Saturday, June 7, 2014

Vigor instead of Rigor

I’ve written a good bit about tremendous shifts towards healthier, more productive and more psychologically sound educational practices for our students that can be found in slight shifts of semantics.  There’s this piece about the why we should embrace students’ struggling instead of accepting or even applauding their failures (what’s now very popular).  I also realized - and explained here - how outcomes and standards-based-learning can easily become a daunting laundry of things for students to know and do if we don’t focus on the processes that contextualize, scaffold and give purpose to courses’ content.   
Before I work a bit to convince you towards adopting the spirit of “vigor” instead of “rigor,” I have to say that it’s not an original idea.  Shawn White - @swpax - first wrote about this last year, but lost the post in a blog-host transfer.  He’s an educator I came to respect for his ideas and his warm, welcoming, clear-headed, student-centered and growth-focused tenor.  The fact that we’ve spent a solid amount of time sharing ideas and resources allows riffing on his idea to feel natural to me.  
I read the definition of rigor and sardonically chuckle about how poorly it connects with everything I believe about successful teaching, especially components such as the importance of relationship building, the pitfalls of classroom power struggles, and effectiveness of affording students room for choice and voice in as many aspects of the class as is possible.  On one hand, it’s clear that the “make it more rigorous” camp has had great intentions in mind.  If we think about curriculum and pedagogical goals, we’d include mantras about having high expectations for all learners; having students connect with content at higher orders of synthesis, evaluation, and creation instead of just knowing; and pacing our classrooms so that there’s a sense of urgency around purposeful instruction that maximizes learning opportunities during the school day and potentially afterwards.  There is, though, a dark underside to “rigor” that comes through when we sit in its definition’s quicksand.  It manifests itself in zero-tolerance policies for behavior and late work, courses that are challenging for students because of the sheer volume of work that’s assigned and material that’s covered, courses and programs of studies that put all students into lockstep rituals and trajectories (you can read here about why I’m a Common Core supporter, but poor implementation can do put schools in this category), and - of course - let’s not forget the emotional, logistic and cultural impacts of the big-testing culture. I’m thinking about all three of my masters-level education programs, none of which allowed for a single elective, or teachers who spend endless amounts of time defining, explaining, and assessing the ins and outs of works cited pages’ logistics. I’m thinking about the NCAA, who was unwilling to count a “Film and Literature” course as a required English credit but happily accepted something called “English 12.” All of these are considered “rigorous,” and all of these are considered by many to be good practice.  They just don’t represent the sort of courses I want to teach, cultures I’d like to work in, or agendas I’d like to promote.  
I’m so inspired by the idea of moving from rigor to vigor because while they both start with the goal of strong student growth and achievement, rigor gets there through single-path systems, power hierarchies and student compliance.  Vigor, however, is another story.  If I was going to annotate its definition, I’d highlight the ideas active, healthy, intense, vital, energetic, and - let’s not forget - effective.  What does this feel like in an education system or a class?
It’s a culture that’s still going to ask students to be involved in the heavy lifting and deep thinking that’ll lead to the desired high levels of achievement, but I’d see vigorous schools as those that start with a foundation of respectful relationships and afford students the choice and voice that gets learners excited about their work.  It doesn’t lower standards, but it helps teachers leverage the passions they have for their subject matter in ways that are contagious to their students, contextualizing content with meaning and relevance.  It understands that moving through a curriculum and covering chapters is not the same and engaging with ideas or creating new ideas, so it slows the pacing down whenever possible and recognizes that play, the arts, independent reading, creation, and electives all play a “vital” role in developing “healthy” adults.   It’s professional development for teachers and administrators that looks and feels more like Twitter chats and edcamps than Department of Education lectures and webinars.  

It’s about students learning because they’re interested and empowered instead of because they’re threatened, coaxed, and complacent.  I’ll riff a bit on a piece from “The Letter from Birmingham Jail” here and ask us if we want to be an extremist for a position, do you want to work towards an education culture that’s “rigorous” or “vigorous.” Think about it.  Your comments and suggestions are welcomed.