03 January 2012

Changing Gears 2012: re-thinking rigor

(1) ending required sameness     (2) rejecting the flipped classroom     (4) its not about 1:1      (5) start to dream again    (6) learning to be a society (again)     (7) re-thinking what "literature" means       (8) maths are creative, maths are not arithmetic     (9) changing rooms     (10) undoing academic time     (11) social networks beyond Zuckerbergism     (12) knowing less about students, seeing more     (13) why we fight

: From Old French, from Latin rigor (stiffness, rigidness, rigor, cold, harshness) < rigere (to be rigid).

: Rhymes: -ɪɡə(r) - Homophones: rigger, rigour
: rigor (countable and uncountable; plural rigors)

1. (
US) Alternative spelling of rigour.
2. (slang) an abbreviated form of rigor mortis.
"It's time to hold ourselves and all of our students to a new and higher standard of rigor, defined according to 21st-century criteria. It's time for our profession to advocate for accountability systems that will enable us to teach and test the skills that matter most. Our students' futures are at stake," Tony Wagner wrote in 2008 in a piece where he noted that, "Across the United States, I see schools that are succeeding at making adequate yearly progress but failing our students. Increasingly, there is only one curriculum: test prep. Of the hundreds of classes that I've observed in recent years, fewer than 1 in 20 were engaged in instruction designed to teach students to think instead of merely drilling for the test.   To teach and test the skills that our students need, we must first redefine excellent instruction. It is not a checklist of teacher behaviors and a model lesson that covers content standards. It is working with colleagues to ensure that all students master the skills they need to succeed as lifelong learners, workers, and citizens. I have yet to talk to a recent graduate, college teacher, community leader, or business leader who said that not knowing enough academic content was a problem. In my interviews, everyone stressed the importance of critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration."

School Is [already] Hell, as they say.
"Rigor" - stiffness, rigidness, harshness, inflexibility. Well, certainly we could entertain adolescents on the "values" of this in our schools, but after the snickering dies down, we're really back at rigor mortis, and we need to wonder why anyone thinks this is what education needs.

"There’s a lot of talk in education circles today about rigor," Debbie Shults writes, "Educators all over America are frantically waving copies of Thomas Friedman’s, The World is Flat, as they attempt to awaken their colleagues to the impending doom our nation faces if we do not deliver a rigorous and relevant education to every American child. Politicians talk about the need to return rigor to the classroom. Parents demand rigorous programs for their children. School administrators performing classroom walk-throughs look for signs of it, and teachers are resolutely attempting to prove their lessons are full of the stuff. But what is rigor?"

The Washington State School Boards asks similar questions: "It’s easier to start with what rigor is not, at least when we’re talking about learning. My dictionary uses words like “severity, rigidity, hardship” which, in education, might look like endless repetition, or long hours of filling out worksheets. Rigorous learning is not a measure of the quantity of material covered or the number of times it’s covered. Rigor isn’t increased graduation requirements, either, although they may be needed to prepare more students to enter college. Adding more courses, important as that may be, won’t necessarily increase rigorous learning in our classrooms."

Well, Shults points us to a definition from Teaching What Matters Most: Standards and Strategies for Raising Student Achievementby Richard W. Strong, Harvey F. Silver and Matthew J. Perini. According to Strong, Silver, and Perini, “Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.”

Washington State asserts that rigor is, "Active, either through conversation or hands-on or minds-on activity. There’s questioning and discovery going on. Deep rather than broad; project-based. The learners are digging into a topic or project. Engaging. Either on his or her own or with the help of a teacher, each learner has made a real connection with the material to be learned. In every case, there’s a sense that the learning was “hard but satisfying.”'

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa
, New York University and University of Virginia professors respectively, on the other hand, seem to know exactly what rigor is, "
Part of the reason for a decline in critical thinking skills could be a decrease in academic rigor," Arum told NPR, "35 percent of students reported studying five hours per week or less, and 50 percent said they didn't have a single course that required 20 pages of writing in their previous semester."

Which may be all fine, I think "education" is about "
helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging," along with a bunch of other things, and I can't argue with "active," "deep," and "engaging" either, but I'm confused about why we want to preserve the word "rigor" while abandoning all of its historic definition.

On the other hand if "education" is simply a measure of time spent and pieces of paper used, then perhaps "rigor" is the word, and I am simply against "education." I have been accused of this for many years, so you shouldn't just discount that possibility.

The "definition of rigor" battle reaches high comedy when Columbia University's Justin Snider (after work funded by - who else - The Bill and Melinda Gates Anti-Education Foundation) wrote a long piece on Valerie Straus's Washington Post blog on "rigor" in which he fails to define anything. He does refer us to PowerPoint slides and articles full of gems like, "In the U.S., it is socially acceptable to do poorly in math and science," "If you think of the brain as a learning machine, the more you push it to learn, the more powerful it becomes," and my favorite, "
In winter 2008, four Alabama college students designed an independent study course that involved eating barbecue in as many states as possible and writing about their meals. Asked by a reporter to respond to faculty skepticism about such student-designed courses, an accreditation agency official defended them as rigorous because students sign a contract to complete a learning plan."

Here's a thought, if you are spending all of your time worrying about a term no one can define, its time to get a different hobby.
Thus, step three in Changing Gears 2012 is to stop using the term rigor, and to start to actually define what you want from education for your students.

The well intentioned Phil Kovacs wants to use the word "vigor" -
   "In an interview with Learning Matters, Phillip Kovacs (columnist for EdNews.org) suggests we replace rigor with vigor. Consider the defintions for vigor: active strength or force. healthy, physical or mental energy or power; vitality. energetic activity; energy; intensity: the economic recovery has give the country a new vigor. force of healthy growth in any living matter or organism, as a plan. Consider some of vigor’s synonyms: drive. strength. force. flourish. vitality. Doesn’t vigor sound like a far more engaging and purposeful learning environment?"

But I am tired of buzzwords, and I don't want to pick a replacement for "rigor" from my rhyming dictionary. What I want instead is an understanding of what educational opportunity means.

Educational opportunity certainly comes from expecting the most from every student, though I disagree with President Obama, who, being the highly competitive guy politicians usually are, said, "
It is time to expect more from our students... It is time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world. It is time to give all Americans a complete and competitive education from the cradle up through a career.” What I want is for every American child, every British child, Canadian child, Irish child, Australian child, Indian child, Afghani child, Palestinian child, French child, Lapp child (et al), to be able to work with everybody on the planet, to lead anyone on the planet, to learn from anyone on the planet. I want them all to know how to effectively access and evaluate the information they need, whenever and wherever they need it. I want them to know about all of their possibilities, about everything they can do. I want them to be effective communicators, not just in business, but in their own lives. I want them to want the best not just for themselves and their families but for their societies and their world, and I want them to have the tools - thinking tools, communication tools, information tools, productivity tools - which allow them to chase their dreams.

Titanicat research in action.
That requires "real" education, but it requires no "rigor" at all. Rather, it requires the opposite.

Let me talk about "expecting the most," and Twitter followers will know some of this as "the Titanicat lesson." In early December, in a school in one of those "most at risk" communities in America, I worked with a class of 25 or 26 fourth graders. Not a tiny class. Not kids who come from families with college educated parents. Not kids with computers or broadband at home. Not kids - often - with family food money. These are kids who people often do not expect much of. The kind of kids Teach for America thinks need untrained teachers. The kind of kids Arne Duncan thinks need KIPP Academies with training in staring and chanting.

We decided to try and teach these fourth graders to effectively multitask. So as the school's librarian read Titanicat, a book about the Titanic which takes place in Belfast and Southampton, I played on an Interactive White Board bringing up maps, and the students, armed with 15 new MacBook Airs (we had 20, but I held 5 back to encourage sharing and cooperation instead of 1:1 individualism), searched for anything in the story they did not know or didn't understand, or for things the story got them interested in.

It was pretty magical. While neither the kids nor their teacher had any preparation for this, the students were brilliant. "What's Belfast?" I asked, "Where is it?" They all found Belfast, despite my refusal to help them spell it ("I'm not sure how to spell it," I told them, "why don't you try and see what happens?"). "Where is it? What country is it in? I asked. "It says, 'U.K.'" a few yelled. So, "What's 'U.K.' mean?" I asked.

"University of Kentucky," one girl called out. "University of Kentucky?" I asked, "does that make sense?" "Kentucky doesn't have an ocean," a boy said very quietly. I repeated his statement. Quickly, "United Kingdom," came as an answer. "United Kingdom?" I said, "what's that?"

We rolled through the story and all of its places and ideas. Was the United Kingdom in England or England in the United Kingdom? If Belfast was in Ireland, why did it say U.K.? Did they still build ships in Belfast? Where, exactly, is Southampton? Didn't the founders of Jamestown, Virginia also sail from there? Why didn't ships sail from London? Why did they sail across the ocean? Were there airplanes in 1912?

Students found this 1913 German Film In Night and Ice (Part 1, all parts are on YouTube)

Alone, together, with or without adult help.
The students raced through searches, finding movies old (even silent) and new (Leonardo DiCaprio), finding the streets of Southampton, yes, even wandering in  Google Maps to find their own school, their own houses. They found pictures of 1912 airplanes. They found other old ships. They found stuff about southern England. And, let me add this, these are children who often have yet to visit their county seat, much less anywhere further.

But they were being pushed, yes, pushed, to engage with the world in terms of expansive space, expansive time, and expansive ideas, and they weren't resisting, they were leaping forward to engage in this very active learning. And I'll add something else, though none of this directly linked to anyone's curricular content for nine-year-olds, though none of this required long hours of homework to reinforce learning, the kids were high-fiving me in the hall two hours later about how excited they were.

So here was the follow up, and it was for me - the educator - to do. I got back to Michigan and I ordered
Titanicat, I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic, 1912, and A Night to Rememberand sent all three books, along with digital and audio versions of A Night to Remember, to the school library. Now, if any kids want to go further in investigating this tale, this bit of history, they have both the tools and the opportunity.

This is what we can offer every child. Opportunity and access. We gave these kids something to be excited about which introduced them to other nations, to geography, to science, to history. We gave them the tools with which they could all find ways to research - alone, together, which adult support, whatever each student needed. We gave them the time and the freedom to learn - did all hear the whole story? of course not, half said they got lost in what they were doing. Was that wrong? of course not, I simply said that this kind of "multitasking," knowing how to find out what you didn't know as you read or listened, was something we all need to get better at, because we have to do it all the time. They even had ideas about getting better, "we have to be quieter when we search," more than one child said.

Helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.” "Active." "Deep." "Engaging."Complex and deep. What is the difference between mapping John Smith's journey to Virginia on an outline map (the fifth grade history curriculum for these kids next fall) and knowing what the Quay in Southampton looks like? Provocative. What happens when children attending what was once a "Colored School" (by law) discover that in Belfast discrimination like that happens among white people? Personally or emotionally challenging. What to make of the story of a twelve-year-old living on his own, when you are nine? Ambiguous. Could this story be true? Does it make sense? Active and engaging. Well, yes it was.

And for every child? It was clear to me that there was not a hair's worth of difference - if any - in intelligence, capability, and possibility between these "at risk" kids and the wealthiest kids in the nation, because we were not measuring parentally-granted capability.

See, it is not "rigor" that we need. Nor should we seek it. "Rigor" is a word which comes from our Reformation past, in which text was fixed and unchallengable, and the boundaries of what was worth learning were clearly described. You read the Bible, then McGuffey's readers, then your secondary textbook, and that was all there was worth knowing. Fixed, Rigid. 

Freedom to be.
If we are real educators we now know that our students need something else. Not more hours, but better used, and much more flexibly used time. Not seat time but imagination time. Not 20 page papers but the chance to explain our ideas to people who do not know our answers. Not reams of arithmetic problems to do but lots of ways of understanding the systems which make maths work. Not memorized formulas and dates but basic understanding of relationships and great search skills combined with powerful "crap detection" skills.

Flexible. Adaptive. Active. Communicative. Collaborative. Efficient.

There is literally a million times more to know in this universe today than when Barack Obama sat in his classrooms in Hawaii and in Djakarta. Literally. The universe is both much, much larger, and much, much smaller. We can, any day, look back billions of years in time, and we can watch neurons fire in the brain. We can speak with almost anyone on earth anytime, and we will probably have to work with everyone on earth at some point in some way.

"Rigor" was an idea for a fixed universe with a fixed set of knowledge. There is nothing in that word we need in our schools today. Except for an adolescent snicker or two.

- Ira Socol
next: It's not about 1:1


Anonymous said...

Wisdom is deep. Knowledge is knowledge, no matter how rigorous. :-)

Enjoyed your post.


Cristina Milos said...

In as much as I agree on the most points you make – namely, the insane testing and drilling, I have to question the example you provided.

The students were engaged, true, they explored expansively, true again, but…where is the application of thinking skills? To me that is quite obscure. Because aside from taking in information and moving from one link to another, no conceptual framework surrounded their activity, therefore the outcome is pretty much a surface exploration. Much of that information will remain just that – information, not internalized knowledge. No deeper questions were asked (How is it connected to…? How do we know..? How does it work? etc) so I am wondering whether the example is the best for the case you make.

I think that is an issue we all need to look at deeper because many a times “engagement” is actually plain busyness that does not lead to deeper understandings, connections with prior knowledge AND other disciplines, reframing own knowledge in more thought-provoking ways.

It is perhaps the reason why so many young people become just information seekers and revert to the tech tool at all times, or why 40% of the population has no clue what a “fossil fuel” is let alone give an example.

As a side note, although critical before you reply, I teach in a constructivist-based environment, I don’t test kids but very rarely, I don’t give homework and advocate for play in the elementary classroom.

Perhaps our definition of “intellectual rigor” is different.

@surreallyno on Twitter

irasocol said...

For Cri,

I think our definitions are different, at least as they apply to real life situations. First, I am not interested in intellectual stiffness, rigidity, or even some kind of described difficulty. I'm more interested in Rand Spiro's Cognitive Flexibility Theory which informs the changes occurring now in Medical Education. That is, we learn, and develop, by not adopting very rigid frameworks, but by learning to learn and adapt our frameworks radically as new information presents itself.

The students, I would argue, were constantly applying critical thinking skills appropriate for their beginning knowledge of a topic. The "University of Kentucky" point is a prime example of this, not accepting what simply "fit," but needing to mix in other, disparate, information. The questions of flying over the ocean, and airplanes in 1912 are the same, especially for children who've never imagined this kind of travel.

Plus, I think it is a serious mistake for educators to demand instant connections to other things. Those connections, in normal human behavior, come as they are demanded by our own needs, not as demanded by others for irrelevant reasons. So, as I suggested, the Quay at Southampton becomes a different kind of information when they dive into the Jamestown story next year.

- Ira Socol

rcohen54 said...

Thank you. I have often felt like a one man band with my back to school night presentations about the meanings and implications of rigor (which you so vigorously demonstrate here).

As your "lesson" so clearly points out, learning cannot be mapped before it actually happens.