Unfold Learning

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How Hard Is It?

Rigid Post Image

The definition of rigor, according to the dictionary, is “strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people.” Over the past decade, this word has crept into eduspeak more and more, often to argue that students are earning high grades for work that is too easy and does not lead to learning. Do we really mean to make classrooms inflexible places? Probably not.

Search for the words “rigor” and “education” together and you will mostly find a wide range of new “definitions” for this word. More than definitions, many of these are circumlocutions: rambling explanations about challenging students without really getting at how to challenge students and how to ascertain the aforementioned rigor. There are no tools or scales for measuring rigor and no advice on how to identify it.

The buzz about rigor is not new. A post at the Hechinger Report from 2010 states that students are leaving high school unprepared for college-level work or the workplace. The post mentions designing a curriculum that prepares students for college, but gives no specifics. The post also mentions an expert who tells us there is a difference between rigorous teaching, rigorous questioning, and rigorous assessment, but the differences are not actually expressed. I have some rigorous questions of my own about “rigor” to help me think through this word that seems to be more of a political construct with suspect motives.

What is the point of rigor in schools? If the goal is to ensure students are working hard, is the hard work a means to an end or an end in itself?

Challenge is necessary for learning. Doing what is already known is easy, but does not lead to further acquisitions of skills or knowledge. Learning happens at the edge of what has already been learned and what can be learned next. It happens at the edge of what is easy and what starts to pose a challenge. Vygotsky used this expansion metaphor to describe learning when he wrote about the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). If rigor ensures students are challenged so they are constantly learning, there must be a way to figure out if students are challenged, and how much so. Too much of a challenge (a leap too far into the ZPD) leads to frustration. Not enough challenge leads to boredom and a lack of learning. However, hard or easy varies with each individual, and teachers and students judge the ease or difficulty of any situation very differently and they do so for different reasons.

The Glossary of Education Reform defines “rigor” as an element of “…lessons that encourage students to question their assumptions and think deeply, rather than […] lessons that merely demand memorization and information recall.” This is not very different from the goal of Deeper Learning, which is defined by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Hewlett Foundation as academic activities that lead to students acquiring the following six competencies.

  1. Mastery of core content
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Problem solving
  4. Collaboration
  5. Communication
  6. Self-directed learning

If learning activities are designed to challenge students while promoting the development of these competencies, rigor does not need to be quantified and assessed as a separate element. So why is it?

We ask students to learn things that are definitely hard, but have little or no connection to what will be required of them after graduation, and we do it in the name of rigor. As the Glossary of Education Reform notes, “While some educators may equate rigor with difficultly, many educators would argue that academically rigorous learning experiences should be sufficiently and appropriately challenging for individual students or groups of students, not simply difficult” (emphasis added). Until there is a consensus on what rigor means and how it can be observed and measured for individual students, we should ask ourselves questions that help us ensure students are challenged for a clear purpose and that learning outcomes are genuinely productive.

Are teachers asking students to do work that is hard because they, as children in schools, had to do the same kind of work?

“In my day, we had to memorize (insert favorite obsolete item here). Now we let kids just Google stuff. What’s the point?”

The point is that memorizing stuff does not lead to progress in any meaningful way. Memorizing is hard, and maybe you are unhappy that you had to suffer through it yourself, and perhaps making your own students do it gives you a bit of a buzz. But the point of what is out there already discovered is not to take up space in your brain. Mendeleev and all others who worked in his field did not create the periodic table as a means to torture middle school students. They created it to enable work beyond theirs. Asking students to do something other than memorize the elements is not taking an easier path to an A. It is simply asking students to do real work that leads to real learning. Memorizing for the sake of memorization can be a way to use content as a bludgeoning tool.

Yes, at some point it might have been hard to get your hands on a copy of the periodic table. Carrying it in your head might have been useful when you needed it. Now we can use our brains to think deeper about how elements behave, how they interact, what might be done with them, or how new ones might be discovered. Actually doing something with the information presented in the periodic table is a better way to prepare students for life outside the classroom because, no matter what the teacher thinks, nobody is going to give anyone a paycheck (or a grant) simply for being able to recite something anyone with two thumbs can find online.

If rigor prepares our students for life after school, we are failing them by requiring that they  devote time to learning things that, while hard, will not be very useful in the future (I’m looking at you, cursive.)

Are teachers asking students to do work that they perceive as hard because they don’t understand the complexities of new technologies and new media?

New technologies enable new ways of acquiring knowledge and demonstrating learning. When text was all we had, text was all we could do. And it was all we were required to learn. However, more and more, we are expected to learn and communicate in other ways. I can recall multiple salient experiences in which I was required to submit a video, not an essay, in order to participate in an event, apply for a grant, or be considered for a special assignment. I doubt I’m wrong in assuming our students will be required to communicate in ways other than text more often outside of school than we allow in our classrooms.

When we do not inhabit the same digital lives as our students, we do not understand the complexities involved in being a citizen of that world (Note: I do not like the digital native/immigrant metaphor and prefer the citizen/visitor designation instead). Making a video these days is easy. Thanks to tools like iMovie, Clips, YouTube Editor, and dozens of others, stringing some footage together and dropping in a few titles and sound effects is a breeze. The tools are easy, but the process of creating a concise, coherent message using images and sound requires organization, strategic thinking, creativity, and perseverance. If you have never done it yourself, making a video might seem like a fluffy assignment. Think of all the elements that make up a video: footage or still images (or both!), titles, sound effects, background music. And within those, there are further complexities to consider: camera angles, lighting, backgrounds, script, and much more. Making a feature length film can take a studio of professionals years of arduous work. A group of students making a three-minute video will reproduce the same work at a smaller scale, and the process — done well — will require no less effort than writing a five paragraph essay.

All of the above applies to animations, video games, and many other products that our students can now make. There is an inherent need for creativity and collaboration in demonstrating knowledge through a digital creation that is not always there when all we require is text. There is also a lower chance of getting entire sections lifted off websites and pasted halfway down the page where it fits in with a hastily written topic sentence.

Is rigor a barrier to integrating students with different abilities and backgrounds into our classrooms?

In all my searching around for a good explanation of the purpose of rigor in schools, one idea kept popping up: rigor prepares students for college and the workforce. What does this mean, exactly?

I graduated from a high school that met both the Colombian requirements for graduation and the American requirements for graduation. We wrote essays, made models, wrote and performed plays, choreographed and performed dances, completed a minimum of 100 hours of community service, on and on. We all had to take the SAT and its Colombian equivalent, the ICFES. Our school routinely performed among the top schools in the country. I’d say, by all definitions I’ve seen, that my high school career was “rigorous.” When I started college, though, I had to sit in a large auditorium with 400 other freshmen and “learn” organic chemistry. I dropped out within weeks. No amount of “rigor” will ever excuse the bad pedagogy involved in this model. Blaming high schools for failing to prepare students to thrive in such a flawed model is a way of pretending introductory courses are not a gatekeeper designed specifically to cull out students without refunding their tuition. Freshmen are a cash cow for schools, but saying so is not cool.

It is not cool, so we play along and we push requirements that act as gatekeepers earlier and earlier in schools; we call it “rigor” and claim it readies students for college. For example, we lecture extensively and make students write lengthy essays by hand in the name of AP credits. Brilliant kids who cannot perform within these narrow parameters are excluded. Yes, students who are officially diagnosed with a disability may request special accommodations that allow for the use of a computer for writing essays in AP exams, but not all students who have difficulty handwriting are diagnosed with a disability. I speak from personal experience. I cannot handwrite anything and assume other people will be able to read it. I manage to fill out forms for doctors and such, but, clearly, not being able to handwrite has not kept me from accomplishing some pretty important things.

Why do we let handwriting requirements in AP courses and elsewhere prevent anyone from demonstrating what they know or what they can do? What is it about handwriting and text in general that is so magical? Why are we, once again, limiting ourselves and our students to communicating in ways dictated by old technologies? I recently read this post by Pam Moran in which she addresses this exact issue. Is listening to an audiobook any easier than reading that book as a text? The attention required is not any less, and the depth of thought required to understand characters, plot, setting, and literary devices is not diminished by audio. Making learning spaces and learning activities more welcoming by taking advantage of new technologies does not diminish the effort required for learning and can greatly enhance the outcome. 

Let’s ask again: What is the point of rigor in schools?

At face value, rigor in schools aims to see students graduate with knowledge, skills, and habits that will let them go on to fulfilling college years and rewarding careers. It is an admirable goal. However, without an agreed-upon definition or some way to identify and measure it, “rigor” can be used as an excuse to perpetuate old models of teaching. It can be used by educators who are uncomfortable with change to trivialize and marginalize new technologies that enable students to acquire and demonstrate learning in new and creative ways. This can result in the exclusion of students who, with more flexible pathways, could achieve much more. We are susceptible to what Lee S. Shulman refers to as nostalgia – the desire to do things as we remember they were done when we were students ourselves. To quote Dr. Shulman, teachers, administrators, and policy makers sometimes feel as if,

“…the problem with modern education was that it was somehow riddled with new fads like group work, project-based learning, and –oh my!– service learning. Why can’t we just emphasize important facts, basic skills, fundamental principles, and the universal moral values? To the lay critics and policy-makers, the solution involved returning to the rigor of yesteryear: tougher standards, punitive grading systems, and less tolerance for the mushy, politically correct additions to the bedrock of the traditional curriculum.”

It is important to note that Dr. Shulman wrote this in the late 1990s. In the intervening two decades, advances in neuroscience have further demonstrated that active learning that requires students to engage with content leads to deeper and longer lasting learning than passive listening during direct instruction. New technologies make active learning activities easier to plan and execute. If “rigor” means to challenge students, we must agree to challenge students in ways that are not tainted by nostalgia, that do not exclude those students with different abilities, and that allow students to leave the classroom as citizens of a new world where text is only one of many ways of learning and communicating.

Author: bealeiderman

I am an instructional coach and instructional designer working in Central Virginia.

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