Desirable Difficulties; Creating & Sustaining A Culture Of Excellence & Innovation In Your Classroom

POSTED: September 12, 2018Category: AISA ArticlesBY: Richard Moire

By Ian Warwick, AEC Facilitator

How do we embed habitual excellence? How can we promote a culture where working hard and creating excellent work is the norm? Can we get students to believe that they are capable of doing better than they ever believed possible?


Ron Berger believes that any work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that they are capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. “There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.” Aristotle asserted that we are what we repeatedly do. “Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”

But what could this look like in a classroom?

The core element for embedding excellence into every day lessons is that the resources and tasks are pitched to challenge the most able in the class based on an assumption that their most able students will be able to attain the top grades,  and can afford the time to go ‘off piste’ as needed. It is critical that teachers have the time to embed content and concepts and get deep knowledge across and do not lower their own expectations of what their students can or will engage with.

Another prerequisite is that teachers are experts in their field and are on hand to respond intelligently to awkward or tangential questions and support students in how to learn from the specialised feedback given. Sometimes here the problem is psychological: the teacher fears they will not know the answer to a specialist question. Across the world there are brilliant and inspirational teachers who freely confess to how much they don’t know. Their response is simple honesty in the face of a question they can’t answer, along the lines of ‘I don’t know the answer – but I’ll find out and respond to you tomorrow.’

Also important is to insist on a default student ‘persistance’ in terms of work ethic, with a clear expectation regarding accuracy and precision in the use of high level subject specific language. The importance of language as a thought crystalliser is key. It is there for a purpose in every subject area and that is to offer precision of explanation and thought. Simplification of these terms serves only to devalue the language and reduce the level of expertise that can be demonstrated by the student. The core characteristics that excellence demands from students are dedication and determination supported by teachers through rigorous and relentless reinforcement of scholarship. The reward is improved motivation through the learning; students wanting to develop their subject knowledge, wanting to learn per se, rather than just to do well in exams.

How we know what an appropriate level of challenge and progress might be?

There are many potential gaps to understanding what the appropriate level of challenge might be for our learners in terms of the work we set and accept. To begin with, how do our students come to understand what is required from them? The first elements are inevitably their culture, home background and peer group. These set up powerful expectations. For some students, they have become used to doing pretty well — quite possibly without too much effort. This is a dangerous starting point. Automatically, their perception of what standards might apply have become corrupted. It is too easy to say that they should get used to producing what they are capable of achieving. They won’t know. None of us really do. We are all under-challenged underachievers. Modern life virtually demands it.

The second standards gap occurs between the exam boards perception of standards and the school or departments perception of standards. If a school sets up an expectation of what ought to be achieved by its students, it is highly likely to be working from quite a distorted perception of reality. Every school has its own ideas about what can be demanded or expected from the students it is engaging with, effectively its own success criteria. These may well be far below what could actually be possible, but how would we know? A school might unintentionally be constructing a glass ceiling of compliant underachievement based on a fear of over demanding and burning out their students.

Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what they feel comfortable with to hand in. Berger argues that ‘changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.” One of the reasons students produce slapdash work is that no one sees it. If we create a culture where students regularly, and publicly inspect each other’s work. Find somewhere to display the work students have done; give them dedicated lesson time to assess it and then get them to suggest how it could be improved. Feedback should be kind, specific and helpful. If one of these components is missing then the chances of it being received and acted on are severely reduced. The key is to be soft on people but hard on content. Once feedback has been received then students need to do the work again. And again. Until it’s as good as they can possibly make it. Along the way they will have ‘failed’ and their efforts to improve will provide visible evidence of failing better. The end product will be a gift – something in which they can take pride – something they want to show off. It can be useful to get students to blog their work so that it reaches an audience beyond the school and their immediate community. This makes them more aware of their audience and results in them being less prepared to tolerate second best.

To find out more about Ian Warwick and his AEC Deep Dives go to the website.

(Ron Berger, An Ethic of Excellence Heinemann Educational Books, U.S. (2003) p8)

(Ron Berger An Ethic of Excellence Heinemann Educational Books, U.S. (2003) p103) 

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