Rigorously challenged

April 26, 2008 at 5:45 pm Leave a comment

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I WAS never clear what the word “rigor” meant. Mostly, it seemed to be used either by school administrators or by those teachers who seem to take pride in how hard their courses are. The no-pain-no-gain school of education.

A college professor teaching a math course I took last summer mused that he was also unsure what rigor meant, adding, “I think it means we write things down”.

Alfie Kohn tells, in his The Homework Myth, the story of a principal who was asked by a parent if his school provided a “rigorous” education. He hesitated, and added he was unsure until he’d consulted a dictionary. He returned and declared, “Good Lord, No!”

Inspired by this, I too consulted the definition of rigor even in that most traditional and quintessential US dictionary, Webster’s.

Ask me now whether or not my classes are rigorous and I would declare, “I hope not!”

Rigor dates from the early 1300s, the time of The Inquisition.

The Inquisition ruthlessly suppressed any creative or free thought, under the label of “heresy”, as well as the likes of a Galileo. Rigor in education seems to simply equate difficulty with quality. Difficulty for the sake of difficulty doesn’t seem to promote the enjoyment of free or creative inquiry.

I know teachers who boast of rigor in their courses. Some refer to other teachers as “the slacker teachers”. For them learning is about hard work, the harder the work, the better the learning. Kids get off too easy. The way to improve learning is to make it harder and then do repeatedly more of it. They point to their successes with pride but somehow seem to forget those who don’t make the grade. After all they didn’t work hard enough.

In this harder-is-better world, late or poor homework means an invitation to a mis-named after-school homework “party”. Failure to accept the invitation means a referral, detention.

It conjures up visions not so much of the 19th century sadism of Wackford Squeers and the crushing of the pathetic Smike in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, but certainly the pompous Blimber and his academy of Dombey and Son — “a great hothouse, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work.”

In the Dickensian Mr Feeder’s class, “they knew no rest from the pursuit of strong-hearted verbs, savage noun-substantives, inflexible syntactic passages, and ghosts of exercises that appeared to them in their dreams”.

Before that at Mrs Pipchin’s, Dickens describes the pedagogy as “not to encourage a child’s mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster”.

Difficult does not equal better. Difficult is a relative term. What is difficult for one student may not be so for another. What is difficult for a student this year, may not be 12-months down the line after the brain has gone through another year of development.

The question in the classroom should not be about difficult versus easy, it should be about finding what the Soviet educational psychologist Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development — that place between the actual development achieved by a child on their own and the potential development that they can achieve with the mediation of an adult or other students.

“The trick,” said Jerome Bruner (quoted by Kohn in The Schools our Children Deserve), “is to find the medium questions that can be answered and take you somewhere.”

Maximum difficulty isn’t the same as optimal difficulty adds Kohn.

Too easy and the student feels belittled, too difficult and the student feels stupid, alienated and likely to lose all interest in the subject.

Kohn adds this footnote: “One technique for finding just the right level of challenge for each student is so simple that few of us think of it: let the student choose. As long as the classroom doesn’t overemphasize performance, doesn’t lead student to think mostly about getting good grades or doing better than others, children will generally seek out tasks that are just beyond what they’re able to do easily.”

But in the rigorous classroom grades and sorting and ranking students are fetishes. Students who suffer the rigorists are never allowed to forget the grade, that’s the point. The percentages and grades are supposed to motivate, when in fact they do exactly the opposite.

Key to finding Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is collaboration with other students or the mediation of an adult in a cultural context. This clashes with another rigorist article of faith, that a child should prove ability in the isolation of high-stakes tests, based on lessons that are taught outside of a cultural context.

Kohn quotes educationist, reformer and philosopher John Dewey; the value of what students do “resides in its connection with a stimulation of greater thoughtfulness, not in the strain it imposes.”

Parents would be better served by asking not whether a course is rigorous, but whether or not it is engaging and meaningful.

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Entry filed under: Assessment + Grading, Thoughts from the classroom, What's on the PiFactory blog.... Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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