Stretch and Challenge: The key to High Expectations

Richard Eno

Richard is from Folkestone but was educated in Winchester. He has been teaching since 1999 and been involved in education management since 2006. He teaches A Level Film Studies, a subject he has remained passionate about. His favourite filmmakers are David Lynch, John Waters and Woody Allen. He currently works for Totton College in Hampshire. He is not related to Brian Eno.

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Of all the buzzwords and key phrases that have been thrown at us in recent years, it is ‘High Expectations’ and ‘Stretch and Challenge’ which have plagued me the most. Who doesn’t have high expectations of their students? And just what is the difference between ‘stretch’ and ‘challenge’?

I remember a student complaining to me because I had made the learning just far too difficult for her, and it had caused her anxiety. Clearly, in that case I had gotten it wrong. So, I started to think about what these phrases mean not just for me as a teacher, but also for my students.

The term ‘High Expectations’ isn’t just about giving the students more homework, but about getting them to work. As I am sure you know, getting the students to pass their course is not enough. They have to pass at a grade which exceeds their Minimum Target Grade. Having the students pass the course is the easy bit!

I tend not to let on to my students anything to do with High Expectations or Stretch and Challenge. They don’t know any different, because I go in high at the very beginning. As far as they are concerned, that’s just what the subject is like. Let me give you some examples of how I’ve done this with AS/A2 Film Studies:

1. Don’t Tell Them

  • From the very start of the course I embed a lot of theory. More than is needed for an AS, that’s for sure. This leads on to my second point...
  • Weekly reading material. For the first term I give each student a chapter from an undergraduate textbook. Sure, some of them struggle with it, but it means that from the very first week they believe that my course is about hard theory, so eventually they get used to it. 
  • What’s really important is to ensure that you are differentiating, and not giving the same article/chapter to everyone. For example, I had one student who I felt was a natural at analysis. Her quality of language was exceptional, so I gave her a chapter on Film Hermeneutics, a tough concept even for an undergraduate, but it gave her the extra challenge that I knew she could handle.

2. Be Serious About Deadlines

The upcoming changes to the BTEC will certain ensure that we all take a very different view of deadlines in the future, but not all of us will be delivering deadlines. When I set an essay for AS Film, I let them know a few rules of mine on how to submit work, such as telling them I’ve banned spelling and grammar mistakes and that I expect the work to be the greatest piece of writing they have ever produced. But ultimately, if we are not serious about deadlines, then why should they be? We have to enforce the consequences of not meeting deadlines if we have any hope of raising academic standards.

3. Raise Your Game

For me, this is the most important aspect of High Expectations / Stretch and Challenge. As idealistic as this will sound, I genuinely believe teaching to be an honourable profession, and because of that I like to make sure that I’m challenging myself, doing what I can to be at the ‘top of my game’. This means that I rarely teach the same topic more than a few times. For example, for the A2 Film exam I have taught the following in the last several years:

  • Iranian Cinema post 1990 
  • Mexican Cinema post 1990 
  • Japanese Cinema 1950 – 1970
  • Cinematic New Waves
  • Experimental Film/Expanded Cinema
  • Documentary 
  • Popular Film and Emotional Response

I’ve found that when I teach a topic which is relatively new to me, I seem to deliver more exciting classes and become engaged in more lively debate with the students. This also means that I usually write a new Scheme of Work every year, however. But I can’t stress enough how important it is to my relationship with pedagogy that as a teacher I am excited about what I teach; after all, how am I to expect my students to be excited if I’m not?

Sometimes I even give the students full choice of the Specification, and allow them to choose which topics they’d like to learn. This gives them a sense of ownership of the course, and if it gives me a challenge if they pick something I’m not as familiar with. However, if they want the ‘easier’ options, I usually sway them towards more challenging aspects; I fully believe that the more difficult it is for the students, the more likely they are to work harder for their achievement. At the BFI Film Studies conference a couple of years ago, one of the chief examiners even told me that when students answer the questions which are perceived more difficult they tend to do better than students who approach the more straight forward questions.

My three-point plan of High Expectations is sadly not fool-proof, but if you can make your students excited about your subject then most of the work has already been done. However, sometimes that is the most difficult bit to get right. I guess, in the end, it comes down to how much you love your subject and how excited you get about teaching. Get that right and the sky’s your limit.

Do you use similar methods in the classroom? Let us know in the comments.

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