Right to Learn, Part 3: Challenge-Deficit

If you are new to Minds On Fire, you may want to start with True Confessions — it cuts to the core of what I’ll be exploring on the blog. You can find Part 1 of Right to Learn here.

School without challenge is boring. It breeds contempt. It fails to further a student’s ability to learn. High-school dropouts frequently cite boredom as a major factor in their choice to drop out.

And yet, people often underestimate the importance of keeping students challenged — especially in primary school and especially for students that seem to be quick learners. What is there to worry about? They will have no problem keeping up.

In the run up to kindergarten, my wife and I fretted over our son’s school options. Though we believe strongly in public education, our local school did not seem like a good option. Our son, at 4-1/2 , was already reading above kindergarten level and was adding a grade level or more every few months without any guidance from us. Who knew where he would be when kindergarten started? You see, our neighborhood primary school is something of a disaster with more than 75% percent of the students below grade-level in reading and even more below grade-level in mathematics.

On occasion, I mentioned to friends that I worried about what would happen if we sent him to our neighborhood school. I often heard responses like: “Sure, school might be boring. But the way I figure it, it’s not going to make much difference in the long run if school is too easy. He’ll still learn what he needs to know by college which is when things get interesting. He can chill and relax till then. He’ll do just fine.”

I wasn’t so sure that he’d be just fine. Cognitive psychologists seem to agree that challenge plays a critical role in intellectual development, and I knew from experience that being unchallenged in school year after year can lead to a degree of disengagement that makes it difficult to care about school or pay attention in the classroom. The drudgery can be unbearable. Were it not for a move to a school where I was intellectually challenged (for the first time) after my disastrous eighth-grade-year (which included an extended visit to a psychiatric hospital and very few days in attendance at school), I have no doubt that if I had managed to graduate high-school at all, it would not have been to attend Stanford.

It’s a nice thought: that unchallenged smart kids can coast along enjoying a stress-free time in school till college and then just turn on their engagement and be successful students. Unfortunately, for many kids–possibly most — continual lack of challenge doesn’t make for a stress-free ride. Lack of challenge figures heavily in reasons that people disengage and drop out of school. And it figures heavily in the deep emotional crises experienced by some exceptionally bright students when they reach high school or college and encounter genuine challenge for the first time.

Frequently, self-motivated kids that enter school with intense curiosity and intellectual drive turn into under-performing middle-school and high-school students after years without authentic challenge. While we may be tempted to see such a chain of events as an indication of defective character or work-ethic, it is a foreseeable consequence of long-term challenge-deficit.


” If ever you are by far the best, or the most interested, student in a classroom, then you should find another classroom.”
Richard Ruszyk (founder of the Art of Problem-Solving)

There seems to be near universal agreement among educational psychologists that appropriate academic challenge is important for all children, not just asynchronous learners. It plays an important role in both cognitive and social-emotional development. When students are deprived of challenge for an extended period, it can have a strongly negative impact.

The most highly asynchronous learners enter school working years above their grade-level in one or more domains. Others may enter school only slightly ahead of their classmates but absorb material so quickly as to be minimally challenged by the standard curriculum. In either case, some adjustment is required in order to keep them authentically and productively challenged so that they reap the same developmental rewards as their age-typical classmates.

When you take deeply, cognitively-engaged kids and stick them in classrooms where the schoolwork is significantly below their level of understanding or at a pace that is too slow to be engaging, bad things can happen. Such children are cut off from a primary source of satisfaction. They disengage as a defense against boredom. A surprising number of children are suspected of attention or anxiety disorders or the like when the primary issue turns out to be terminal boredom.

Challenge-deficit is an area of concern for asynchronous learners, not because they are the only ones that need challenge, but because our curricula are carefully designed for age-typical learners. We generally place kids in classrooms based on age and move them along according to a schedule predetermined by age-typical development. As a result, there is a substantial risk that children who develop atypically fast will go minimally-challenged, sometimes for years on end, while their age-typical classmates experience frequent challenge.

The most serious consequences may take years to surface — though there are usually warning signs along the way. The manifestations vary considerably from child to child and situation to situation. Declining achievement and/or confidence, attention issues, risk-aversion, disinterest in or hostility towards school, and truancy are oftentimes connected to perennial challenge-deficit.

I’ve spoken to several parents whose children were only discovered to be highly asynchronous learners after schools referred them to psychologists for suspected learning disabilities or behavior disorders. In each case, the psychological evaluations included IQ and achievement tests (such as the Woodcock-Johnson). These children all demonstrated ability several grade levels above their assigned classrooms.

The schools saw children with declining performance and behavior, and they attributed the declines to personal defects rather than inappropriate classroom placement. In each of these cases, the children’s academic performance and behavior improved dramatically when they were placed into classrooms that offered appropriate levels of challenge.

The Role of Challenge-Deficit

Being an effective and efficient learner is a skill, perhaps the most important skill conferred by a quality education. Effective learning requires the ability to work through challenge to expand one’s comfort zone. Typically, this skill is furthered naturally as children move through a well-designed curriculum. We present new skills and concepts to learners and provide support as they learn to master them. Then, we move them on to the next challenge. Each new challenge is carefully selected to reasonably extend the children’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and will sometimes involve periods of manageable confusion and frustration on the way to enlightenment and success.

Repetition of this process over time instills confidence in students’ ability to work through difficulty. If we are only paying attention to whether a child has acquired the targeted skills or concepts, we may not realize that a child isn’t actually learning. For highly-asynchronous learners, this situation is common. When they are taught according to lesson-plans designed for age-typical learners, they continually miss out on the critical experience of extending their comfort zone and the other fruits of repeated challenge.

These students simply are not given the same opportunities to develop their “learning muscles” as their appropriately-challenged classmates who are constantly being presented with new challenges. They may arrive at the same content knowledge as their classmates without having learned to learn, without having developed the resilience and genuine confidence that comes with repeatedly working through the setbacks and temporary frustrations provided by genuine challenge.

We often fail to notice that they aren’t actually learning because we are focused on grades or test scores which tell us more about where they stand in relation to age-typical learning targets than they do about how much they are learning. Our educational culture places an emphasis on static milestones and comparisons to one’s classmates rather than on progress relative to oneself. If a child keeps earning top marks, we think they are doing well even if they have not learned a thing.

When schoolwork is too easy, students aren’t required to develop deep problem-solving strategies. They aren’t given the opportunity (yes, opportunity!) to make mistakes, an important part of learning. Under-challenged students are frequently given tasks they can complete error-free.

On a challenging problem, the path to a solution may not be clear.There will be failures on the way to success.Students will need to be creative and may need to try several different strategies (either already known ones or improvised ones) before they can crack difficult problems. They also need to learn to recognize when they are truly stuck and need teacher input to move on.

These are skills that come with experience. When we deny students adequate challenge, they miss out on opportunities to develop them. Without these skills, students are emotionally vulnerable when they finally encounter difficult to master concepts and problems and are under-prepared for genuine problem-solving.

Making, recovering from, and correcting mistakes are critical parts of learning. Intriguing research[1] indicates that when the conditions are right, making mistakes stimulates both cognitive development and effort. Additionally, students come to realize that mistakes are a normal part of learning.

When we allow students to go unchallenged for extended periods, continually earning high marks and positive attention for achievements earned with minimal effort, we may inadvertently encourage them to equate intelligence and easy learning.

The longer a student goes without encountering a genuine challenge, the harder it may be for them to respond constructively when they encounter one, especially if superior intelligence is a major source of their self-esteem. Students that go far without meeting academic challenge may mistakenly believe that smart people don’t ever struggle and may be plunged into emotional crisis when they meet their first sustained learning challenge–unable to reconcile the need for effort with their belief in their own intelligence. They may fail to understand that even the most able minds inevitably encounter setbacks and failures on their way to mastery.

Highly-asynchronous learners that have been challenged throughout their education harbor no such illusions[2].

Our current educational culture fails to ensure that all students receive appropriate challenge, and the most able students are those most likely to be denied it, no matter how inadvertently. Unfortunately, it generally falls to parents to ensure that their children are receiving adequate challenge, but that will be a topic for another week.

Just to be clear…

When I talk about challenging asynchronous learners, I am not talking about piling on work to keep them occupied or giving them gratuitously difficult work. Accelerated learning isn’t about arbitrary acceleration or keeping kids busy. Appropriate acceleration is designed to match lessons to the needs of the learner in the same way that a standard curriculum is designed to match the needs of age-typical learners.

The key concept is meeting students where they are and providing the challenge and support they need to keep moving forward (or deeper).

The challenge problem would not exist if our standard operating procedure was to find out what children know and keep them engaged by presenting them with new concepts and skills or meaningfully deepening their understanding.

What about in-class differentiation?

Differentiation has its limits. With proper training, teachers can meaningfully adjust their lessons to a degree. However, some students’ development is so atypical that meaningful differentiation isn’t possible even if a teacher has all the best intentions.

How does a teacher versed in first grade math adjust first-grade lessons meaningfully for a six-year-old with a deep understanding of third-, fourth- or fifth-grade math concepts?

How does a third-grade teacher meaningfully engage and differentiate for a child that reads and comprehends at tenth-grade level?

On the occasions when a teacher in an age-based classroom does try to provide meaningful differentiation for these kids, it often creates a socially-isolating situation where the child feels singled out and different because they are being given something different from their classmates who themselves may not know what to make of the child’s being given different work. In such a situation, the child may reject the differentiation because they may see boredom as preferable to social isolation.

It is important to realize that extremely asynchronous students are rare enough that few teachers in mainstream schools will have had any experience teaching such students. These children are rare enough that statistics about differentiation may not be meaningful — a statistically meaningful number of these students is unlikely to have been present in any given study of differentiation.

Coming Soon: Part 4: The Peer Problem & More!


[1] See Mistakes Grow Your Brain by Jo Boaler.

[2] See, for example, the essay Work Hard by Terry Tao


Right to Learn, Part 3: Challenge-Deficit by Edward Spiegel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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