Sunday, January 7, 2007

Redefining Rigor

In 1998, after having spent 30-something years as a teacher in the Canton, MA public schools, I moved back to Hawaii, where I had lived and taught for two years fresh out of college. At the time of the move, I did not yet have a job, but I had an application in at Punahou. When I arrived I went to the administration offices to let the secretary know that I was on the island and available for an interview. In one of those semi-random life-defining moments, about 20 minutes after I left Harry Grzelewski, the English department head at that time, went to the office and asked the secretary if there were any new applicants, because a position had just opened up. She said, "Well, this guy was just here..." Harry called me up that afternoon, I had my interview the next morning.

Toward the end of the interview, Harry asked me if I had any questions for him. So I asked him what the current dialogue on campus was about, what issues were in the air. He didn't hesitate. "Rigor," he said. "There are some people who feel that we need to make our courses more rigorous, and there are some people who don't like the word at all."

In the first few years I was at Punahou I came to understand what he was talking about. It turned out that there were at that time a line drawn right down the middle of the campus, and people on one side of the line tended to view those on the other with with skepticism, with mistrust, or, at worst, with outright disdain. Those who argued for "more rigor" objected to touchy-feely exercises like group work and individual projects and anything that smacked of student choice. Those who argued for student empowerment and process goals viewed "rigor" as a code word for teacher-directed information cramming.

The tenor of the discussion on campus has changed over the years. A lot of the people who were the most vigorously opposed to one another have either softened their stances or left the school in search of more congenial surroundings. The school has put a lot of time and energy into fostering dialogue and creating support systems for teachers to understand and improve their own practices and to appreciate what others are doing. But the issue of rigor is still with us, and we're still trying to figure out how to create an environment which is both rigorous and supportive.

As part of this ongoing dialogue, next week Tony Wagner , who is the co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard, will be visiting my school to help us work on developing a framework within which teachers can give one another useful feedback about their teaching practices. Wagner was here for one day last year, speaking to several groups on campus on the subject of redefining rigor. In his essay "Rigor on Trial," he talks about working with a group of teachers in Hawaii to develop practices around what he calls the "New 3 R's": Rigor, Relevance, and Respectful Relationships. He says that as the group conducted their discussions, they "began to realize that rigor has less to do with how demanding the material is that the teacher covers than with what competencies students have mastered as a result of the lesson."

He offers this example:
Imagine, for a moment, that you were accused of a serious crime that you did not commit, and you were on trial for your life. How confident would you be of getting a fair trial if the members of your jury had merely met the intellectual standards of our "college-prep" courses as they exist today? Certainly they would know how to memorize information and perform on multiple choice and short answer tests. But would your jurors know how to analyze an argument, weigh evidence, recognize bias (their own and others), distinguish fact from opinion, and be able to balance the sometimes competing principles of justice and mercy? Could they listen with both a critical mind and a compassionate heart and communicate clearly what they understand? Would they know how to work with others to seek the truth?
I really liked that redefinition of rigor when I first heard it last year, and it has stuck with me since. I've written before about what I see as the primary importance of process goals like the ones Wagner describes.

Two years ago I was sitting at lunch with a teacher known for the rigorousness of his curriculum. We were talking about a proposal which had been floated to have the students take their midterm exams before the Christmas break. (Usually we come back from break, have one week of classes, and then exams.) This teacher was adamantly opposed to the change, on the grounds that "By the time the second semester starts they will have forgotten everything they've learned." Aye, and there's the rub. If that's what we're defining as rigor - the ability to memorize stuff, spit it out on an exam, and then forget it in less than a month: well, to borrow the caption from the old cartoon: I say it's spinach, and I say to hell with it.

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