What Academic Rigor Really Looks Like

Blooms-taxonomy revisedAhh, Rigor. The term that spews out of the mouths of American educators as if prompted by a microchip secretly inserted at the bases of our necks! It’s heralded as the answer to the fall of education in recent years. I’m not sold on the assumption that everyone knows what rigor looks like in the classroom.

The Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy gives us varying levels of critical thinking verbs that begin at the “Remembering” level, and extend to the “Creating” level. In fact, it’s my determination that rigor as a term, is remembered by most educators, but understood, applied, analyzed, evaluated, and created by an uncertain number; a much lower one.

Could it be that if it is true that learning is a lifelong process, that teachers still need information delivered to them according to their individual learning styles (as do children)? Is it that because we utter “rigor” as a buzzword more so than as an expectation which is a natural part of our academic culture, that the connection is not made?

The Essential Question: How do you know your dendrites are growing?

Google defines rigor as:

noun: rigour; noun: rigor
  1. the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate.
    “his analysis is lacking in rigor”
    Synonyms: meticulousness, thoroughness, carefulness, diligence, scrupulousness, exactness,
    exactitude, precisionaccuracy, correctness, strictness “intellectual rigor”

When we ask teachers to up the ante in the classroom and provide more rigor for students, some indulge themselves in massive internet searches for materials. School systems are getting away from purchasing large quantities of workbooks, and other ancillaries. The monies are  just not there.

The thought process goes like this: I’m teaching the Industrial Revolution, gotta find a worksheet. I’m teaching main ideas, gotta find a worksheet. I’m going to a conference. Gotta leave worksheets. Yes, some will think, I’ve gotta find an activity, which never fails to involve the grueling task of completing a worksheet. When told to increase the rigor again, they just head back to the web and find longer, harder WORKSHEETS.

Marcia Tate, Ed.D has written a series of books that tell us emphatically that worksheets don’t grow dendrites. Period. Worksheets inspire compliance in children, not engagement. Then, when the lack of rigor in questioning and activities lead to mischief and mayhem, we ultimately decide that it’s the kids, not us. Hogwash.

I digress. When I speak of the teacher who doesn’t fully get it. I am in that number. In front. With bells on. As an instructional coach however, I now understand what it truly means to add rigor to learning opportunities for children. They must think deeply to arrive at an answer.

If they are answering a question about text and the answer is right there, they do not have to think. If they are taking an assessment that asks for them to recall facts instead of evaluating a concept and defending their stance, they are not thinking. In essence, the vehicle is running, the gauges are showing adequate levels, and lights are on, but it’s not in gear. I know that my dendrites grow dramatically from experiencing, creating, analyzing, and evaluating concepts. So do children’s, and so do yours!

Recently, the NAEP released the national testing data for the 2012-2013 school year, and the numbers among minorities are too low to quote. We simply need to understand that providing rigor for students by challenging them to think critically, write in an expository manner, speak fluently about learning, and create quality products that prove learning has taken place is, well…a rigorous task.

I will attempt to provide some concrete answers for educators who have not quite made the connection between knowing what rigor is, and creating a rigorous culture in the classroom.

Rigor In The Classroom: What It Is, and What It Is Not

Imagine you are teaching a computer technology class. The standard states that students will learn how to identify and assemble the key parts of the console: the motherboard, RAM, the hard drive, etc. The outcome is to assemble a device that boots and operates upon startup. Like always, on day one, you present them with a lengthy PowerPoint presentation about the history of computers, the different types of operating systems, and the different parts of a computer.

Meanwhile, students have to take down notes from your slideshow (writing word-for-word, from something you hijacked from someone else on the internet, and failed to preview it before showing, by the way). After your lecture, they complete a vocabulary worksheet (probably fill-in-the-blank), with an enormous amount of time in which to finish. They talk for the rest of the class time.

Maybe on day two, they have to diagram and label a motherboard, or watch a video of someone putting a computer together. On day three, you present them with an extremely lengthy study guide, full of fill-in-the-blank, and true/false questions. This too takes the duration of the period. Again, they talk for the duration of the class period.

Then, you make up your test of twenty questions, all multiple choice, which mostly start with “What is,” “Who was,” or “Which of the following…” The final two test items are short answer questions which you decided to count as “bonus questions” after checking the first two papers because you realize that no one seems to have answered them correctly, or the majority left them blank anyway.

What’s the result? You go into class fuming the next day, ranting and raving with your class about how ridiculous it is that only a few passed, they didn’t study, and you know you taught this! Sound familiar? Need I go on? It gets worse… On the End-of-Course/Grade test, or final exam, students face an item which requires them to order the steps of CPU parts’ assembly from beginning to end, or explain why the steps given, are out of sequence, and provide the corrected sequence.

Is this what we're doing to children?
Is this what we’re doing to children?

How about this instead: Acquire some discarded computers from your technology department, open them up, take them apart, and assign them to your students (in groups) and say, “Someone came in here overnight and ransacked the place! They totally disassembled all of these computers and must be up and running before the principal returns from a conference! So, here ya go! Now put them back together, and they’d better work too!” Dendrites will grow exponentially.

In short: Consider learning about Project-Based-Learning. Your students will love you for it! Stay tuned for my top (random number of) resources for academic rigor. With that, I’ll leave you with two calls to action:

  2. Leave a comment for this post. Share it and Like it too, while you’re at it…


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