Friday, December 11, 2015

Rigor and Standards-Based Learning

Last week a teacher from another school told us she philosophically agreed with SBL for regular kids, but that for the “high-flyers,” it just doesn’t work. She said that SBL means you have to cover less content, so those upper level kids can’t be challenged like they are in the traditional system. She went on to say that it was her responsibility to prepare students for competitive colleges, and she just couldn’t be rigorous if she had to teach to the same standards for all kids.

Ok. So there are clearly some real misunderstandings here about SBL. Let’s be clear right off the bat: standards-based instruction and assessment does not guarantee rigor, just as traditional instruction and assessment does not guarantee rigor. Rigor comes from our expectations and our ability as teachers to know our students well enough to determine appropriate challenge levels. Ensuring rigor requires understanding learning and the brain, knowing our content well enough to be able to add or subtract complexity, and recognizing the difference between difficulty and complexity.

Understanding Learning and the Brain:

Rigor requires understanding about learning. New learning occurs when learners work within their Zones of Proximal Development. This is that area between “I got this” and “This is too hard,” the Yellow Zone as we refer to it in our school. Learning is challenging in this zone, but possible; students can feel their brains engaging and neither coast through nor give up. It should come as no surprise to teachers that student ZPDs are not all the same. Even within tracked classes (from remedial to AP) there are incredible variations based on the precise skills being addressed. Because of the variation in our learners (which, though inconvenient, is a fact), we have to have a way of figuring out each student’s ZPD for each skill. Yes. We know there are a lot of students. But if our goal is to provide rigor for all, then we need to determine what is rigorous for each.

Knowing our Content:

Rigor requires deep content knowledge. If you think of learning as a road trip, with our goals (targets, standards, outcomes) as the destination, then our content is the actual map. We use the content to get to the destination. The more we know about our content, the more detailed the map can be. The more detailed the map, the more options we have to shift the complexity of the trip itself. Some of our students will get stuck partway to the destination, some will get lost, some will struggle leaving the garage in the first place, and some will be well on the way to the destination before we even begin. The better we know our maps, the better able we are to raise or lower the complexity of the journey for individuals so that all students can be both successful and challenged. From a student perspective, the more content they learn along the way, the more interesting and meaningful (and ultimately memorable) the trip to the destination will be.

(And here’s another note on content, since one of the biggest misconceptions about SBL is that content isn’t important. Content is vital. Without content, there’s no map. There’s no scenery. There are no roads or bridges or signs or rest stops or World’s Biggest Balls of String. Without content, the cars won’t leave the driveways.)

Recognizing the Difference between Difficulty and Complexity:

Rigor is about complexity, not difficulty. Here are some examples to illustrate. A student has a 3 page reading to do. To make this more difficult, we could do a variety of things, including adding more pages, leaving out every 5th word, making the font tiny, or requiring that the student do the reading while upside down. These are silly, yes, but they all would make the task harder to do, right? But do they add complexity? No. Years ago in our team taught humanities class, we attempted to challenge some of our stronger readers by asking them to read two novels instead of one; we asked them to write eight pages instead of six; we gave more homework. All of these increased the difficulty without increasing complexity.

If we are trying to judge rigor, we should be looking at the quality of the thinking demonstrated by students in that class, not at the amount of work assigned or the hours of homework. 

Are students regularly expected (and taught to) think at Bloom’s highest levels (ALL students)? During the class itself, what type of activities are the students engaged in? Are they thinking? Grappling? Struggling? Or are they sitting and listening? Are they working with the content, using it, testing it, questioning it? Or are they passively receiving it?

Rigor is about complexity, not difficulty. We should be attempting to raise the former for all students, not settling for the easier task of increasing difficulty.

So is an SBL class more rigorous? Not on its own. But, the conditions above are much more easily met within a standards-based system than they are in a traditional system.  In a standards-based class, students and teachers know the destinations. And when those destinations are skill-based rather than content-based (reminder: see above note on how important content is!), teachers and students have much more flexibility to ratchet complexity up or down throughout the learning experience. Does this ensure rigor? Of course not. We, the teachers, are ultimately in control of that, and if we don’t know our learners well or hold them to high enough standards, that’s on us, not on a system of learning.


  1. This is a great discussion of rigor in terms of complexity. Thank you! I would also have added an equally important component of "autonomy." Rigor is that equal blend of complexity and autonomy... students should be able to INDEPENDENTLY perform at the complexity level expected (via learning goal, standard, etc.). It's a piece that I feel educators often take for granted or "assume" to be a part of "rigorous instruction/learning," but explicitly and intentionally planning for and executing instruction, curriculum, and assessment with both complexity AND autonomy is the true and complete goal of rigorous learning environments.

    Thanks for the great article! Keep them coming! Love hearing what our (Maine's) neighbors are doing to push the edu-envelope!!!

    1. Thanks, Matt, this is a great addition. I like the word autonomy rather than independence because it implies a level of motivation and engagement beyond just being able to perform on one's own.

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