Sunday, April 13, 2014

Notice & Note- Rigor

I have been reading Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst's book, Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, and the chapter on rigor has me thinking. They describe rigor as "not an attribute of a text, but rather a characteristic of our behavior with the text. Put another way, rigor resides in the energy and attention given to the text, not the text itself" (p. 21). This is counter to how I usually see rigor used.

The inclusion of the term rigor in the CCSS documents has led to a tidal wave of publications regarding rigor and debate among professionals about what it really means. Without the standards committee defining the term, we are left to define it ourselves.The Common Core standards criteria document describe the standards as being "inclusive of rigorous content and applications of knowledge through higher-order skills, so that all students are prepared for the 21st century." This description seems to balance both the content and the stuff students do with it as requiring rigor. defines rigor as:
  1. strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people.
  2. the full or extreme severity of laws, rules, etc.
  3. severity of living conditions; hardship; austerity: the rigor of wartime existence. 
  4. a severe or harsh act, circumstance, etc.
  5. scrupulous or inflexible accuracy or adherence: the logical rigor of mathematics.
The final description of rigor here seems to meet the intent of CCSS authors. Accuracy not challenge seems to be the goal. If we look at the other definitions, however, we see some ways that rigor is being used in classrooms- severe and harsh readings and an austerity of scaffolding and support. I do not think the authors meant to have the word take on the negative connotations of rigor when regarding education, but maybe they did. Is their intent that education be some expedition to the south pole, fraught with dangers-- such as, failing grades and tests, exceedingly slow examination of texts, elimination of the enjoyable and fun reading of fiction, and hours of homework for young elementary students? I do not think that was their intent, but it does seem to be a side-effect of how it is being implemented.
The authors describe an English teacher who selected the most difficult reading Beowulf she could find, purely because it was difficult and inaccessible. We can predict what students did- some gave up before they started; some puzzled through the Old English vocabulary, merely focused on trying to understand the verbiage; some went home to online cliff notes and were able to work with the material as a result of knowing the summary and some other author's interpretation of the material. Did any of them engage in rigorous learning? Probably not. Difficult for the sake of difficult is not good. If we do not get kids to engage in the higher-order skills because they cannot get through the text, they are not engaging in rigor. If we send them to seek out easier sources with the higher-order thinking presented to them, they are not meeting our goal either.
Somehow we need to get students to engage in the thinking piece. This means that higher reading levels may not be the answer. In some ways the standards acknowledge this when they suggest multiple media sources as important. After all reading a full page magazine ad and identifying bias does not require complicated or advanced "reading" per se. While there is a time and a place for presenting challenging reading material to students, we need to balance that with their ability to apply higher-order skills to the material. I think that we have forgotten this in our application of the concept of rigor. Although I do believe learning how to puzzle through a difficult text is important- not a higher order skill, but an important one nevertheless, we also need for them to think deeply about accessible texts as well. There remains a place for Dr. Seuss' Butter Battle Book in a high school class covering the Cold War. Understanding the parallels Seuss draws and his criticism of the time period are higher-order skills, but on accessible and enjoyable reading. We need to ensure that students deal with this type of assignment as well as being able to read Regan's "Tear Down this Wall" speech and understand the cultural and foreign policy ramifications of it.
Is our behavior with the material the critical component of rigor? I think that without thinking deeply about the material we merely engage in hard work. It does not take great thought to move a pile of rocks with a shovel and a wheel barrow, but it does require lots of sweat. Is this rigorous work when one could use the loader sitting idly nearby? Or is it merely cruelty, inflicting unnecessarily hard work on a person just because we can? We need to carefully examine each "rigorous" text we use and determine if the students will be spending their energy purely on the reading rather than on the thinking.

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