Tuesday, June 26, 2018


A slide popped up on my twitter feed that attempts to explain that mysterious quality-- rigor-- using terminology I've seen before.

Rigor is not more work or harder books or AP course. On the defining rigor side, the slide offered that rigor is "scaffolding thinking" and "planning for thinking" and a few other bullet points all highlighting the word "thinking."

I agree in principle. What teachers hope for from students is some serious, deep, heavy-duty thinking. And if all teachers had psychic powers or at least some useful teach like a teenager tuned cerebro, we'd be all set and ready to go.

Yeah, let's not talk about the phallic symbolism right now

But of course the bigger problem is not getting students to think (though lord knows that is a challenge on its own) but to somehow determine whether or not such thinking is going on.

This is one of the challenges of a classroom teacher-- how to build a mountain that only a person who had done some serious thinking could get over.

We know lots of things that don't work. If you have ever dealt with Study Island or its ilk, you know that students who can solve the problems can still be frustrated because they don't express the solution the way the canned computer program wants them to. Their thinking is steered away from asking "What's the solution to this problem" and instead toward "What does the program want me to say."

Some folks talk about test prep like it is memorizing a bunch of facts and figures, but these days, test prep is really about learning to think like the test manufacturers. Here are the kind of distractors they like to use for fake answers. When they use this word, it means they want this kind of response. This is also not teaching the students rigorous thinking; instead it teaches a form of intellectual compliance.

Most objective tests reinforce recall or recognition (re-cognition is kind of an interesting word that captures the notion of rehashing knowledge you already have). It's not impossible-- I had a tenth grade biology class for which the tests were take-home multiple choice questions, and they were an absolute beast. I still remember things from that class because of the tests.

If we throw in the reformster love for large scale comparison, things get murkier. Exactly how do I compare the "thinking" of a few million students? What does that even mean?

My bias after decades as an English teacher is to assess thinking through writing. I admit that's it theoretically possible that someone could have really thought something through, but they can't put words together on the page to explain it. But my bias is that I think that's hugely unlikely. Most writing problems are really thinking problems; if you've done the thinking, then the writing is so much easier.

But even there we can wander off course. You're going to find teachers who say, "I totally support my students in rigorous thinking, and I can tell they've been thinking rigorously if they reach Conclusion X, because nobody who was really reading and thinking well could reach any other conclusion." There are two problems with this-- first, this teachers is just wrong. Second, and more practically, once word gets out from year to year that you are a teacher who is looking for the One Correct Answer, students will stop thinking and start giving you what they think you want to hear, either by detective work or by just asking last year's class. Now you're back to teaching intellectual compliance, which is pretty much the opposite of rigorous thinking.

There is some advice I can offer. Don't assign essays based on questions for which you are certain you know the answer. Seriously. One year I assigned a paper in which students compared and contrasted Pip from Great Expectations and Huck Finn. I had no idea how that one would turn out, but the students figured it out. Change assignments from year to year. Give assignments that require them to "translate" a work (you haven't lived till you've seen Light in August as sock puppet theater).

Don't get comfortable. If you aren't putting rigorous thinking into the assignment, the kids probably aren't, either.

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