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Designing a guaranteed, viable curriculum, one that allows teachers and students to focus on depth and avoid the consequences of breadth, is not enough. Engaging students in their learning through active learning strategies, so that students are doing more of the thinking, talking, and doing, is not enough. And, ensuring that curriculum represents a balance of content, concepts, and skills, so that students can apply and makes sense of the content knowledge that they acquire is not enough.

It’s common sense: We must also ensure that the tasks with which students are engaged are rigorous. Understanding what rigor is and isn’t, and providing rigorous learning experiences for all students, will deepen learning, help make learning relevant, and better prepare students for college, skilled careers, and life.

We could not do our work as educators without curricular resources, and textbooks have been our most common resource. Unfortunately, the majority of tasks within too many textbooks are low-level, rote, and one-step. Even when textbooks promise to have more rigorous tasks (often at the end of the lesson), they are, in fact, simplistic problems is disguise or they are not assigned.

As Marcia Tate notes, worksheets don’t grow dendrites (Tate, 2016). While the detrimental effects of an over-reliance on worksheets is certainly related to what students are asked to do with them, too many worksheets require students to fill in blanks and solve procedural problems.

And far too often, we believe that we are increasing rigor by assigning more problems, or longer readings, or longer writing assignments, or problems with bigger numbers. We believe that we are increasing rigor by requiring more.

In the previous chapter, I noted educators have focused on content over skills by backwards planning from earlier generations of high-stakes assessments, which favored lower levels of understanding. The same situation occurs in respect to the quality of tasks. While the quality of high-stakes assessments has shifted, too many educator-created or textbook-provided assessments continue to focus on simplistic tasks. When teachers backwards plan from assessments like these, tasks too often lack rigor.

Lastly, it takes more time to facilitate the completion of rigorous tasks and the completion of rigorous tasks will undoubtedly involve productive struggle and healthy frustration. As long as mindsets remain fixed and learning is equated with points, percentages, and grades, there will be a reluctance from students, educators, and parents to engage in more rigorous learning.

We must increase the quality of the task with which we ask students to engage. There are several common sense ways of doing this.

On the topic of rigor, boy, do we have a wealth of best practice and guidance upon which to draw.

To start, the seven principles which comprise the instructional core, described in Chapter 1 of Instructional Rounds in Education by Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sarah Fiarman, and Lee Teitel (2009) are amongst the most important, and common sense, sets of ideals that ought­ to be guiding our work. Principle four is, “The task predicts performance”:

What determines what students know and are able to do is not what the curriculum says they are supposed to do, or even what the teacher thinks he or she is asking students to do. What predicts performance is what students are actually doing. Memorization tasks produce fluency in memorization and recall, not necessarily understanding. Memorizing the elements of the periodic table is not the same as understanding the properties of the elements. The single biggest observational discipline we have to teach people in our networks is to look on top of the students’ desks rather than at the teacher in front of the room. The only way to find out what students are actually doing is to observe what they are doing – not, unfortunately, to ask teachers what students have done after the fact or to look at the results of student work after they have engaged in the task” (p. 30).

If we want student learning to improve, then the nature of the tasks that we assign to students must improve.

Barbara Blackburn, author of Rigor in Your Classroom (2014), defines both what rigor isn’t…

  • Lots of homework
  • Additional items to solve
  • Only for some
  • Possible if scaffolds and supports are provided
  • Possible only with the right resources

…and what rigor is…

  • Transferring understanding to new contexts
  • Synthesizing multiple sources
  • Employing multiple complex steps
  • Approaching tasks from divergent perspectives

Rigorous, complex tasks are for all students and these tasks involve multiple contexts, sources, steps, and perspectives.

Sandra Kaplan and colleagues (1995) created icons of depth and complexity to represent rigor. The icons of depth are:

  • Using the language of the discipline
  • Discovering the big idea
  • Determining the essential details
  • Identifying rules, patterns, and trends
  • Proposing unanswered questions
  • Investigating ethics.

Complexity:

  • Describing change over time
  • Approaching solutions from multiple points of view
  • Making connections across the disciplines.

Tasks to which Kaplan’s icons are added ask students to go deeper and think more complexly; they make a task more rigorous.

Finally, Art Costa and Bena Kallick’s habits of mind (2000) can be infused into student experiences to increase rigor or will be present within tasks that are rigorous. Costa and Kaplan found that rigorous tasks require students to:

  • Persist and manage impulsivity
  • Communicate with clarity, accuracy, and precision
  • Gather data through all senses
  • Listen with empathy
  • Create, imagine, and innovate
  • Think flexibly and interpedently
  • Respond with wonderment and awe
  • Think about thinking
  • Take intellectual risks
  • Find humor
  • Question and pose problems
  • Apply past knowledge to new situations
  • Remain open to continuous learning

Like Kaplan, Costa and Kallick note that rigor is not asking students to do more work; rigor requires students to do more with the work.

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