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October 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 2

How to Combine Rigor with Engagement

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How do we go beyond basic skills and infuse instruction with opportunities for authentic investigations and risk taking?

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The imperatives are clear. On the one hand, we have an obligation to equip all children with a baseline level of literacy and numeracy. Rooted in concerns about equity and given teeth by recent accountability policies, this obligation has become a central goal of schooling in the United States. On the other hand, however, we know that the basics are no longer enough. To successfully negotiate modern life, adults need the capacity to tackle open-ended problems in creative ways—a capacity that requires both critical-thinking skills and the disposition to persevere. So how can teachers craft instruction that invites students into the world of open-ended, authentic inquiry while also building core skills and knowledge?
Four years ago, we set out to understand how skillful teachers and successful schools were tackling these twin goals. How should practitioners think about the relationship between building basic skills and offering more open-ended work? What does successful integration look like, and what conditions and practices support it?
Although we have no definitive answers, our research at more than 30 leading U.S. schools has enabled us to identify a set of important patterns and possibilities. This research was fueled by our desire to use existing practice as a platform for building a knowledge base around deeper learning—a shorthand term for the skills, understandings, and dispositions that learners develop by engaging in cognitively ambitious tasks. We identified promising schools through a combination of expert opinions and library research, and we studied only those that had made significant institutional commitments to pursuing such learning. At each site, we observed a broad range of classes, collected artifacts of teaching and learning, and conducted in-depth interviews with teachers, students, administrators, and parents.

Good News and Bad News

The good news is that educators of all stripes are asking the same questions we are. In elementary schools especially, many teachers are addressing the basics in the context of more rigorous and creative endeavors. Despite being increasingly constrained by the pressures of standardized testing, elementary schools have some real advantages when it comes to deeper learning: the flexible structure of the school day, the permeability among subject areas, and the desire to give younger children opportunities for creativity and play.
The bad news is that secondary schools are far less fertile places for this kind of work. The structure of most middle and high schools lends itself to fragmentation: Blocks are short, classes are large, and teachers often work in isolation. More important still is the tradition of "teaching as telling"; secondary teachers often rely on techniques like lecturing to expose students to the canon of established knowledge in their subject areas. In addition, the high-stakes exams exacerbate the pressure to help students "catch up" by doing skill-and-drill type work.

Three Core Ideas

If the dozens of interviews we have done are any indication, most secondary teachers yearn to infuse their classrooms with greater rigor and vitality. Most, however, report that they struggle to get beyond the basics.
What advice can we offer to such teachers? In the following sections, we outline three ideas that can be useful—ideas rooted in our observations of instruction across a variety of classrooms.

1. Consider what professional work in your subject area looks like.

In the best secondary classrooms we have seen, students are invited to participate in the process of generating knowledge in whatever subject area they are studying. Rather than being told what others have already figured out (such as Newton's laws or the causes of the U.S. Civil War) and then being asked to recall this knowledge, students experience firsthand what it means to think and act like professionals in the field.
In a nonhonors chemistry class at a large urban high school, for example, students work on a yearlong inquiry project that both draws on and informs their study of foundational chemistry concepts. Unlike the usual lab activities, in which students follow a set of scripted steps to achieve predetermined results, this project requires students to work through the messy steps of the actual scientific process: identifying an interesting question; researching what others have already learned; modifying the question on the basis of this knowledge; designing an experiment; tweaking the design based on the available materials; implementing the experiment; using the results (or lack thereof) to change the question; writing up the results; and then presenting their work at a much-anticipated science fair where actual chemists serve as evaluators.
In one case, a student tried to identify which ordinary household liquid might serve as the best makeshift cleaner for fruit-punch spills; in another, a student tested how salt, sugar, and other compounds affect the freezing-point of water.
In Making Learning Whole, David Perkins calls this "playing the whole game at the junior level"—students may not be revolutionizing the field, but they get to experience what it really means to do science. In the process, they learn powerful lessons about the structure of scientific knowledge.
To move your classroom closer to this model, start by thinking about what professionals in your subject area do in their daily work. In particular, consider the following:
  • The content of the work. Historians gather evidence to persuasively interpret the past. Mathematicians contribute to our understanding of how numbers work. Poets seek powerful ways of depicting the world as they perceive it. Across these subject areas, skilled professionals spend their time developing something original—something that they (and others) have not yet figured out. Why else would they do the work?
  • The nature of the work. Historians spend years trying to develop a compelling interpretation. Mathematicians invent new methods to solve problems when the existing ones don't provide a solution. Poets endlessly play with words. All these activities are sustained over long periods of time, and all involve improvisation, uncertainty, and periodic failures.
  • The standards by which the work is judged. Validity in history comes from review by other scholars. Validity in mathematics is established when mathematicians advance new mathematical claims, theorems, or proofs that withstand the critiques of other mathematicians. Validity in poetry comes from readers' responses. Each field has its own criteria by which good or promising work is separated from attempts that fall short.
These three areas are linked to questions that you can ask yourself as you plan units and lessons. Does the work involve opportunities for students to develop something original? Is there a real measure of uncertainty? Is the work sustained enough to enable students to grapple, improvise, and fail and try again? Are there clear standards for how the work will be judged, and do students understand where these standards come from?
If you don't think you have a detailed enough picture of what professional work in your subject area entails, find out! It is always a good idea to seek out experts—to observe them, to learn from them, and to bring them to your classes (or bring your students to them). This contact with professionals will help your students understand what it means to participate in the disciplines they are studying, which leads to both deep engagement and deep understanding.

2. Teach standards in the context of authentic investigations, not the other way around.

Backward design in the age of accountability means that teachers are encouraged to begin with content standards and plan their curriculum backward from there. Understanding by Design warns against organizing instruction around "engaging stuff" rather than the core knowledge, skills, and understandings that students need to develop.
We would be the last to say that planning without a clear set of goals is a good idea. We believe, however, that standards and authentic content ("engaging stuff") can and should be mutually supportive. The most skillful teachers we have seen think carefully about their goals, but they also think about how students can reach these goals in the context of something compelling to read, explore, produce, or perform. The authentic parts of the work become more than just an afterthought.
One project-based humanities teacher that we saw, for example, described how he developed projects in part by tapping into what was "in the air"—the particular interests of his current students as well as the news topics of the moment. During the weeks we observed his class, his students were reading about McCarthyism and producing documentary films that used fear-based rhetoric to make arguments about topics ranging from genetically modified foods to distributing contraceptives in schools. The project required students to build important (and testable) skills in reading, writing, and argumentation, but it did so in the context of provocative questions and the requirement to develop something original.
This point applies to more traditional secondary classrooms as well. One skillful English teacher told us he used to think that text-to-self connections were merely a way to get students ready for the "real" task of analyzing literature. At the beginning of a unit on The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead, 2003), he would ask his students to discuss whether they felt responsible for their siblings, and then he would tell them that this theme was central to the novel they were about to read. The conversation would end when they cracked the cover.
Over time, however, he found a much more powerful way to use text-to-self connections: At crucial junctures in the novel, he would ask students to consider how the book reframed their understandings of their own relationships with their siblings. "When they realize that this text is actually a commentary on how they see the world that they're living in, the personal connection becomes the energy that feeds the inquiry back into the text," he said.
Regardless of the subject or grade level you teach, make sure you're not setting up a false dichotomy between doing work that is standards-driven and work that is authentic. Too often, standards become an end in themselves. This gives classrooms the quality of endlessly deferred gratification. Teachers tell their students that the interesting or authentic application of the standards will happen later—but later just never seems to arrive.

3. Cultivate a classroom culture that normalizes risk taking.

The adolescent desire to take risks is developmentally normal. U.S. society, however, tends to treat it as threatening. Schools, in particular, often rely on a model of control that limits students' opportunities for risk. The best secondary teachers we have seen, however, treat their students' desire for risk taking as an asset. Their classrooms are not places where anything goes, but there are opportunities for students to take risks both intellectually and socially.
Taking intellectual risks involves playing with ideas, "trying out" possibilities with the understanding that it is acceptable to change tacks later. One 12th grade history teacher, for example, cultivates an "everything on the table" mentality. Students prepare for discussions by developing multiple preliminary responses to the question at hand—responses that they are encouraged to modify as the discussion progresses. The teacher frequently reminds students that once an idea has been articulated, it belongs to the group, not just to the person who first named it—and she periodically helps model divergent thinking.
Social risk often involves asking students to reveal their understandings to others. This can happen on a small scale—for example, by having students share their writing or publicly defend their ideas—or on a much larger scale by having students present their work to external audiences. The latter scenario has the advantage of tapping into the kind of authenticity expected of professionals in a field.
In one project-based biology class, for example, students spent several months creating new exhibits for a local science museum, testing their prototypes with museum goers. In a more conventional geometry class, students drafted blueprints for a new school building and presented them to a panel of professional architects for evaluation.
Allowing students to take risks in their work also means allowing them to fail. Some interpretations will not hold up in light of additional evidence; some methods for solving problems will prove inefficient or flawed; some project designs will be unfeasible. When students are given opportunities to reflect and revise, however, the experience of coming up short can be a powerful source of learning and an important way to build flexibility and persistence.

What Would Happen If …?

When we asked teachers to describe a time when their classroom "came alive," they launched into vivid narratives about moments when they and their students found ways to engage deeply and passionately with content. These stories are richly varied, but they almost always share some of the elements we described above.
It's unrealistic to imagine that every moment of every class could have such vitality. Building a repertoire of skills and knowledge in any subject area, academic or otherwise, requires a certain amount of routine work. It is unproductive, however, to treat deeper learning purely as the product of chance.
Think about the conditions under which your classroom has been at its most vital. What would happen if you tried to place those conditions at the center of your work? What would happen if you treated standards as a point of departure rather than as an end goal and trusted that you could find ways to build students' skills and knowledge through authentic inquiries? What would happen if you gave students real latitude to explore open-ended problems and take risks in the process?
This kind of reorientation will require from you the same things that it will require from your students. You will have to improvise strategies where they do not yet exist. You will have to steer into uncertainty, not away from it. You will have to take risks. When you hit dead ends, you will have to turn to others for help. Our observations suggest that in the end, however, the learning will be well worth the effort—for both you and your students.
End Notes

1 Perkins, D. (2009). Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

2 Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design, expanded 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Jal Mehta is a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, co-director of the Deeper Learning Dozen, and coauthor of In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School (Harvard University Press, 2019).

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