The Edge of Challenge

Schools today are looking at many aspects of education differently. One reason is that the world is changing at a rapid pace and information may be obtained through a variety of mediums. As a teaching institution, Roland Park Country School is looking closely at how children are motivated to learn, how they use metacognitive skills to know what they learn and what they need to learn, and how to measure learning to see if mastery is achieved. To spur motivation, students are encouraged to explore topics that interest them and are given tasks that are just on the edge of their competency. (I will talk about this idea further below.) To encourage use of the metacognitive side of the brain, students are asked to reflect on their learning experience, given methods that allow them to “show what they know,” and taught questioning techniques which give voice to the query, “Where am I going, and what do I need to know to get there?” To measure if mastery of a topic, subject, or skill has been attained, assessments need to look very different today. Creating assessments that align with new ways of teaching is a hot topic in schools. Project based units and group led explorations are not easily assessed with traditional bubble-in-the-answer type tests. Portfolios, formative or ongoing assessments, and performances are taking their place. Hooray! Schools are often piloting new ideas in order to keep up with progress. See the article about “progress culture” below. I read this article, and many others I will share with you over the year, while exploring K-12 learning goals for Gilman School.


Striking that balance between traditional ways of learning that have taken generations to refine and piloting new methods of learning is tricky in independent schools like RPCS and Gilman. Master teachers who have honed their craft must remain open to new ideas presented by a younger audience who do not know a world without technology and global connectedness.

This alone could be the subject of a blog post. However, as the title suggests, the discussion is about challenge. In my work at Gilman, we touched on the idea of the edge of competence. This is that “bar,” as it was once known, where knowledge and mastery meet unknown, new horizons.  This is sometimes defined as “Low Floor- High Ceiling” This edge,  or ceiling,  presents a world of new challenges and is usually pushed outwards after a repeated series of trial and error. I think sometimes of a video game that teases the learner with many levels and lets the player try over and over again until they make it to the next level only to introduce new challenges on the edge that needs to be pushed through. Children respond well to this type of learning. The teacher masterfully creates an edge of challenge just within reach and because there is already an inner circle of competence, the learner can push the limits and move forward continuously.

Pushing the Edge to Learn by Jo Boaler

This idea, as you heard in the message by Jo Boaler, is at the heart of our math program. Teachers of math at RPCS are well aware of Ms. Boaler’s work and consider this edge of challenge as they plan for their students. Every class begins with a math activity that requires thinking and analysis. Students discuss, evaluate, and usually change their original answers as they are challenged to think about the solution from new perspectives. There are many “Ah ha” moments and examples of girls asking for yet another similar problem to tackle. They are being taught that problem solving uses many skillsets and that struggling with solutions is the part of the process where learning happens. Over the year, I will elaborate on the amazing learning that happens in all our classrooms including math. As I wrap-up, enjoy the audio, copied below, of some of our fifth grade students as they work through the process of a challenging problem last week and, if interested, read the Edutopia article about promoting challenging thinking in math with similar “hooks” like our lower school data analysis and number talks. You may even be inspired to push on your “edge” with MathHooks.com! Enjoy.


Productive Struggles in Math

I hope that my communication with you encourages “talking points” to inspire weekend conversation with your children. Here are some “talking points” for this weekend.

  • What was the message from this week’s Lunch Reading with Mrs. Teeing? Who were the Bronte Sisters? What did Ruth Wakefield invent?
  • If you are in Kindergarten- What song about horses have you learned in music class and will perform at Friday’s Morning Meeting?


  • If you are in First Grade- What do you enjoy about Innovation class time? How do you feel your performance of a Chinese song will be this Friday during Morning Meeting?

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  • If you are in Second Grade- What role did you play in your Reader’s Theatre production of Helen Keller? How did you practice and how did you film the presentation?
  • If you are in Third Grade- How did you plan out your idea for the 100 Dresses project? Did you have a favorite other than your own?


  • If you are in Fourth Grade- How will you prepare for the ERB testing this week?
  • If you are in Fifth Grade- What do you feel are the most important elements of a playground? How did you study for your geography test?


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