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Written by Rob Terry
Imagine a teacher receives a pacing guide at the beginning of the year. The expectation? She and her students are to run 1800 miles over the course of the 180-day school year. Put yourself in our imaginary teacher’s laced up running shoes: it is the beginning of day one, and you are ready to go, map in hand. Now to you, ten miles a day doesn’t seem too unrealistic; after all, you spent four years in college as a varsity cross-country runner.
However, as you take a good hard look at the 29 students that will be joining you on this 1800-mile jaunt, you begin to have your doubts—one is on crutches, six haven’t tied their shoes, one is bare footed, and several have already taken a seat and don’t appear as if they’ll be moving anytime soon. Unlike you, these students don’t even know how to prepare for the journey ahead. After a few minutes of silent contemplation you realize that they certainly won’t get anywhere without someone in the lead, so off you trot.
The first couple of miles breeze by as two of your students run ahead, and a reasonable sized pack surrounds you. As runners begin to drop off, you remind them to use the buddy system and tell them that you’ll see them at the finish for the day. Days become weeks which merge into months, and before you know it Thanksgiving Break is upon you. You’ve covered about 600 miles, so if you started in Boston and headed southeast, you will be feasting on turkey somewhere near Trenton, NJ. However, the tightly contained group that you had on day one is likely now spread across the entirety of the route.
As you sit down to plan for Thanksgiving, the first significant scheduled break in your training plan, you are plagued by questions: How many students will make it for dinner? Will any of these kids ever want to run again by the end of the year? Is this safe? Chances are you don’t like the answers. Of course the safety implications of this scenario make it an unrealistic one, and the physical dangers of a contained classroom pose nowhere near such a threat. However, they share a worrisome detail. Imagine if we could watch our students literally drop out of sight, one by one, just as our fatigued runners did, as they got confused or overwhelmed in the classroom?
When a student’s physical safety is at risk, people (administrators, parents, and teachers) pay attention. However, when an unrealistic pacing guide, rife with misplaced rigor, has put the intellectual safety of children at risk, many educators will soldier on, sometimes blaming the very children who are suffering. These children are hastily labeled as lazy, unwilling or incapable, and too often we arrive in June at the end of our textbooks just as the teacher in our imagined running scenario likely would—alone.
Discussions of rigor figure prominently in American education today, but frequently rigor is mistakenly taken to mean an increase in volume. By this standard AP courses are some of the most rigorous offered. Consider AP US History: it begins with colonization and ties things up around 2005—giving teachers 180 days to cover somewhere in the neighborhood of 146,000 days of US History. This averages out to approximately 2.2 years per class period. If these years were distributed evenly, students would have two days (ninety minutes) to learn about the Civil War, three days (135 minutes) to learn about World War Two, and one day (45 minutes) for the Watergate Scandal, from break-in to Nixon’s resignation (provided, of course, that nothing else of importance happened in the US between June 17, 1972 and August 9, 1974—such as the withdrawal of US troops from Viet Nam).
The pedagogical error in assuming volume for rigor involves a misuse of Bloom’s Taxonomy, in which the focus here is almost exclusively on the skills at the base of Bloom’s triangle: remembering, understanding, describing, and explaining. As this happens, the course develops a one-size-fit-all schedule that is often articulated by a pacing guide, dictated at the building or district level. These pacing guides generally appear in the form of a calendar that indicates for teachers where they need to be on any given day in the course.
The “they” in this scenario ultimately becomes the teacher and the textbook, as it is impossible to create a standardized, down-to-the-minute curriculum that works for a diverse population of learners across a district, especially when what makes the course rigorous is the large number of topics covered on a weekly, even daily, basis.
Recognizing that the ultimate goals of increased rigor (higher standards and student achievement) are noble ones, a potential solution to the volume conundrum lies in reimagining the relationship between rigor and Bloom’s Taxonomy. Instead of making courses more rigorous by increasing the volume of topics students are responsible for remembering, understanding, describing, and explaining, the number of topics could be reduced and rigor could instead ascend the triangle by pushing students to apply, analyze, evaluate, and create. In other words, students should be expected to go deeper in their work.
Rather than expecting students to simply set foot in every east coast city, our imaginary running tour might be shortened to the northeast, and allow students time to stop, explore, and learn about their new surroundings. Back in the classroom, instead of strictly moving chronologically, our AP history students could explore America at war by examining separate conflicts in small groups and then teaching their classmates about the war that they researched (focusing on knowledge, comprehension, and chronology). Following this, students could re-form into groups with members representing each of the conflicts researched—in these groups students could distinguish similarities and differences, debate key points, etc. (focusing here on analysis). Finally, students could be tasked with individually writing an essay (producing a digital story, writing and performing a play, etc.) in which they evaluate the current armed conflicts that America is involved in, and make predictions about the impact that they will have on the US, based on the knowledge they have gained through the aforementioned process.
Taking this approach to instruction comes packaged with a host of benefits. As a result of the increased time dedicated to select topics, teachers have greater opportunity to differentiate instruction by providing additional support to students who are not yet ready to ascend to the higher-order activities. For example, students who have a difficult time distinguishing similarities and differences between the conflicts examined can be regrouped to receive support directly from the teacher to ensure that they are ready to work through the process of evaluating modern US foreign policy. Additionally, due to the increased depth, students would experience the type of meaningful work that stimulates true engagement. But the type of instruction described here is not unheard of; many American educators have taken this approach on their own, and other countries have made it their instructional standard.
According to Dr. William H. Schmidt, professor of Education at the University of Michigan and coordinator of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, an average eighth-grade math textbook in the US covers about 35 topics, whereas the Japanese or German equivalent would have only five or six. Programs such as these deemphasize topics less relevant in the digital age such as Roman numerals, fractions, and long division, thus freeing up time for students to focus on how to use math not simply how to do math. In these examples and their domestic equivalents, true rigor can be found. These systems promote not only comprehension, but also application. As we work to prepare students for the 21st century world that they will inhabit, a world in which immediate access to knowledge will be unpatrolled and anything that can be determined using an algorithm will likely be automated, it is critical that we increase our rigor by teaching students how to use the facts, concepts, and procedures that they are learning in our classrooms.
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