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No More "Baby Stuff"
February 9, 2017 | Volume 12 | Issue 11
Table of Contents
Barbara R. Blackburn
My favorite question to ask students is, "If you were in charge of the school, what would you change?" At one middle school, a student named Gabrielle replied, "For people who don't understand as much . . . [they should] be in higher-level classes to understand more [because] if they already don't know much, you don't want to teach them to not know much over and over." Isn't that insightful? A 6th grader recognizes a crucial point: each student, including those who are struggling, deserves to be taught at a rigorous level.
At the core of our quest to increase rigor is creating a common understanding of rigor that speaks to all students. Too often, we dismiss struggling students as unable to work at rigorous levels. In fact, "Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels; each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels; and each student demonstrates learning at high levels" (Blackburn, 2013). Teachers can follow two major steps to achieve this goal of rigorous work for each and every student.
Step 1: Create Tasks That Reflect High Expectations
To ensure each student has access to rigorous work, the first step is to create assignments, activities, and assessments that are truly rigorous. But who determines what is rigorous? Often, we think we are offering rigorous work when we really aren't. It's helpful to compare expectations for students to an outside reference. The tool I prefer is Webb's Depth of Knowledge (DOK), because it focuses on depth and complexity, moving beyond simple verbs like those used in Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning. Of Webb's four levels, rigor is at levels 3 (strategic thinking) and 4 (extended thinking).
Let's look at this in more detail. Consider a task you have asked students to complete in the last week. Did you ask them to summarize text? Perhaps they were to compare and contrast different ideas, or to make inferences. Did students interpret information from a graph or table or explain phenomena in terms of science concepts? Although important, all of those skills are at level 2 of Webb's DOK.
Webb's level 3, on the other hand, demands more from students. With this level, you might ask students to not only provide evidence from the text, but also to move beyond the text into higher levels of analysis. Level-three learning requires students to connect ideas and create generalizations. For example, students in a math classroom might use concepts to solve nonroutine problems; those in a science class might identify research questions and design investigations for a scientific problem (WebbAlign, 2016). See this helpful chart summarizing what each Webb's DOK level of learning would require of students, across ELA, math, science, and social studies.
To see an example of a task retooled to achieve level-three learning, consider this science activity for kindergarten or 1st grade, where the standard assignment is to plant a seed in dirt in a paper cup and see what happens. Here's how teachers I worked with in one school revised the assignment to increase rigor.
Sample Revised Assignment: Planting Seeds (K–1)
As a group, discuss seeds. Ask students to predict what would happen if they plant a seed. Then, ask each student to plant a seed in the dirt in his or her cup. Place the cups around the room. Ask students to draw a picture in their science journals of what they think will happen. Each day, students should observe the seeds and draw their current observations in science journals. Discuss as a group what is happening and why.
After seeds have sprouted, ask students to compare their plants. Why are they different or the same? Students can write or draw these observations in their journals. Discuss as a class, encouraging answers such as, "Mine grew more because it was in the sun."
As a closing activity, once plants have grown, have each student explain why his or her plant grew the way it did and why. Then, ask each to choose another place in the room they could have put his or her plant, and write or draw what might have happened there.
One teacher in the group was particularly concerned that her struggling students would not succeed. However, with the guided discussion, and the option to write or draw key aspects of the project, each student successfully completed the activity. The key here, as with any time you increase rigor, is to build support into the higher level of expectations.
Step 2: Providing Appropriate Support
That leads us to the second step to increasing rigor for struggling students: providing appropriate support. A variety of support strategies are effective with struggling students, including think-alouds, graphic organizers, visuals, and modeling of expectations. One that I have found particularly useful for students in 4th grade and higher is layering meaning.
With layering meaning, you find two articles on the same topic written at different levels of complexity. For instance, let's say that you ask your students to read a grade-level text passage on landforms, but 12 of them can't read the article. The 12 students read the easier article first, then return to the original text, which they read with your support. By reading the easier text first, they build background knowledge and an understanding of content-specific vocabulary, which enables them to be more successful with the grade-level text. In other words, I hold my struggling students to the same level of expectation as my other students, in terms of content; I simply provide additional support so that they can succeed.
A major myth of rigor is that struggling learners are unable to work at higher levels. Perhaps this myth is borne out of hasty, unsuccessful approaches to increasing rigor. If you simply raise the level of rigor and expect students to magically accomplish the more complex work, it will not happen. But, if you craft rigorous assignments and provide appropriate support, student can and will succeed.
Blackburn, B. (2013). Rigor is not a four-letter word (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
WebbAlign. (2016). Webb's depth of knowledge characteristics. Retrieved from http://www.webbalign.org/Webbs-DOK-Levels-Summary.pdf
Barbara R. Blackburn has taught early childhood, elementary, middle, and high school students and has served as an educational consultant for three publishing companies. She holds a master's degree in school administration and is certified as a school principal in North Carolina. She received her PhD in curriculum and teaching from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the author of several books, including Rigor Is Not a Four-Letter Word.
ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 11. Copyright 2017 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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