Thursday, January 28, 2016

Redefining Rigor

“Demanding, difficult.” “Thorough, exhaustive, accurate.” “Strictness, severity.” All are modern definitions of “rigor" I found in various dictionaries. And I also found one particularly troubling  synonym: "misery.”

Lots of parents are looking for an “academically rigorous” school experience for their child. But I know no parent who want their kids anywhere near an “academically miserable” school.

So let’s take that word and reframe it. It’s good for kids to experience discipline, thoroughness, and challenge. But the best schools present rigorous experiences that are also deeply thoughtful, mind-expanding and exciting.

Which of these rigorous experiences do you want for your child?

Do you want plodding, closed-ended, multiple choice bubble tests with only one right answer? Or assessments that require students to analyze real-life situations and dilemmas that have more than one answer?

Do you want kids to have mountains of repetitive homework that robs them of family time and sleep? Or do you want homework that is meaningful and reasonable—like reading or practicing a modest number of math problems?

Do you want kids to memorize facts that will soon be forgotten? Or do you want them to learn how to find facts for themselves and use them in an authentic way?

A few years ago, teachers at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, a school widely regarded as the pinnacle of traditional rigor, conducted a powerful experiment. At the end of the academic year, the teachers administered highly traditional science tests to high schoolers. The tests were replete with facts and formulas that required significant memorization. Lawrenceville students being high achievers, it was not surprising that the average grade was 87%. In the fall of the following school year, the teachers, without prior notice, administered a nearly identical (and even simplified) test to the same group of students. The average grade? 58%. You read correctly. Students retained virtually nothing over the summer. What, then, was the value of what they had “learned?” This experiment set Lawrenceville on a new path of designing cognitively rich and meaningful experiences for its students.

The rigor of today is not what it used to be. It still implies hard work, discipline, and completeness. But it also means that students engage meaningfully, cognitively, and authentically in learning experiences.

And it certainly doesn’t have to mean misery.