The Realities of Rigor

I have written before (here and here) about the benefits and consequences of increasing rigor in education, but it is time to revisit this issue as we near the end of first semester.  (For a fuller understanding of what exactly I mean by rigor, click here and here. Hint: It’s not more work.)  I wish increasing the rigor of the school curriculum was a smooth and easy process, but this is the real world, and it’s just not.  I will say this, in independent schools at least, parents play a huge role in how easy or how difficult the process ultimately is.  Parents can be a source of support and encouragement…or not.  There will be important consequences for students either way.

My friend and colleague, Leah Slawson, recently wrote a great post on the tradeoffs that come when students are involved in extracurricular activities. She wrote about how they can’t have it all all the time.  If they want to be involved in sports and the fine arts in addition to taking challenging courses, students may see crests and troughs in their grades or in their performance on the field or stage from time to time.  However, she argues in the end it’s all worth it.

That’s true of increasing rigor in a school’s curriculum and instruction as well.  There will inevitably be challenges, hardship, and possibly at times lower grades than parents and students are used to seeing.  In the end, it’s all worth it!  Through that struggle, students will grow, they will learn from their mistakes and failures, they will think and problem-solve more, and they will be able to deal with setbacks more effectively when they inevitably run into them in the future.  Don’t take my word for it; the research concurs.  (See books like David and Goliath by Gladwell or Mindset by Carol Dweck.)

I think this is especially true in the middle school years.  Middle school is a great time for students to be challenged as any setbacks they overcome will prepare them for the rigors of high school without the pressure of a high school transcript attached.  During middle school, students are changing in multiple ways and at a rapid pace, and allowing them to stretch themselves, allowing them to try new things without the constant pressure of maintaining all A’s is a good thing.  Students who make B’s and C’s or even an occasional D on an assignment or test will better understand what it takes to overcome that when they encounter the same thing in high school.  And please believe me, if we are doing our jobs as educators and truly challenging your students, from time to time, this will happen from 6th grade to 12th grade.

So it’s all worth it in the end…but whether we get to the end has a lot to do with parents.   It is so important for parents and teachers to work together with the ultimate goal of getting every student to reach his or her full potential, but reaching one’s full potential is never easy.  Parents sometimes don’t know how exactly to deal with perceived setbacks in their children’s lives and, acting out of the very best of intentions, they sometimes react in ways that may not be in the student’s best interest.  Sometimes such parents may think the answer is to pressure the school and the teachers to ease up.  At times, they do this quite persuasively.  Always remember, however, teachers are human.  It’s not surprising that teachers can only take so much of this pressure before deciding to take the path of least resistance and actually do what is definitely not in the best interest of the school or students and ease up.  As a result, the end may have been worth it, but unfortunately we didn’t get there.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying.  Most teachers want to partner with parents, and most are happy to sit down and discuss how to best help individual students through a challenging curriculum.  Parents have every right to ask questions.  When doing so, however, my hope is that two things occur.  First, I hope that they come to meetings with an open mind and that when given a thoughtful, reasonable, well-educated recommendation from a teacher, they will listen and truly partner with the teacher.  My second hope is that parents, teachers, and students keep in mind the end result of their actions and decisions.  Teachers can ease up and in the short term things will be “good,” but over the long term, things may not be so very good at all.  And if a student leaves school less prepared than we would all like, who all bears the burden of responsibility?

While this post has mostly been about parents, I have a message for teachers as well.  I feel for you.  I do.  My first year of teaching was rough.  I got a few emails and had a few conferences that are best forgotten.  Even so, I think I resisted the urge to ease up.  It wasn’t easy, and perhaps I haven’t always been consistent in that, but I think I’ve largely succeeded.  I did it by constantly reminding myself about the end goals, constantly reminding students about the end goals, and openly communicating with parents about the end goals.  I tried very hard not to be defensive with parents who came to me with questions, and instead maintain a consistency in my teaching, assessing, and communication.  As I’ve gotten more years under my belt, I have gained confidence and others have (I think) gained confidence in me.

Finally, as a teacher, I received support from my administration that helped me navigate through these challenges.  As an administrator and classroom teacher now, I want to support teachers in the same way. I want to pay it forward.  If you have administrators who are willing to help you have the difficult conversations with parents, take advantage of it.  Do not be afraid to challenge your students.

Thinking Your Way to the Wrong Answer?

Disclaimer: This post might not be one-hundred percent ready yet because I’m still thinking through some things, but writing sometimes helps me clarify what my questions actually are so here it goes anyway.

Have you ever asked a question, either in class or on a test, that you thought was a “gimme” question or a “softball” question only to have students miss it altogether?  Have you then ever asked them to explain why and how they missed the question only to listen to some very convoluted over-thinking on their part?  I used to think this was the student’s problem, but over the last month or so, I’m starting to think the student was actually doing everything right: thinking and thinking a lot.  The student was assuming that I was asking something deep, something complex, something worthy of their deep thinking.  In a way, I had failed them by not delivering.

I have a colleague who I respect deeply who recently gave a test built around essential questions.  The test was primarily a written test filled with higher-order, critical thinking questions.  This was the good, meaty kind of assessment we want all teachers to deliver.  She was unsure how the students would do, and while there were a handful that did not fare so well (as there would be on any test), she was “pleasantly surprised” by her students’ performance overall.  She reported that some students did better on the tougher thinking questions than they did on the easier fact-based questions.  If that’s not food for thought, I don’t know what is.

Some students, for whatever reason, will have difficulty remembering isolated facts, even when the teacher has gone over and over those facts in class.  Those same students, however, may be able to think their way through a challenging problem by using logic and reasoning or they may be able to answer more challenging questions about those facts when the facts are put in context.  If this is true, then we can’t hold back on the critical thinking questions because “they can’t even get the basics down.”  If this is true, then we need to create assignments and assessments that have at minimum an equal measure of lower- and higher-order thinking problems and questions.

This is true of writing as well.  Another colleague of mine insists that students learn grammar best by writing their own work rather than using textbook exercises.  Which one would most people say is more challenging: editing or diagramming a sentence from a textbook or writing a paragraph and deciding how to punctuate it correctly and make sure subjects and verbs agree with one another throughout the piece?  I would venture that most of us would say the latter involves more thinking on the part of the student, and yet, according to my colleague and all the research done over the last 2 decades on the way students learn grammar, students will actually learn and retain more of an understanding of grammar if they write and edit their own work.

And last but not least, there’s vocabulary, whether that vocabulary is related to science, history, math, or English.  Memorizing workbook and textbook definitions is not extremely difficult, but how many of our students will retain these kinds of memorized definitions for very long, if at all?  But the more a student uses a word, plays with the word, sees and reads the word in multiple contexts, the more likely he or she will be to remember it.  Having students contextualize the vocabulary in these ways appears more challenging on the surface, and yet the research again says it’s the only pathway to true and authentic learning of new words.

So could there be some questions so easy that our students think their way to the wrong answer?  And if that’s the case, what’s our responsibility as educators in this situation?