Rigor in the Lower School

illustration of books, brain, pens, pencils
If one were to look up the word rigor in the dictionary, they would find it 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 don’t know about you, but the terms severe, strict, austere, and rigid are not ones which I would want associated with my child’s schooling. However, there are those out there that want a “rigorous” teacher or curriculum for their child, and to them, that means more or harder work. We all know what more work looks like, but what about harder
To the educators in the Lower School at Renbrook, it is all about the degree to which a student thinks about content. It is all about cognitive engagement. When children say, “This is hard,” they usual mean one of two things… the concept they are interacting with his beyond their optimal zone of difficulty such as trying to understand fractions before they understand whole numbers; or they are learning something within their optimal zone and they have to think deeply, often reconceptualizing their original understanding. 
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 a Depth and Complexity methodology. It was 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 framework helps prompt students to investigate concepts more deeply than traditional methods. For instance, students learn the language of a discipline, details, patterns, rules, trends, unanswered questions, ethics, and the big ideas of 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. 
Let’s look at a Renbrook 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 learn and discuss the language of the discipline and 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. They learn, discuss, and write about the laws, social codes, daily life, and government during the time of Westward Expansion. Finally, they learn, discuss, identify, and debate the ethical problems that happened because of Westward Expansion. That “rigorous” unit of study helps students think deeply about the topic forming new understandings. 
Another way teachers create rigor in their lessons is by creating learning opportunities where students acquire foundational information and then move to using what they know about the content. For example, in a Renbrook Grade Two math lesson, students work 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 s’mores. The students make sense of the math story, persevere in solving it, reason abstractly and quantitatively, construct viable arguments, and critique the reasoning of others. Our students use what they know about addition, subtraction, multiplication, measurement, and money in a real-world, rigorous, applicable task.  
Finally, another example of what Renbrook teachers do to infuse rigor into the classroom can be understood by unpacking a Grade Four reading lesson. Discussion is a way for the teacher and students to co-construct meaning from text. Discourse-based teacher questions, meaning they do not occur through pre-decided questions where the teacher already knows the answer, provide opportunities for teachers to question in response to their students’ comprehension of the text. 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, they then extend 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. With teacher guidance, 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. 
I could go on and on with even more examples, but I think you get the gist. In the Lower School at Renbrook, rigor is better defined as depth of thought, NOT amount of work. Educator, Nancy Flanagan, truly said it 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 “more”. It’s not about moving first-grade curriculum into kindergarten, or algebra into the seventh grade. … rigor means teaching and learning things more thoroughly – more deeply.” 
Or, as I like to say to students when they are thinking critically in their optimal zone of difficulty, “I bet your brain is sweating!”
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