Just the other day I was helping a group of teachers plan rigorous units. As we were creating essential questions and thinking through the standards, I asked what I thought was a simple question: Why are you teaching this?
The teachers were stumped. They had no idea why it was important that students learn the area of polygons, or study poetry, or understand the effects of Reconstruction on modern-day racial politics. If they didn’t understand why it was important to know these things, imagine how their students feel? And, if they don’t think through why what they are teaching is important, then they will never consistently help students to learn to think for themselves.
We find this a lot. We’ve been helping a lot of schools implement rigorous instructional practices lately and the one thing that has become glaringly clear to us is this: Rigor requires rigor.
You cannot expect students to engage rigorously with your content unless you have first thought rigorously about what you are teaching, why you are teaching it, and how you will shape the learning experience for students to cultivate the rigorous thinking you are after. If you are unwilling to think rigorously about your own instruction, then you cannot expect your students to think rigorously as they learn.
Some teachers get annoyed with us during our workshops, not because they disagree with what we are sharing, but because we are making them think too hard. They are so used to going to workshops where all they have to do is “sit and get” that it is an abrupt transition to participate in a workshop where they actually are encouraged to think. But, once they get over their initial annoyance, they get so excited! For many of them, it’s the first time they have been taught to think rigorously about their own practice, and armed with this new way of thinking, they can go back into their classrooms and redesign lessons, try new approaches, and see amazing results for their students. That’s the thing about rigor. It helps you make meaning for yourself. And, that process is addictive.
Thinking rigorously about your own practice helps you develop:
- A rigorous understanding of what we teach: It goes without saying that having a depth of subject-matter understanding is critical for rigorous instruction. We need to first think rigorously about what we are teaching before we can help students think about our content in a highly rigorous way.
- A rigorous understanding of why we are teaching it: It is fascinating to me how many of us are teaching things without really understanding why we are teaching them. I’ve worked with several teachers recently where I have asked them why they are teaching a particular concept or skill and the only answer they can provide is that it is in the curriculum or on the state test. That’s not a very rigorous answer. It is critical that we understand why a concept is important enough to be included in the curriculum or on the state test and why it is important for students to learn it. Without this understanding, you cannot craft potent essential questions, determine the appropriate thinking skills and processes to teach, or demonstrate real relevance to students in terms they can understand.
- A rigorous understanding of how we teach: In order to help students engage successfully with rigorous material, we need to think carefully about how we will shape the learning experience to cultivate rigorous thinking. It is important to systematically move students through the rigorous thinking process — from acquisition of content, to application of thinking skills, to assimilation of thinking skills into thinking processes, to adaptation of these skills to new and novel situations in order to develop habits of mind. Teachers should plan units backwards, starting at assimilation to determine how they ultimately want students to think about the material and then build these thinking processes systematically throughout the unit. (to download our rigorous unit planning graphic organizer or see the tutorial on rigorous unit planning, click here)
Want your students to think more rigorously? You’ve got to think rigorously about your own practice. Want your students more engaged? You’ve got to be engaged in your content yourself. Want your students to invest in their own learning? Give them something to invest in. Think through your units, understand why you are teaching, and plan rigorously. Want more rigor? Rigor requires rigor. Think more rigorously about your own planning today.
Learn more by checking out our rigor resources here and buy our book How to Plan Rigorous Instruction.