Recently I read an article
from U.S. News & World Report on how students can better manage an academically rigorous course load while maintaining a strong GPA. As those connected with education, kindergarten through higher ed, rigor is a term used often. Independent schools frequently use it in their mission statements and marketing materials. Programs, teachers, and/or curricula regularly are described as either rigorous or lacking thereof. There are countless studies and research articles touting the relevance and significance of rigor in 21st Century teaching and learning.
With all its popularity and favor, I find it worrisome that it is so often misunderstood. When you look up the word rigor in the dictionary, it is defined as:
1. harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment: SEVERITY
2. the quality of being unyielding or inflexible: STRICTNESS
3. severity of life: AUSTERITY
4. strict precision: EXACTNESS
5. obsolete: RIGIDITY, STIFFNESS
I believe that’s why so many people think rigor in schools means more or harder work. Unfortunately, when defined in that way, it is misunderstood and limited in its effectiveness in terms of teaching and learning.
What I wish more people understood about true academic rigor is that it’s all about the degree to which a student thinks about content. It’s all about cognitive engagement. Kathryn Boudett, Director of the master’s program in Learning and Teaching at Harvard University notes, “Rigor imposes a cognitive load on students, forcing them to confront misconceptions, reconsider positions, separate the implicit from the explicit, and other critical thinking practices that distinguish shaky familiarity from true understanding.”
There are a number of ways in which Renbrook Lower School teachers facilitate learning activities that provide their students opportunities to think critically. One way is through the use of Depth and Complexity
icons. The icons were first developed and used with gifted students in mind. However, teachers quickly determined that all students were capable of that type of rigor (thinking) and they began using the methodology in whole class lessons. They saw a dramatic change in classroom discourse and learning. The Depth and Complexity icons prompt students to investigate: the language of a discipline, details, patterns, rules, trends, unanswered questions, ethics, and the big ideas of the content. Complex understanding is achieved in classrooms through lessons that have students investigating how topics change over time, different perspectives held, and how topics link to and connect with other disciplines.
So how does this look in a real elementary classroom? Let’s look at a Grade Three social studies unit on Westward Expansion as an example. Several mini-lessons are taught on the various aspects of Manifest Destiny, the Lewis and Clark expedition, territory acquisition, trail simulation, and the Native American experience. The students also have at their disposal a mini pop-up library of non-fiction books on those topics, and they receive specific links to websites pre-approved by the teacher. The students, broken into small groups, are provided several depth and complexity icons and asked to respond either verbally or in writing. For example, one group receives the icon that represents the language of the discipline-- they are responsible for defining the major terms within the unit, terms a historian would use such as scarce resources, commerce, Manifest Destiny, assimilation, and transcontinental. Another group may receive the icon for rules—and they respond with thoughts regarding the laws, social codes, and government during the time of Westward Expansion. Finally, a third group receives the icon for ethics—and they debate and then identify the ethical problems that happened because of Westward Expansion. These icons help students think deeply about a topic, and they provide differentiation. For example, the language of the discipline learning activity, although necessary and important, is a lower-level thinking task (identify) rather than ethics, where the students need to use higher order thinking (evaluating).
Another way teachers create rigor in their lessons is by creating learning opportunities where students acquire foundational information and then move to actually using what they know about the content. For example, in a Grade Two math lesson, students work in small groups to problem solve math stories such as planning for a baseball team’s picnic. The students are required to make decisions about how much food is needed (servings), how much their menu choices would cost, and finally, figure out what supplies would be needed for the players and coaches if each person eats two smores. The students need to make sense of the math stories, persevere in solving them, reason abstractly and quantitatively, construct viable arguments, and critique the reasoning of others. Our students are using what they know about addition, subtraction, multiplication, measurement, and money in a real-world, rigorous, applicable task.
Finally, another example of what the teachers do to infuse rigor into the classroom can be understood by unpacking a Grade Four reading lesson. Small or whole group discussion is a way for the teacher and students to co-construct meaning from text. If the discussion is discourse-based, meaning it does not occur through pre-decided, teacher questions where the teacher already knows the answer, but rather through questions and talk in response to the students’ own comprehension of the text and elaboration of their ideas. For example, the teacher reads aloud a passage from Front Desk
by Kelly Yang, and then initiates a discussion by using an open-ended question such as, “What’s going on here?” Upon hearing several summary accounts, she then extends the discussion by asking, “Yes, that is what the author said, but what did the author mean?” That discourse-based follow-up question works to deepen student thinking, and it provides an opportunity for the rereading of text more closely to understand its underlying meaning. Students interrogate the text and then make text-based inferences based on their background knowledge of the world. Very powerful and rich class discussions occur in response to discourse-based teacher questioning.
So, if Renbrook published a dictionary of academic terms, I would want rigor to be defined as:
1. a process that teaches one how to THINK DEEPLY about content
2. a manner in which teachers probe and question to DEEPEN STUDENT UNDERSTANDING
3. collaborative in nature, providing opportunities for students to debate, critique, and PROBLEM SOLVE COLLECTIVELY
4. engaging learning experiences that challenge students’ previous held beliefs and understandings in an effort to build more SOPHISTICATED INSIGHTS and KNOWLEDGE
I could go on and on with even more descriptors. Ultimately, I want people to understand that rigor is about depth of thought, NOT amount of work. The Lower School teachers work to provide their students countless learning opportunities that support the development of critical thought. I think teacher, Nancy Flanagan
, says is best, “It might be easier to define rigor by noting what it is not: Rigor is not a synonym for ‘harder,’ and it does not mean moving first-grade curriculum into kindergarten, or algebra into the seventh grade. … Rigor means teaching and learning things more thoroughly – more deeply.”