We are preparing students for an unknown future—for filling jobs that don’t exist now, solving problems we can’t even imagine, and using technology that hasn’t been invented. Yet there is some concern schools aren’t preparing children adequately because they are not challenging them with rigorous academics.
Rigor—what does that mean anyway? What does it look like in a real classroom? Many teachers are scratching their heads and asking the same questions. We’ll explore the answers in this article.
Rigor—It’s Not That Complicated
Growing evidence suggest that children are capable of more than we thought and that academic rigor is one way to help close the achievement gap. But good luck trying to find consensus when you ask a group of teachers “What does rigor really mean?” Teachers may say it means adding more work—more problems to solve or more pages to read. Or longer work—15 minutes instead of 5. Or changing tests or teaching high-level students differently than low-level students. But that’s not the case.
Simply put, rigor describes school work, instruction, and learning experiences that are academically, intellectually, and personally challenging. It’s determined not just by what is taught, but how it is taught. Rigorous instruction helps children dive deeper into and understand complex concepts and how to apply them in their lives. It encourages students to contrast and compare, estimate and interpret, define and match, formulate and invent, assess and justify. Most importantly, it gets kids to think.
You’ll Know It When You See It
Teachers are often unsure if their lessons are rigorous. A simple self-assessment will help them decide. Does it involve critical thinking and problem-solving? Collaboration? Does it promote agility and adaptability and call for initiative and analysis? Is it based in curiosity and imagination? If so, the lesson passes the test.
What happens in classrooms is also important Walk into an early childhood, academically rigorous room and you’ll probably see children playing—nothing unusual about that. But look deeper and you may see evidence of rigor in action:
- Instead of reading a book out loud, children may be creating a script related to the topic or even a podcast.
- Instead of writing a story about “my favorite summer vacation,” children may be writing an opinion piece related to real-world issues.
- Instead of identifying shapes, students may be looking for shapes in the real world and even taking pics.
- Instead of collecting data from a graph, students may be asked to vote on “what shall we do in class today?” and then tally the result.
- Instead of working individually, students may be engaged in group investigations of a problem.
“It’s Too Hard!”
Some kids are bound to resist rigorous academics. Especially if the challenge is presented in a way that makes the work seem harder, require more effort, and be uncomfortable.
How to overcome their resistance? Teachers must become rigor advocates. They must change the way students feel about rigor by weaving positive messages about rigor into their day.
Push yourself just a little harder. Rigor is pushing beyond what easy. It’s knowing our individual limits and going a little further to get better at something. Teachers can explain to students how improving—in softball or bicycling or reading—is going to be a little uncomfortable. But that’s okay.
Go ahead and try even if you’re afraid. Trying something new can be scary. We could fail or be embarrassed. Other kids may laugh at us. Teachers not only need to provide more rigorous tasks or assignments, but also help children build the personal strength they need to go for it. Have an ongoing conversation about what it means to try, what’s the purpose of trying more difficult texts or math problems, and how other children do it.
Do it your way. Encourage experimentation, give children the freedom to find their own ways of accomplishing the more rigorous task, and have some fun. Getting too serious about rigor can frustrate students.
Teaching with rigor requires a shift in thinking and instruction. But it’s worth it. It will make a classroom more alive, more exciting, more engaging, and a lot more fun.
There is so much more to learn about rigor. To delve deeper into this timely area, check out SDE’s webinar Rigor! What’s It All About? (Grades K–2) by educator, author, and National Board Certified Sandi Reyes.