Learning By Doing

Today was an awesome day at school as we finally brought in an outside expert related to one of the projects that a student is working on. Christian, who represents Mejor Santa Tere, came to discuss the amazing work he is doing in the neighborhood of Santa Tere.  As an anthropologist, I thought his methods were awesome and learned so much from just talking with him about how he “studied” the neighborhood.  To study the neighborhood, Christian had the children that lived there and take pictures of what they liked and disliked about the neighborhood.  In addition, he had the children go around and conduct interviews with people about why they thought their community park was important and want they would like from their community park.  After doing this and other work, Christian and his team analyzed the data and used it to design a community based program based on the needs of the neighborhood as researched by the students.  Everything about this project amazes me, from its grassroots nature to the dedicated work put in by the kids of the community.  My favorite part of the whole day was when Christian and I had to pull some students from class.  When I told Christian the students needed to finish taking notes before they could talk with him he laughed and said something to the effect of, “School, I forgot what it is like. After all of my studying to do well I realized I didn’t need to study, I just needed to learn from experience, to get out there and make my own mistakes.”  It was awesome to hear this as well as see how Christian was applying the sociological theory that he learned in college to a real grassroots effort right here in our own neighborhood. The best part is that my students are now learning from an expert, who learned from trial and error. I am no longer the only source of information and they have pulled themselves from the land of internet research to talk to experts on the ground who are active in the things they are passionate about!

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What is Rigor?

Rigor is a word we seen thrown around a lot in education, but very rarely defined.  Today a colleague of mine asked me if I had any articles on rigor that he could use to help him with a paper he was writing.  As we discussed the topic, we both realized that rigor might be the most often used but least defined word in education.  Many teachers make statements like, “we can’t lose the rigor of the curriculum to projects,” or “our school offers a rigorous education,” without actually defining rigor.  There has also been a lot of talk lately about making curriculum “rigorous and relevant.”  What is exactly is rigor though?

A quick dictionary reference provides three definitions:

“the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate.”

“severity or strictness.”

“demanding, difficult, or extreme conditions.”

After glancing at these definitions it became even more clear today that the idea of rigor and education is not clearly defined.  I feel like most of the time in education ” we often equate rigor with more.” The problem is that more often becomes simply more work and more of the same thing.  A rigorous math class is one that has come to be defined by having “lots of homework” with “lots of problems”, which are, in reality, just more of the same. Math is just one example, but there are many subjects that are considered rigorous based on the amount of information which must be memorized.  One program that instantly comes to mind is the Advanced Placement (AP) program. I use this as an example, because when the discussion of project based learning comes up, many times it is those that have to teach AP classes that are concerned about how they can possibly incorporate project based learning when they need to “get through all of the curriculum.”  In fact the AP has itself come under fire, as studies examine the real effect of AP type courses and others deem their courses a scam.

All of this seems beside the point though and loses sight of the original question of what is rigor? If it is not more of the same thing, what is it?  Raising this question may seem akin to Pirsig’s metaphysics of quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and in a way it is, as I think that rigor is a word that is not easily understood.  Luckily though, as we begin to talk about rigor in education there are some guideposts to provide some clarity.  In a paper by the International Center for Leadership in Education they develop a Rigor/Relevance framework that is useful for thinking about curriculum, instruction, and assessment. This framework, based on the work of Dr. Willard R. Daggett, provides a way of thinking about rigor on a Thinking Continuum and an Action Continuum.  Leaving out a lot of technical details, the point that stood out to me from all of this work is that we can no longer just expose students to a lot of “isolated bits of content specific knowledge” and call it rigorous.  Instead, we need to allow students the space to think on their own and apply knowledge so that content can be both rigorous and relevant.