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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Problem of "Challenge"

Or One Key Problem with Some Public School Education

My wife and I were speaking with our 8 year old third grade son this morning — as Marina went over his spelling homework and found some errors and illegible writing. Sasha is a good student, but makes his fair share of mistakes — or rushes so that it is not clear whether he is confused or merely sloppy. Normal — I make my fair share of spelling errors in this blog. But then he said, "I wish my teacher would give us harder words." It is not that he finds the words he gets so easy, but, rather that they seem simple, boring. And he would like a challenge every so often.

Hearing that defined for me a problem I have been feeling all year: the teacher is smart, well-trained, engaged, and concerned. But the focus is so much on making sure that everyone is "getting" the lesson that students rarely have the pleasure of being challenged — the pleasure of trying something out that they are sure to fumble — the pleasure of stretching beyond what they are sure to get right, on to what they are just having a glimmering sense could be true. School is dutiful because it does not recognize challenge as pleasure.

I know challenge leaves some kids out. I know that challenge means failure for some kids. I know that challenge may not be useful for test scores, and presents more difficulties for teachers. But I also know that if school is to engage students it must offer the somatic, visceral, pleasure of thinking, exploring  — going beyond what you certainly can do to what you are just beginning to grasp. 

This relates to us because what textbooks do is reduce knowledge to the totally tracked and controlled — the bite sized. While trade books can, and should, offer is challenge. We need to engage readers, but we can also take them to unfamiliar ideas, new words, fresh ways of thinking. We offer the pleasure of giving the reader a chance to feel smart, to grow. Years ago the mantra on BBYA was to offer some "stretch" books (almost always fiction) on the list. Well I say we need "stretch" nonfiction in classrooms. And I want teachers to realize (as surely many of them do) that stretching is not a painful requirement, it is a pleasure.


  1. Tricia (Miss Rumphius) says:

    This is the very reason I had a large nonfiction library in my classroom. During free reading time, students often chose these books to explore, and they weren’t targeted at their reading level, but rather covered a range of topics that would interest them.

    I also think this thinking should extend to parents and librarians. My son (nearly 8) lives in the nonfiction section and regularly selects books far above his reading level. While I see some librarians and many more parents dissuade their children from these choices, I let William pick the books that interest him. This generally does mean more reading for me, but he does try to struggle through on his own. Sometimes he will ask ”

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Part of your post was cut off, I guess they don’t allow quotation marks. I’m in total agreement with your comment.

  3. I entirely agree that children should be challenged more in school, so long as they feel “safe” to make mistakes. If we are to have students charter unexplored territory in the classroom, it should not be used as an assessment for reporting purposes nor should it lead to unhealthy competition among peers.

    Having said all this, I recall when I first taught a grades 6/7 class and during the second week of school gave out a brain teaser question in math. I explained to my students that it was intended to challenge them and see how they could problem solve. The next day, my principal was at my door explaining that she just had gotten off the phone with an angry parent who thought what I was doing was developmentally inappropriate! I was asked to not introduce these types of activities in class; I did try to explain that I was not assessing my students with this activity; nevertheless, the parent felt it might discourage her child more in mathematics. Instead, I sent these questions home on Fridays to students who chose to complete these brainteasers for bonus marks. I would think that other teachers out there have faced similar experiences, thus discouraging them from challenging their students.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    yes this is exactly what I am talking about — a teacher who wants to let kids explore, and an environment that, for many reasons, discourages the teacher and binds the students.

  5. Linda Zajac says:

    I found my blog post that pertained to this subject so I have the details. I’m replacing quotes with parentheses because I’ve seen in this blog they get truncated.

    There was an article about a year ago in the November 2007 issue of U.S. News and World Report. The article is called (Room to Improve) (pp 45-50) and is about No Child Left Behind. (Schools have little incentive to teach gifted students to meet their potential.) That article mentioned that schools are cutting gifted programs because of NCLB. Funny, I’ve never heard anyone say (that’s a great piece of legislation).