This is part two of a series of columns on the idea of what rigor means in educational circles.
In their article “Rigor: It’s all the rage, but what does it mean?,” Richard Colvin and Joanne Jacobs say that curriculum design is one part of creating rigor. Equally important is how it is executed in the classroom and the mindset of the students and teacher.
Making classrooms more intellectually rigorous is no small challenge. In addition to the students embracing the need for rigor, Barbara Blackburn, author of “Rigor is NOT a four letter word,” says that teachers need to know what rigor looks like. While teachers are being asked to create rigor, many are unable to transform this into a lesson plan. And until teachers are able to modify their lessons, little will ever change for students.
She offers this thoughtful checklist:
▪ Are all the students engaged and thinking? Or only those who answer a question?
▪ What kinds of questions is the teacher asking? True or false? Recall? Recall with extrapolation?
▪ Are students given time to think through answers? If they don’t have the answer immediately, does the teacher move on to someone else?
▪ Are students talking and sharing information appropriately, or is there total silence?
And in her Huffington Post article “What is Academic Rigor?!,” assistant English professor Lori Ungemah makes these poignant suggestions for teachers:
▪ Build opportunities into lessons for students to work at different levels and explain where these opportunities are clearly.
▪ Empower the students. Tell them how they can modify the lesson to meet their levels. Give them examples of how they can differentiate to push themselves: Write more than I have asked it you can! Or, if you’re struggling to write a paragraph, at least give me a few sentences.
▪ Tell them to be honest with themselves.
▪ Talk about effort and what it means to push themselves academically. Meet with students individually to find out what they can do easily and what’s hard for them.
▪ Let them experiment within your lesson, to develop their own ways to doing what you have asked, even if it’s not the way you anticipated. Encourage experimentation.
Growth mindset and rigor
From kindergarten through college, Florida Standards are pushing students to move beyond who and where they are. Students need to understand this and that it is our job as parents and teachers to push them. And it’s their job to believe in themselves just enough to be pushed.
When there is deep thinking, provocative discussions and the presence of a growth mindset, academic rigor will prevail. Making work more challenging is not as crucial as changing the mindset and culture of the education world. We make changes and put forth effort when we feel the task is relevant to our well-being.
Academic rigor involves introducing and dissecting a complex task or idea until it is mastered. Academic rigor is a process that takes time. With support and guidance, the goal is for all students to become masters of the task or concept set forth. This applies to anything from learning algebraic equations to learning how to bake a cake.
As teachers and parents, we need to be aware that when students are presented with a challenging task, they can become nervous, scared or embarrassed. Supporting children with the idea that they can overcome obstacles with effort — rather than intelligence — provides a refreshing approach to rigor. With a growth mindset, everyone has the potential to tackle and master something new. It’s how we evolve.
Yet today’s students are not keen on struggle. When charged with a difficult task that carries the potential for failure, many simply give up. The pandemic fear of humiliation is much greater than the perceived need and determination to struggle to the finish line. As we incorporate rigor in our lives, teachers and parents need to support effort, not talent — and be upfront about the purpose of rigor — at all levels.
Struggling students and other obstacles
Students may struggle academically for a variety of reasons. Some may be English language learners; others may have cognitive, social or emotional disabilities that inhibit learning; others may come from families where parents have little time or desire to monitor their children’s effort and learning. Despite these challenges, all students have potential to become more than they are, and certainly more than their circumstances.
In his article “What is academic rigor, What do we do with it?,” Jordan Catapano says that maintaining rigorous curriculum standards requires that teachers be aware of every student’s need and support them toward the desired level of achievement. Here are some tips:
▪ Lessons are systematically scaffolded from one to the next.
▪ Intervention tasks are utilized to keep everyone on track.
▪ Effort is paramount. The teacher is available for support and encouragement.
▪ Parents and teachers maintain regular communication.
▪ Learning tools are graphically organized and reinforced.
▪ Content is relevant to students.
Educator Robyn Jackson offers three major things that teachers can do to help mitigate the struggles inherent in academic rigor. Parents can also apply these ideas at home when working on challenging assignments.
▪ Anticipate difficulty: Anticipating areas of difficulty before students approach new material is very effective. This includes the consideration of the classroom population — knowing which students have identified learning disabilities, which have limited English proficiency, or how students have previously performed in class. Teachers should be aware of topics that have been difficult in the past and those which continue to be misconstrued.
▪ Use graphic organizers: Struggling students often need help organizing information to show see how different parts relate to the whole and other kinds relationships. Jackson says that graphic organizers show kids how the facts are connected so they can organize them in their heads. Organizing information into a mental model or framework is the first stage of rigorous learning — they need to get that right to move forward. Used in advance of a lesson, a graphic organizer gives students a heads up about the concepts, and skills they will encounter in a unit. Organizers also help teachers clarify in their own mind what kind of work they’ll need to do to activate student’s prior knowledge in a given area.
▪ Look for clues: During a lesson, teachers should be constantly collecting data about students’ learning through observations and other assessment strategies. Master teachers know what to pay attention to. The feedback they collect from their students tells them a lot about where kids are and where they’re struggling. But not all struggles need intervention. Jackson explains that there are different types of struggle — productive struggle and destructive struggle.
In their book “How to Support Struggling Students,” Jackson and Claire Lambert distinguish between destructive and productive learning struggles.
With destructive struggle, students run out of coping strategies and give up. This needs immediate intervention. Teachers should have an action plan and be able to determine why the student is struggling. Parents should be vigilant and communicate their observations to the teacher.
But with productive struggle, students are persistent; they have strategies that lead to solutions.
Implications for administrators and observations
Administrators should understand that working rigorously should not leave kids exhausted. On the contrary, rigorous learning, applied correctly, should be paced and feel energizing. Rigor without let-up only ends up in burnout and frustration and it has no place in the absence of context.
Like any data collection, when looking for rigor in a classroom the larger the sample size the more valid the data. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case in teacher observations. When using observations to gauge rigor in a teacher’s curriculum and pedagogy, administrators need to make multiple observations, preferably in a sequence of days. If a teacher’s lessons are all fun and low-level for days in a row, there’s a problem. Conversely, if a teacher kills her kids day after day with no time for mastery, there’s also a problem.
In the end, whether it’s a teacher, parent or a student, we need to know what is being expected of us at any given time. We need to believe that through effort and struggle, we can and will master our rigorous tasks. It is the way we have survived as a species. It’s the way we built our nation.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.