their answer/ solution to a task to a neighbour
  • Ask the school librarian to produce a reading list of texts and electronic resources to encourage wider reading or research around a class topic
  • Set an independent task, such as a further investigation in maths or science, or a different class reader from a selected list and invite pupils to decide how they would like to demonstrate their learning to you or the rest of the class after an agreed length of time
  • Use GCSE questions with able Year 9 pupils
  • Provide opportunities for pupils to respond in ways other than writing: display work, role play, short video films etc.
  • Remember that ‘less is more’ is some cases. Prescribe the number of words to be used to make more able students think hard before they write, and make every word count
  • Ascribe the role of chair-person or lead-learner to able students who will then take on the mantle of responsibility and help maintain momentum and focus during tasks
  • Get able pupils to summarise instructions to the whole class
  • All pupils have a red and green card. If they do not understand the content of the lesson or want the teacher to slow down they show their red card, if they are following the lesson they show their green card. If you see a red card you stop the lesson to find out what the problem is. You then select a student who is showing a green card to respond to the issue that has been raised. Plan your groups carefully. Sometimes able students learn most productively together, sharing and extending their more developed thinking; sometimes it is helpful to allow them to advise a less able pupil and have to work harder to successfully articulate their ideas
  • Often, questions arise in the classroom that cannot be answered straight away. These can be valuable learning opportunities, yet are often not revisited. Children could be encouraged to write these on a sticky note and put them onto a laminated picture of a light bulb in your room. At a spare moment in your lesson, or at home, able students can be asked to research the question and report back to the rest of the class. This helps to create an atmosphere of self-motivation and self-challenge


  • Alert an able pupil(s) at the start of the lesson to be ready to summarise the content of the lesson at the end
  • Ask an able pupil(s) to come up with questions at the end of the lesson to test other pupil’s understanding of the lesson
  • At the end of the lesson pose a question which is based on next lesson’s work. All students have to write a response to the question on a piece of A6 card and hand it in on the way out. You use the pupils’ responses to inform your next lesson and as a result of this give able students a more demanding task

References and Links

1Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development:

2Mike Gershon, Elongate their learning:


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