Demand High!

Matt Done thinks about challenging his students.

One day, after some lesson observations, something started to bother Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill.
They began to ponder the hours’ worth of lessons they had both sat through, trying to pinpoint the source
of their discomfort. It certainly wasn’t anything to do with the materials, which were colourful and well
presented. It had nothing to do with lesson plans, which were thorough and meticulous. Teachers were friendly,
students happy. So what was the problem?

The mystery persisted until finally, the pair asked themselves whether learners were really working at full
capacity during lessons - whether they were being challenged to the extent that real upgrades were being
made in their language. The honest answer to this question was no.

The problem was one of demand, or, more specifically, ‘un-demand’. They wondered: Have our lessons
settled into a comfortable state, in which we’re happy to accept decent, rather than pushing students right
to the edge of their learning zone? Have we become preoccupied with the mechanics of tasks, with little
if any thought devoted to real learning opportunities? Have we forgotten that we are, in fact, allowed to teach?

What emerged from these concerns was the start of what Scrivener and Underhill call ‘demand high teaching’.
It is not a new methodology, or a radical overhaul of the ways we know. Scrivener and Underhill call it a ‘meme’
– one which can be summed up in three principles.  

One - believing that learners are capable of doing more than we are used to asking of them, and even expecting
them to do more. Two - moving our lesson focus away from the mechanics of tasks, and more towards real
learning opportunities. Three - making adjustments to our technique so that, at the right time, we can create and
then exploit such opportunities.

So what does all of this mean for the classroom? Well, Scrivener and Underhill propose that we can exploit
certain moments in our lessons to maximise learning and get the mind of the student really working. 

We’re all familiar with the ‘correction’ stage that follows a grammar exercise. Students have done the work,
compared in pairs, and we are now in the process of checking whether those answers are right. What typically
happens is that the teacher nominates a student, the student calls out his answer, and assuming the answer is
correct, the teacher might say ‘good’, or ‘well done’. The question is now extinguished, with any learning
potential within that question lost. 

But there are numerous options available to the teacher that would allow the question to be kept open, and to
tease out opportunities to push the students to think. The most rudimentary way of doing this would be to resist
the urge to validate the answer immediately. Rather than promptly saying ‘good’, or ‘yes’, we could simply leave
the question hanging a while longer. This doing away with instant validation often has the effect of making students
re-asses their answer in their own minds, going over it again, possibly thinking about it in new ways and from new

Another way would be to challenge the students to say the sentence in the question in a slightly different way
– either by changing just one word, or perhaps by reformulating the entire thing. Again, rather than letting the question
drift away, the teacher is confronting it and squeezing more out of it. This technique is particularly useful, as it works
at the frontier of each individual’s learning zone. The student uses all of his language resources to come up with a new
sentence, which he may or may not be sure about. We are educating his hunch in ways that we might not have done before.

The possibilities are also there for playing around with the sounds and intonation of the sentence. We might ask students
to identify which words or syllables are stressed, or unstressed. We could ask them whether changing the stress would
alter the meaning somehow. We could get students to say the sentence a number of times, but each time, in a different
‘mood’. For instance – say it again, but ‘impatiently’. Say it again, but as if you’re ‘excited’.

Each such demand we make of students forces them to keep their brains switched on, and has the effect, hopefully,
of raising their awareness of the finer details of the language. You may not wish to employ such techniques every time
you do an exercise, but if we can find the time to ‘keep things open’, we may discover that the potential is there for
students to make regular, tiny upgrades in their language. Perhaps just by pronouncing a word better, or by learning
a more natural way of saying something. These tiny upgrades add up dramatically in the long run.

The assertion that comes out of all of this is that it we do, in fact, have permission to be more than just mere classroom
managers. It’s perfectly ok for us to dive into the nitty gritty of language, instead of just assuming that the grammar
ections of the course book will do all the work. We do have an active, intervening role to play in the language development
of our learners.


The above are just a few ideas for trying to demand high. For more information, visit Scrivener and Underhill’s website  

This article originally featured in the May 2014 edition of the newsletter