Saturday, April 12, 2014

Work Smarter Not Harder: Rigor Reimagined

The age old American vision of academics is fairly vivid in most of our heads. Student in a quiet library, with her nose in the books, meticulously writing notes for hours. A student pulling an "all nighter" reading their textbook and studying flashcards a three in the morning. I know that there were times in college for me, that were spent exactly this way. However, somewhere along the way, these images became what American society has used to measure how rigorous or challenging learning is at a school. Don't get me wrong, reading books by insightful and highly qualified authors is an important practice that I make sure to engage in on a regular basis. But is that age old college study session, what we should be using to gauge what learning looks like?

I was a history major in college. I read so many books during that time, that I think I acquired an addiction through the process. I spent time pouring over these books so that I could retain the information necessary to pass a written test or write a paper on my findings. I sat through hours of lecture from some incredibly knowledgeable professors. However, when I think about the elements of my education that have lasted long term, it has nothing to do with any of this. I remember the subjects I was most interested in. I remember my senior paper that I spent three months working on. I remember, when I had to present in front of a class of critics. I remember group work that required me to communicate and collaborate with people outside of my comfort zone. But most of all, I have retained and understood the most after teaching. After designing lesson plans, collaborating with peers, engaging with students, designing guides to help them in project creation, I feel I have learned more about history than ever.

We have to move beyond this idea that students need piles of homework in order to call their learning experience rigorous. If a student is passively sitting in class taking notes, or filling out a worksheet or something that is not challenging them on an intellectual level, this process is not rigorous no matter how much homework you give. What if we required our students to provide their own thoughts? What if we forced them to work with others, design projects that pushed them to their creative limits, and developed courses that forced them to step outside of the "old school" comfort zone. That is rigorous.

We recently had a student complete his Senior Legacy Experience through music. He is a motivated up and coming musician. So he chose to put on the full version of Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon." He had to promote the event online and in person, he had to recruit several different musicians (if you have heard the album you know how diverse that is), he had to plan and execute rehearsal, he had to keep track of ticket sales, and he brought in professional lighting equipment personnel to make it happen. It was a huge success. Now, can you tell me that it is more rigorous to write a five page essay about Pink Floyd or do what this student did. This is a rhetorical question. Our students want to be challenged intellectually and creatively.

We need to move away from this idea that homework drill and kill is rigorous. The truth is, the Dark Side of the Moon, student will be successful no matter if he is in college, working or pursuing a music career. Because he has been inspired and he has completed meaningful work. We are in a world where communication, collaboration, adaptability, quick response, and technology skills are the keys to success. We need to create these environments in our classroom rather forcing them into piles of work that are not significant to anyone but the teacher. We need to rethink what rigor means to us in education. Leading is Teaching.

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