Google 'rigor in education' and see what happens. I'll tell you: You get about 12.1 million results and 12.1 million similar and different opinions and definitions. Why can't the definition of rigor in the classroom be as easy or simple as say, a cheese burger. There are many types of cheese burgers made by many types of cheese burger makers, but I'm sure the average person off the street can identify a cheese burger with relative ease.
So, why can we not define 'rigor in education?'
Here is what I think. Rigor in education does not mean you make student work harder. This thinking produces the following:
Current plan: give students a worksheet with 10 math problems.
Current idea of more rigorous plan: give students a worksheet with 30 math problems.
If a problem takes one skill to answer, answering 30 problems still only takes that one skill. It's not more rigorous.
Current plan: Make students write a research paper that is 2 pages long.
Current idea of more rigorous plan: Make students write a research paper that is 4 pages long.
If during the research a student forms no opinion on the topic, discovers no new questions they wish to answer, and present the findings to no one, it's just longer. Not more rigorous.
This is not harder; it is longer.
This is not more rigorous, it just more.
Okay, let's get to a definition:
I believe rigor requires a few things:
Rigor requires relevance.
We usually hear about rigor and relevance as something that go hand in hand. I believe that you cannot have one without the other. An assignment or a task is not rigorous if it is not relevant to the student. How many times have your students asked, "Why do we have to learn this?" "Why are we doing this?" This is a challenge! Outrageous!
What if we didn't see this as a challenge, but as a rubric to evaluate the validity of what we teach?
Rigor requires a collection of skills.
As I said earlier, the task of completing 10 problems or 30 problems which require only one skill does not make the task more rigorous. It makes is more difficult to grade and more irritating to your students.
Rigor requires a collection of skills. If I assign a task that requires the students to research, synthesize, and produce it may create a good paper. However, if I focus on learning rather than the product produced, I can raise the level of rigor in my classroom. What do you mean?
Well, I think, as teachers, we are so programmed to get our students to answer the questions that we forget to think about the process of learning. How do most students get the answer to a question?
Think of removing the idea of answers and replacing it with asking your students to prove their learning. What's the difference? The first asks the students to fill in a blank. The second asks your students to build a case for what they have learned. When you stop focusing on the answer and improve the process of learning the task becomes personal. Students form opinions on the subject. They have had the time to interact with the material and can hold a conversation. Instead of filling in the blank or writing an opening paragraph, students use a collection of skills from reading, assimilating, curating, summarizing, editing, synthesizing, arguing, writing, arranging, and designing to create something they can point to that says, "Look, this proves I learned it."
Rigor requires an audience.
For a task or assignment to be rigorous, the task must be outward facing. Handing in a completed assignment to a teacher means the task stops with that submission. In order for a task to be rigorous the completion must have an audience that matters to the student. This outward facing result helps to the student to accept that their product will be assessed and "criticized" by stake holders that the student sees as important. The publishing of the work takes requires the quality to be enough to stand up to outsiders and allows the work to affect other's thinking. If I know that whatever I produce will only be seen by the teacher my motivation to ensure it's of highest quality is not my goal. I want to get an A. If I know that others inside and outside of the school will see what I have completed, I will go further and make sure the completed task is good enough for a larger audience. This is a basic tenant of project based learning, but, further, it is the foundation of creating a standard of learning that is much higher than what we have programmed our students to strive for.
Rigor requires a change in the learner.
In order for an assignment to be rigorous it needs to change the learner. Now, by no means, do I think that everything you teach is going to catastrophically change how the student views the world. That's not reality, BUT if we strive to create tasks that broadens the thinking of the student in a way which will cause them to use their previous learning to guide their future learning we have afforded our students a great luxury. Instead of learning to a certain point and then beginning again and learning to the same point, we start to scaffold not only the content but the ability to learn. If I learn one thing and then I apply that learning to my next learning, I will posses an exponentially larger capacity to learn new things. This should be our goal.
If you think that my next post will include a step by step primer on how to do this, I need to apologize to you. These are thoughts that breathe the rarefied air of utopia. But if I can start to think this way, and then plan lessons where this is possible, my students will be in an environment where there are no constraints. Learning can be endless.
I cannot wait for school to start. I cannot wait to see what my students can achieve.
Your thoughts are welcomed and encouraged.