It’s a hard goal, but achievable if principals make sure their teachers follow these three critical guidelines. By Barbara R. Blackburn
Over the past few years, the concept of rigor has taken hold in education. Although it is typically used when referring to the Common Core or other state standards, it is also addressed in discussions about improving student performance.
One of the challenges is that rigor is a loaded word. Many teachers quote the dictionary definition (“extremely thorough”) as a reason not to implement rigorous instruction. But instructional rigor is not harsh or rigid. It is not assigning more homework or work that is not achievable.
Rather, instructional rigor focuses on student learning. In my book, Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word, I define rigor as “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” (2012).
There are three main components of instructional rigor. First, in a rigorous classroom, there are high expectations for students. We must expect all students to learn, not just the high-achievers. All students are capable of rigorous work including those at risk and with special needs. For example, Level Three (Strategic Learning) of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge requires that students be encouraged to explain, generalize, or connect ideas. All students can be taught to do this, beginning at the earliest grade levels. Some may struggle more than others, but all can learn how to explain their ideas and justify opinions.
When I work with principals, I ask them one simple question: “When you are observing teachers, do you look to see if the teacher is asking higher-order questions?” Unanimously, they respond positively. However, if a teacher asks a higher-order question but accepts a low-level response from a student, that is not rigorous. Teachers should probe and encourage students to expand on their answers, rather than answering for them or moving on to the next student.
Next, students are supported so they can achieve higher standards. They are not expected to learn without appropriate scaffolding. I regularly hear educators say, “But students should be able to do the harder work.” Rigorous work is challenging, and we should not expect students to simply jump to that higher level. Do you remember the first year you were a principal? Did you need help? If we need assistance with challenging experiences, why wouldn’t students?
Support and scaffolding can take several forms. Teachers might model expectations through thinking aloud or showing samples of student work. Chunking is an important part of all lessons. Providing graphic organizers so students can visualize what they are learning makes a difference. And, at times, students may need separate direct instruction in small groups. Both generalized and individualized support are important.
Finally, each student demonstrates learning at high levels. There are two aspects of this. First, each student demonstrates learning. Often, teachers lead a class discussion and periodically call on a student. When this happens, only a very few students get to demonstrate their understanding. In a rigorous classroom, the teacher shifts to providing opportunities for all students to show they have learned the information or concepts. Teachers can use thumbs-up/thumbs-down, exit slips, small dry-erase boards, clickers, iPads, or simple pair-shares to allow students to demonstrate their learning. Rigor demands that we know whether a student is making progress, and these formative assessments provide that opportunity.
Students also demonstrate learning at a high level. Too often, we are asking students low-level questions, or we give them work that requires basic recall skills. How often have you picked up a handout or worksheet from a teacher that was at the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy? Have you ever looked at a teacher’s rubric and noticed that it evaluates for completion of work rather than quality of work? It’s important that we push students to higher levels of learning, and that requires application, transfer of learning, and deeper thinking.
Ultimately, rigor is about students learning at higher and higher levels. Rigor is never-ending since there is always room for growth. Isn’t that exactly what we want for all of our students?
Dr. Barbara Blackburn is the author of 15 books, including Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders. She regularly provides professional development to leaders and teachers on motivation, rigor, and leadership.
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