What makes a school good? How are parents to judge if their children are really learning and being challenged? Parents who aren’t in our classrooms everyday are left to judge the program by the things that they see at home:
- Homework – how much homework is assigned each night and how hard is it?
- Textbooks and Workbooks – how big are they and how difficult?
- Studying – how often does my child need to study in order to be prepared for the class and upcoming tests?
- Anecdotes – What did you do at school today? Why don’t you have any homework?
Without any other information (such as access to the class’ online learning platform, regular communication from the teacher, or meaningful involvement in the learning process) parents might assume that if the child doesn’t have a lot homework, then the school is “too easy” compared to their friend’s child who has hours of homework each night. If the homework is easy and light then the program must be easy and light also. If the homework is long and difficult, then the school must good.
Secondary Principal Dave Spreadbury (@dave_spreadbury) explains in his post on “Effective Homework“, that we should be looking at the “nature of the homework assigned rather than the amount of time spent doing it.” We can take this a step further and apply it to regular school work too. School work that is overly difficult and hard does not mean that it is necessarily better.
A basketball coach could require that her students complete 200 lay ups every practice – this would be a difficult task because of the time and repetition required. Alternatively, the coach could implement a training program that builds the necessary muscles for the task, teaches the individual movements required to do a lay up, practice the lay up while analyzing and correcting each player’s errors and then practice the lay up in a game setting. Which approach is more likely to produce better results? The first approach is difficult. The second is rigorous.
A difficult assignment may just be challenging because of its length or because the child hasn’t learned the required concepts yet. The task may be difficult because the teacher provides little or no support. We need to look deeper at the difficultly level and length of time required to complete a task. Instead of difficult assignments, we want to ensure that our curriculum is rigorous. Rigorous assignments ensure that the student is engaged and learning at an optimal rate. The thinking involved in a rigorous assignment is at a higher level and requires the student to synthesize, analyze and create their understanding.
— Francise Smith (@SmithFrancise) November 28, 2014
Some examples of rigorous assignments at TIS:
“We set up a Hot Wheels track with a raised starting point and a loop the loop that then launched a car off the edge of a table onto the floor. Students measured the starting height, the loop height, the table height, and the horizontal distance between launch point and landing site. They were asked to find the mechanical energy at 3 different points, use projectile motion (from previous studies) to find the launch speed, and then analyze the energy losses. This is all to do with the Law of Conservation of Energy. So instead of numerous practice problems from the textbook, the idea was to take real life measurements and use them to evaluate this law of physics, also showing the interconnectedness of concepts from prior discussions.” Physics 20 Class with Mrs. Forsyth (@)
“In ICT the grade 9s are doing a unit called Rework, Reuse, Remix. It deals with issues surrounding copyright and creativity. The question we ask is, “What rights do we have as creators?” We have looked at Kirby Ferguson’s video thesis entitled, Everything is a Remix, in which he posits that copying is an essential part of creativity and that the quest for pure originality is ultimately stifling. Our culminating activity is to create something (students negotiate this with me) while embracing Kirby Ferguson’s recipe for creation, “copy, transform, combine”. The range of projects is huge. Some students are learning how to create audio mashups, while others are designing houses and cars. One student is creating something called the “Vitruvian Teenager”. The students need to keep track of the role copying plays in their creative process and to ensure that, although they are copying, what they create has been transformed and/or combined to add meaning.” Grade 9 ICT Class with Mr. O’Flaherty (@)
“Choose a quote for Othello that speaks to you – one that you might tuck away in your pocket and keep with you forever. Explain its significance in the play and how it resonates for you.” Grade 12 English Class with Mrs. Pickard
“Pairs of students were assigned a large city from somewhere in the world and were challenged to create an urban sustainable growth plan for it. They needed to use information from the course as well as research on their city for the plan and had to take into account economic, political, social, and environmental factors. The sustainability plans themselves did not need to be long, but finding solutions to some of the issues facing cities like Kolkata, Rio de Janeiro, or Beijing proved to be a rigorous critical thinking challenge.” Grade 10 Social Studies Class with Mr. Foreman
While rote learning and practicing for fluency still has a place in schools, it should not be the standard by which a school is judged. More importantly, our students and children deserve better. To be successful in university and their careers, they are going to need the skills to complete significantly more complex tasks.
Tips for Parents
- Concerns about Homework – ask your child’s teacher about appropriate homework and strategies to help them be successful.
- Look Beyond Time – look at the type of thinking and skills used by your child while completing their homework and school work.
- Monitor Projects – projects are much more common in schools. Ensure that your child is staying caught up on the various tasks and timelines involved to avoid last minute panics.
Tips for Schools and Teachers
- Inform and Engage Parents – classroom blogs, newsletters, emails and twitter posts provide opportunities for your parents to catch a glimpse of what their children are doing in class. Keep parents informed of large projects and invite them to see the finished products.
- Showcase Student Learning – provide students with opportunities to engage in real-world learning and to present their learning to their peers, parents and community.
- Teach Prerequisite Skills – students must still be taught prior knowledge and prerequisite skills in order to complete rigorous tasks. Ensure that they have the support that they need.
- Assign Meaningful and Appropriate Homework – homework should be about practice and allow students to develop fluency with task, construct their understanding and reflect on their learning.
Mel Varga (@varga_mel) shared the following chart about what rigor IS and what it is NOT.
What do you think?
I welcome your thoughts about the differences between DIFFICULT work and RIGOROUS work. Feel free to share examples of assignments that demonstrate the differences.