Teaching your students to think critically, learn at a high level, and communicate their understanding of the subject is what rigor is all about.

Even though at first glance the term “rigor” seems to stand for rigid or harsh, with lots of homework followed by in-depth testing the only way to meet the standards for more rigor, a second look gives a clearer picture.

What Rigor Is – and Isn’t

rigorBarbara R. Blackburn, author of “The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Rigor,” defines 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.” Perhaps, most importantly, she puts the focus of rigor on teaching, not just giving more assignments and homework.

Why It’s Difficult to Achieve Rigor

Teachers are now challenged to meet this new high standard of rigor by working together with other teachers to give their students the instruction they need to learn lifelong skills. A study done by Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, included interviews with several hundred business and education leaders. “Everyone stressed the importance of critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration,” he reported. He found no one who reported not knowing enough was the problem.

The difficulty of achieving rigor lies in challenging students to think in new ways. Your teaching approach should also lead them to a better and deeper understanding of basics and how to apply that understanding in new and engaging ways. David Foster Wallace, a 20th-century novelist, taught English at Illinois State University in 1994. Although his required reading focused on popular fiction, his goal was to teach his students to “read fiction more deeply, to come up with more interesting insights on how pieces of fiction work, to have informed intelligent reasons for liking or disliking a piece of fiction, and to write – clearly, persuasively, and above all interestingly – about stuff you’ve read.” All educators can probably agree that this is what we want for our students in relation to our own subject matter, but how do we get there?

How to Bring Rigor to Your Classroom

rigorThe use of questions is one way to get students to think on a higher level. Open-ended questions as set forth at the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy are key to rigor instruction. A question is just the beginning. Blackburn advises teachers not to accept “low-level” responses from students in answer to their higher-level questions. She suggests asking another and another to get the student to really think about the subject matter and help to guide them to a “higher level answer” instead of just accepting a simple response.

Just making a subject difficult does not make it rigorous. Educational experts agree that busy work such as worksheets or multiple-choice tests are not rigorous. Instead it is a lesson that encourages students to take the facts presented, learn how to connect them to other situations or problems, support their ideas, and use their curiosity to ask questions or do further research to take that learning to the next level.

An Example of Rigor

An example of such a lesson observed by Wagner while conducting his research occurred in an Algebra II class. The teacher wrote a problem on the board and told the students it was a problem that they had not seen before. But he encouraged groups of four students to solve it using geometry and algebra concepts in at least two different ways. He advised that once they were done, he would choose someone from each group to write the proof on the board and to explain how the group got the answer. When students asked questions of the teacher, he responded with a question, asking why they made an assumption, or if they had considered something else, or asked someone else in their group.

rigorThis lesson challenged the math students to put their problem-solving skills to work and forced them to think how to apply their knowledge of geometry and algebra to this problem. They had to go the extra step to find two solutions to the problem and the communicate the process they used. The teacher forced them to think, and to work as a team to succeed.

Today’s high school students must be prepared for the work force or for college. ┬áTeachers are challenged to use rigor to make their classrooms the place where that learning takes place.

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