Two Aspects of Rigor
In working with middle schools and high schools across the country, I have spent a huge amount of time focused on the concept of academic rigor. Having read every imaginable definition of “Rigor” I still find myself drawn to Barbara Blackburn’s as, perhaps, the gold standard: “Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so that he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels.” Again, I like this three-fold approach definition of rigor and invoke it often when working with teachers and school leaders on what I deem as “traditional” rigor. Directly related to this powerful definition of rigor is something I refer to as a “Rigorous Learning Environment” and I consider it a second critical aspect of “Rigor” and directly related to the first prong of Barbara’s three-prong definition. Before students can think, learn, and perform at high levels, we must establish and maintain rigorous learning environments in which our expectations are clearly communicated and consistently upheld.
So, how do we define, recognize, and encourage such Rigorous Learning Environments? Throughout this school year, I have led teams of teachers and administrators at several schools on hundreds of team observations designed to gauge levels of rigor and engagement. I often refer to these as “CORE Walks” (Collaborative Observations of Rigor and Engagement). Although our main goal as we debrief the day is to simply describe what we observed, noting areas of celebration and perhaps next levels of work, we have also designed a form intended to elicit more quantitative data. One category on the form we use asks the observers to gauge this idea of a rigorous learning environment, meaning: Are all students held accountable for work and behavior? Is the teacher calling on all students, not just volunteers? Are all students actively participating in the learning? Is there a well-paced sequence of learning activities? Do students know what is expected, what to attend to, and why? Are there clear routines and procedures in place for maximizing time? We usually ask observers on the team to assign a number, estimating the percentage of students focused on the learning and the percentage of time well used. At the end of the day, we are often pleasantly surprised at the high percentages we have recorded and this also leads quite often to a discussion of what we are looking for in this critical area.
Last fall, PARADE magazine published a very brief interview with Bill Gates, in which he was asked what he had learned about great teaching. He offered two very simple questions, the answers to which he suggests will impact how much learning occurs in a classroom. Although his questions received a mixed reception from many of my Twitter friends, I maintain that both questions relate to my “two aspects of rigor”: (1) Does your teacher use class time well? (2) When you’re confused, does your teacher help you get straightened out? The latter question relates to the second prong of Barbara’s rigor definition (support) and the former relates to the first (expectations). We must continue to design lessons which engage our students in active learning which requires them—not just us—to do much of the work and the thinking. However, through our observations we have found that this type of student-centered learning requires a well managed and rigorous learning environment. Effective teachers know this and plan lessons that are tightly organized and well-paced even though they have released the responsibility for learning to their students. How do you establish a rigorous learning environment in your classroom?
Dr. Jeff Zoul is a school improvement consultant with the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) in Atlanta, Georgia. Prior to serving in this capacity, Dr. Zoul served as principal at two award-winning schools, Edgewood Middle School, in Highland Park, Illinois, and Otwell Middle School in Forsyth County, Georgia. In addition to his work as a principal, Dr. Zoul has served as a teacher, coach, and assistant principal at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Click here for his website.