Grow Your Brain

Challenge yourself and your students through Critical thinking

CHALLENGE DAY ACTIVITIES. 10 strategies for challenging more able students that include Critical Thinking.


Conceptional questioning is abstract. This is because it revolves around concepts which are ideas. Conceptual questioning is challenging because the students have to manipulate abstract ideas. They are compelled to analyse and examine some of the foundations on which their thinking rests. Here are some examples of conceptual questions with some of the concepts in bold,

Were the witches right to tell Macbeth of the future?

What if we could speed up and slow down natural selection?

Why is only one of these pictures a masterpiece?

The concepts relevant to your students will vary depending on what area of the curriculum you are teaching. Devise some really strong and powerful concept questions to formulate a deep discussion


Asking more able students to teach their peers means asking them to reformulate their knowledge and understanding so as to make it comprehensible for an audience. In the process, all students benefit.

Here are some examples of the approach in action:

“Adam; I would like you to go round the room and find out who’s struggling with the formula. Take your book with you and use it to teach them how to get it right”

“David; I can see that Tom and Marissa are find it difficult to rank the sources from most to least important. Head over there and talk them through your ranking. Make sure you explain how you came to your decision, then see if you can help them do the same.”


Doing something more sharply and more quickly means upping the ante. You don’t have as much time to think, but you also need to do what you’ve done already with a higher degree of skill and accuracy.

For these reasons, asking more-able students to repeat something sharper and quicker is a challenge.

Here are some examples:

“Daniel, I want you to try this 10 mark question. I’m going to give you five minutes less than last time, and I want to see you aiming for 10 marks rather than 6.”

“Eloise; I want you to summarise the key finding of your experiment in the next two minutes and I want the summary to focus exclusively on the numerical data”


Big questions require big thinking!

What is the meaning of life?

Does evolution disprove the existence of God?

When does telling the truth become dangerous?

How much freedom is enough?

Is it ok to grow organs in a laboratory?

You can also devise big questions related to your subject area; really high level thinking.

Posing these kind of questions to more-able students means giving them plenty of space in which to think.


Experts prepare. In fact, they over prepare. This means that when they come to do a thing for real, they can rely upon powerful long-term memories of how to do the thing in question.

In music and rugby, for example, these memories are muscular as well as cognitive. In a mental discipline such as essay writing, they are mostly the latter. Challenge your more able students by explaining the virtues of practice for fluency and mastery. Identify a particular skill in your subject that they need to practice to get closer to becoming an expert. Give them a time frame to practice and then shorten the time frame and expert them to demonstrate the skill to you and show improvement. This is a very powerful approach to gaining mastery, fluency and skill.


Some more able-students prefer to focus on their strengths while ignoring their weaknesses. For these students, an excellent challenge comes in the form of weakness practice.

Either on your own or in discussion with your student, identify an area where they have weaknesses. For example, a more-able food technology student may excel in following recipes, but struggle when it comes to thinking creatively. Develop the technique by asking the student to talk you through how their practice has led them to improve. This sees them reflecting on the process and articulating their understanding of what has happened.


Provide more able students with the start and end of something before leaving them to work out the middle. Here are five examples:

A dance teacher gives their student the start and end of a piece of choreography

A PE teacher gives their student the start and end of a gymnastics routine

A history teacher gives their student the start and end of an essay

In each case, the student’s challenge is to use the limited information they have and working out the process.


Usually reserved for the courtroom, a cross-examination challenges the students to think on their feet and defend their views.

You can cross-examine more-able students at any time; during a tasks, during discussion, as part of the plenary, or even when they come into the classroom.

To cross-examine effectively, select your topic (usually the lesson topic) and ask students what they think. Then begin chipping away at their answer. Play the role of a prosecutor in a courtroom. Your aim is to find out if what the student said really is the truth.

Some cross-examination questions include:

What do you think that?

Yes, but have you considered?

But what if happened?

What if someone disagreed with you?

Can you prove that?

In one sense, the stretch and challenge here comes from the process as much as the end result.


Many more-able students grasp new ideas, information or skills quickly and easily. Think, for example of the able musician who sees a piece of notated music and can sight read it an perform it very quickly.

Problematizing means taking what is new and adding an additional layer to it, a layer of critical thinking. This compels more able students to look again. We are helping them to see greater complexity than what they first observed to develop a more nuanced, in depth understanding.

In the example above, we may problematize the task by asking the student to come up with two different styles of pieces to perform; each one containing contrasting techniques (for example Classical or Jazz). Suddenly, the student has to step back and rethink what they initially grasped. While their first engagement with the skill was sound, our problematizing indicates that this is the first step in achieving mastery; not the last. Students are stretched and challenged as a result.

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