Ideas for stretch and challenge in key stage 3

Written by: Andy McHugh | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Stretch and challenge should always be the teacher’s priority – for all pupils – but this can be a difficult ask, especially at key stage 3 where classes are often very mixed in terms of ability. Andy McHugh offers some ideas

In my best lessons, all of my students are pushed to their limits. This can be academically, socially or even physically. To aim for anything else is to entirely miss the point of education.

The trouble is though, “teaching to the top” can be difficult to do, both from a planning viewpoint – how can I really challenge my most able students? – and from a workload viewpoint – how can I find the time to consistently plan a range of activities for all abilities, let alone teach them and then give meaningful feedback?

Add into the mix that at key stage 3 particularly, students are more often taught in mixed attainment classes; this alone can make differentiation seem like an impossible task. Even more so if you were to succumb to the all-too-common pressure that teachers place on themselves to do their absolute best for every child, regardless of the cost to their own wellbeing.

Then there is the total lack of imagination shown by many resource-creators in the education sector, who have tied their activities purely to exam board criteria. This is pointless. I do not just want my students to be good at exams. It leaves them with an impoverished curriculum and often just an arbitrary set of facts. Instead, I want them to flourish in my subject and become experts who answer with deep knowledge, flair and creativity, irrespective of which exam they eventually sit.

However, because there are hundreds of fantastic ways to differentiate, simply figuring out what is “best” can leave me with analysis-paralysis for hours, days or even weeks!

Well, no more. Having tried and tested many techniques myself, I have (for now) settled on a few that strike the balance between pushing students to their limits as well as being sustainable in the sense of the workload they create. They combine rigour, depth and that controversial and emotionally loaded word “engagement”, allowing students to push boundaries in a positive way.

There is no “best” way overall, but there are ways that consistently work well. So, below is my curated list of excellent ways to stretch and challenge at key stage 3.

Activity 1: Scenario questions

Everyone loves a story. So when your task involves the students as decision-makers in a scenario, they immerse themselves in much more creative answers than they might otherwise come up with.

They are able to see alternative points of view a little more clearly and this helps them to add weight to analysis and evaluation in their arguments. More importantly than that, the students begin to see the world from beyond their own perspective, something that we as adults forget to do now and again.

Scenario tasks work best when students have already learnt something about the topic. In religious studies, this could be an ethical theory on how to behave. In geography, it could be the effects of movement in tectonic plates. In physics it could be how different forces act on a given object. In art, it could be the rules of a given style, such as Cubism. In maths, it could be diameter, area and volume.

Once students have learnt the basics, they are then given a scenario which requires them to make decisions – where not only do they apply their knowledge, but they also have to justify why they chose a certain option over a different one.

Combining this application with evaluation can really test the abilities of students. They need to not only show their understanding, but to become more confident decision-makers and advocates for a certain argument or approach in the process.

Possible scenarios might include:

  • Create a bird’s-eye-view layout of a theme park, using pre-selected 2D shapes of a given size, placed inside a strict perimeter.
  • Design and build a bridge out of straws strong enough to carry the weight of an egg.
  • After reading profiles of 10 characters, each with positive and negative attributes, decide who to throw out of the lifeboat to prevent it sinking!
  • Write a one-minute piece of music to inspire a seven-year-old child to dance.
  • Write an emergency news bulletin in response to a natural disaster, giving important practical advice on what local people should do.

Students then have to present their designs and decisions, justifying not only why they chose them, but also why they did not choose the alternatives. They should then be encouraged to critique their own and each other’s decisions, which will add further depth to their understanding of the judgements made.

Activity 2: The ultimate question – what difference does it make?

When I am coming towards the end of a topic, I usually pose the following question to my students: “What difference does it make?”

An alternative version is “why should you care?” (although this can come across a little sarcastic!).
I ask this question to give students the opportunity to see where this topic sits in the broader context.

For example, in religious studies, you might be teaching the topic of “pilgrimage”. Students would learn how people of different faiths go on pilgrimage and what the similarities and differences are between their experiences. The question “what difference does it make?” prompts the students to go beyond describing and explaining pilgrimages, to evaluating their purpose.

The question gets them to explore not why people go on pilgrimage, but how it can change them. It can also provoke other questions like “Why might pilgrimages be seen as pointless in the 21st century?” or “Can you be a proper Christian/Jew/Muslim if you have never been on a pilgrimage?”

All in all, this one question can be an excellent way to get your students to evaluate the topic and to go beyond what they have studied so far.

Activity 3: Essay rebuilding

Many of my higher attaining students find writing essays no trouble at all, once they have been given the information they need.

However, they often create formulaic answers, which do not really show the depth of their knowledge or show the versatility of their arguing skills that are often evident in verbal questioning during the lesson.

I have a solution to this. It demonstrates on paper just how nimble students’ arguments are and how well they really know their stuff.

  1. Take a pre-written, non-perfect answer (pinch one from last year’s students or write one yourself if you must).
  2. Cut it into strips. The more strips there are, the greater the challenge.
  3. Hand over the randomly sorted strips to a team of students, who then have to re-assemble the essay in the correct order.
  4. Students stick the essay pieces in order, onto a larger sheet of paper (A3 is good, but the bigger, the better).
  5. Finally, they annotate around the edges of the essay, evaluating and judging the quality of the individual pieces (e.g. “strong argument because...”, or “this needs evidence to prove xxx here”, etc).
  6. Once they have finished, invite another student or a team of students to critique the newly rebuilt essay. They can then add their own evaluative judgements on the order of the pieces and on any feedback that the first team missed.
  7. To add further challenge, teams of students can be pitted against each other to re-assemble the same essay. The quality of debate held by the students – who do not want to lose the race or get it wrong – is phenomenal.
  8. Finally, students present their decisions to the class, explaining their rationales and suggesting how the essay should really have been written.

Now over to you...

In the end, stretch and challenge is about showing students that there is more that they can do. Even the simple act of showing them that more is possible is often enough for students to permit themselves to try and go that little bit further.

So why not try one of these simple strategies today? Go on, stretch and challenge yourself. You know you can.


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