Reflecting on Rigor

Chris McNutt
May 20, 2019
Every year I struggle with this fact: when we run students through the “rat race” of perceived rigor by our endless assignments and high-stakes exams, are we actually teaching a student anything?

As a 9th grade teacher, graduation is always an odd experience. I remember these seniors— their personalities, dreams, passions, pursuits, but rarely anything about their academic record. In turn, they are the same. They remember who I was — my demeanor, classroom management style, one-on-one discussions, eccentricities, but not much content from my class.

Every year I struggle with this fact: when we run students through the “rat race” of perceived rigor by our endless assignments and high-stakes exams, are we actually teaching a student anything? Because at the end of the day, when I see students graduate they know close to nothing about what I taught them. Sure — they may have a vague recollection of a fact they may recall in an advanced college course — but most will be retaught all of my course content (or they will never use it at all.)

Further, am I assigning additional work such as remedial content review or exams out of genuine concern for knowledge acquisition or because I’m frustrated at a student’s lack of compliance? Is their lack of interest in my subject matter causing me to take out my discontent on them? Walking across the stage at graduation, I feel there’s really no point to any of this. Even those who achieved all As — who spent the additional time researching every nook of content — infrequently recall basic questions.

What students do remember are discussions that related to their daily lives. Information about gay rights, the origins of racism, or the corruption manifest in our government. They remember the projects we did and all the little failures they ran into on the way. They recall how much they improved in being a leader, communicating with their group, or presenting to an audience. They remember the conversations we had about their futures and the life advice they took away.

What’s interesting is that when monitoring these projects and discussions, it appears initially as ineffective. All traditional guidebooks of teaching would have one believe a rambunctious, moderately loud, always moving class where a sizable minority are completely “disengaged” (on their phone, laptop, talking with friends) is not a place of learning. They would encourage more control to ensure that all students pay attention, take notes, and pass their exams. Then, students would “demonstrate their knowledge.”

Therefore, when students reflect on their 9th grade experience as seniors, and they tell me what they loved about my class, I’m still perplexed. (“But you spent 1/3rd of this class doing close to no schoolwork…how did you learn all these skills?”) That’s the point though — if students are spending 100% of their time in most classes only preparing for a test, and they’re not remembering any of it, but spending 70% of their time in another class working by doing (on things they’re passionate about)….they’re still going to take away more! Plus, the innate value of treating a student as human: letting them take breaks, socialize, move around — that makes them remember you as someone who valued them. It creates a positive experience of learning with your content (which, I can assume, would lead to further inquiry and interest in the subject.)

This reflection leads me to believe that any shift we can make toward promoting a classroom that’s centered on student choice, experiential learning, and critical pedagogy will lead to greater learning experiences. If high-stakes exams and trivial assignments have no bearing on a student’s future, let alone their knowledge retention in a few years, then what’s the point of them? This does not mean content isn’t valuable — content matters when the student understands why that information is valuable and actually uses it. I’ve never had a student question why analyzing a redlining map was important, yet I’ve always been asked why we must memorize the numbers of each amendment to the Constitution. We could easily structure our classes based on student interest rather than perceived rigor. This would require eliminating and/or not covering a sizable amount of existing standards.

Yet, there is a constant pressure on teachers to use this rigor for standardized test scores. Most parents, administrations, and communities still believe that if a child does well on these tests, that proves they’re learning. Eliminating content — not covering “required standards” — is an insurmountable risk to most educators, because if a student doesn’t do well the blame can be traced back to them. Even though this shouldn’t be our primary goal (or really, any of our goals), it’s understandable that educators are afraid. However, small research studies do support that progressive education — experiential education in particular — does increase (or at least levels out with the traditional methods in) test scores (Needham, 2010).

Nonetheless, I find myself in a scenario where students in my class achieve the highest test scores in the building while covering the least amount of required content. I don’t care that much, but it is gratifying to know I spend 1 to 2 days a week on generalized not-always-standards-based content knowledge (which generally is themed around issues of social justice, gauged by student interest and inquiry), with the rest of the time on projects (covering maybe one or two content standards) and life skills (misconceptions about college, what it means to be “job ready”, personal finance, and the like). And regardless, students are doing fine on standardized tests. Perhaps this is because the American History and Government tests are laughably easy? Then again, students are being the state average every time. (This scares me to think that schools focused entirely on teaching to the test are performing worse than our classroom.)

At the end of the year, I have students reflect on my class. Almost universally, what they remember is how they were treated, the projects they worked on, and the freedoms they enjoyed — and almost always, these are considered the highlights of their year. Not to be too braggadocios, but students complain endlessly about how other instructors are not so understanding of them, aren’t teaching them things they remember, and aren’t placing them in positions to develop skills. Of course, not every student feels this way (some are concerned with not learning enough.) Nevertheless, the overall sentiment is that progressive educative practice is worthwhile — the majority of students love it — and they remember it even at graduation 3 years later.

The cognitive dissonance of what “good teaching” is and what my classroom looks like still haunts me. There’s no denying that at many points, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Still, every year at graduation I’m reminded of what this classroom is meant to be: a place to talk about real-world issues, to build tolerance and care about one another, and to build on the unique humans we all are. I wouldn’t change that for anything.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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