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by Robyn R. Jackson
Table of Contents
If we want all our students to become better thinkers and learners, we must design rigorous learning experiences that go beyond helping them simply master standards.
In Never Work Harder Than Your Students, I noted that master teachers see the standards of the courses we teach as the "final destination" for classroom instruction. Standards represent where our students need to go, and by unpacking standards into essential questions and smaller objectives, we can plan the learning experiences that will get students where they need to be. The tests to which standards are often matched give us concrete ways of determining that students have successfully mastered certain concepts and skills.
However, standards and tests often do a poor job of articulating what we
really want our students to learn as a result of their time in our classes. If I were to ask you what your hopes and dreams are for your students, chances are you wouldn't reply with "I really want them to be able to multiply two-digit numbers accurately and under timed conditions," or "Boy, would I like them to be able to correctly identify synecdoche in a poem." What we want for our students is something loftier: We want them to understand multiplication and be able to use it to solve problems. We want them to appreciate the beauty of poetry.
The mastery principle "Know Where Your Students Are Going" is about more than unpacking the standards and objectives of your curricula. It goes beyond writing essential questions or mastery objectives. Knowing where your students are going requires that you examine the type of thinking you want them to engage in, the type of understanding you want them to walk away with, and the type of learners you hope to help them become. It means setting a destination that's worth working toward, and then carefully planning the lessons that will take students there.
To be honest, it is much easier to think about instruction in terms of tightly scripted objectives handed down by your school or district—and it's a whole lot safer too, given today's test-focused environment. But it's also limiting for both you and your students. It keeps you from understanding and tapping into your students' full potential, and it makes for pretty dry learning experiences for them. What if you could go beyond planning and delivering tightly scripted lessons mapped to a standardized test to facilitate rich, robust learning experiences? What if, instead of just preparing your students to be good test takers, you could also prepare them to be critical thinkers and lifelong learners? What if you didn't have to choose between an interesting and engaging lesson and one that meets the criteria prescribed by your curriculum guide? In other words, what if you could teach creatively, passionately, and freely while helping students meet and exceed the standards of your course?
The good news is that you can. Your vision for where your students are going doesn't have to stop at the state test, and your teaching can stretch beyond the barriers of the curriculum guide. You can help your students meet the standards set for your course, pass the big test, and become engaged learners, effective problem solvers, and critical thinkers. This guide will show you how.
The chapters ahead focus on how to plan robust, rigorous learning experiences for your students that will help them learn how to think about what they are learning and how to use their learning in meaningful ways. With this approach, your lessons will not only be much more interesting and engaging, but they will also do a better job of preparing students for the challenges they will face once they leave your classroom. And the key to this kind of lesson is rigor.
Rigor is one of those slippery concepts in education. Everyone agrees that it is important, and everybody wants standards, instruction, and assessments that are rigorous, but very few agree on what "rigor" really means. In most cases, educators believe that they know rigor when they see it without really having a fully defined idea of what it looks like.
Think of the times you might have used the term "rigorous" to mean a learning task that was "harder" or "more challenging" or "focused on the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy." While all of these concepts play into rigor, rigor is more than that. So before we begin the work of this how-to guide—planning rigorous learning units—it is important to define what we mean when we talk about rigor in the classroom. Here's a definition we might start with: Rigor is a quality of instruction that requires students to "construct meaning and impose structure on situations rather than expect to find them already apparent" (Resnick, 1987, p. 44). Whereas most units work toward what students will know and be able to do by the end of instruction, rigorous learning units also ask what students will understand and how students will be able to think. Rigorous instruction is designed to develop students' capacity to
In short, rigor is quality of instruction that goes beyond helping students memorize facts, acquire an understanding of concepts, and develop basic skill proficiency. Rigorous instruction asks students to create their own meaning, integrate skills into processes, and use what they have learned to solve real-world problems, even when the "correct" answer is unclear and they are faced with perplexing unknowns.
The mastery principle "Know Where Your Students Are Going" is about the need to have a clear idea of the point of our instruction. Sure, we have standards we're required to work toward as a part of our curriculum, but unless we unpack those standards and understand the types of learning and comprehension those standards imply, we are missing the point. And if we aren't careful, we can get so caught up marching our students toward mastery that we miss out on helping them experience real learning. If you want your students to master standards in a meaningful and relevant way, rigor is the key.
Rigor is also what makes a learning unit robust, engaging, and appropriately challenging. Lessons designed to be rigorous require students to go beyond a surface understanding of the material. These lessons, by design, foster students' ability to think and learn for themselves.
Here are a few more reasons why rigorous instruction is a valuable pursuit:
What is the most important reason to pursue rigorous instruction for you and your students? How does—or how would—having a rigorous destination for your instruction change your instructional goals and practices?
Uncertainty over the meaning of rigor in education has led to a number of misconceptions that we ought to address up front.
Which of these myths about rigor have shaped your beliefs and practice?
The truth is, planning and facilitating rigorous learning experiences is one of the most rewarding things you can do as a teacher. Your class discussions are much livelier, your assignments are more interesting, and your students are much more involved in the class. Rigorous lessons allow you the chance to take your students more deeply into your subject and give them the tools they need to learn how to learn for themselves. Here are a few other truths about rigor.
Rigorous Instruction IS …
Rigorous Instruction IS NOT …
For every student
Only for select students in gifted/talented, honors, or Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate programs
Related to quality
Related to quantity
Messy and free-ranging
Algorithmic, scripted learning
Possible in all levels of learning
Reserved for the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy
What is your personal definition of rigor in the classroom? How does it align with the definition and characteristics discussed so far? What would you add to or change about the portrait of rigorous instruction presented here?
Acquire: After reviewing the characteristics of rigorous instruction listed in the Checkpoint Summary and the truths about rigor discussed on pages 18–20, review the lessons in a unit you teach to see if and how they are "rigorous." What parts of the lesson were rigorous, and what parts were not?
Apply: Think about a unit you will teach in the next two weeks. Review the Checkpoint Summary and the truths about rigor discussed on pages 18–20 and consider how you might adjust your unit plans to reflect your understanding of this material. For instance, you might want to adjust your unit to introduce some uncertainty, or you might include an activity that promotes metacognition. Find at least one way to make your upcoming unit more rigorous.
Assimilate: How are your lessons already rigorous? How might you adjust them to be more rigorous?
Adapt: Think about an entire year's worth of instruction for the course or grade level you teach. How might you adapt your lessons and units to make them more rigorous?
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