Encouraging Rigor and Excellence in the Classroom

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An important shift

Implementation of Common Core calls for increasing rigor and excellence in the classroom.  Towards this end, a paradigm shift from teacher-centric to learning-centered models of teaching and learning is essential.  It truly is about cultivating a culture of learning where students are empowered to achieve beyond any perceived limitations to their potential. Learning becomes the ultimate goal and transcends the false dichotomy of teacher-centric vs. student-centric instructional models.  Within a culture of learning, your students become architects of their own learning, as your classroom presents robust opportunities for students to be immersed in the teaching and learning process.

To achieve rigor and excellence, students must be highly engaged in the learning process; as they attain high levels of involvement in the classroom, they are positioned to be the architects of their own learning.

What does this look like in a classroom setting?  Achieving rigor and excellence in the classroom involves many aspects of the classroom including curriculum (what you teach), instruction (how you teach it), and classroom management (the overall organization and structure of your classroom) all of which influence your students’ mindsets (beliefs about themselves as learners and about the content they are exploring).  It is these mindsets students hold that have a powerful influence over their ability to be successful within a culture of rigor and excellence.  In essence, students’ mindsets steer students’ learning and growth.  The “Little Engine that Could” story illustrates this well.  When students believe they can and that effort and persistence make a difference, they are more likely to put forth the effort it takes to be successful as learners.

Curriculum

Students are more likely to engage in a classroom culture of rigor and excellence if they are able to make meaningful and personalized connections with the content you are teaching.  Brain-based learning theory supports the importance of making connections between prior knowledge (student schemas) and new knowledge for learning to be sustained (long-term vs. short term).  Creating authentic learning tasks that call for students to make connections with their prior knowledge and experiences will prompt this important process of meaning-making, because they establish relevance; the question, “why is this important to me?” does not go unanswered.  Instead, students explore subject matter in ways that help them discover meaning and practicality in their own lives.  We might be tempted to think that we need to cover more material in a shorter amount of time and to assign more work.  However, in a culture of rigor and excellence, depth is more important than breadth.  When students have the opportunity to examine subject matter at a deeper level, they have more opportunities to make personal connections with it and in turn establish the meaning and relevance that will lead to long-term learning.  Think back to your time as a student in a classroom and what you still remember.  Many times it is those learning activities that required you to delve in, be creative, and be in charge of your own learning that stand out the most.

Instruction

As teachers, we know that how we teach is just as important as what we teach.  Your students’ success rests on how you engage them in the teaching and learning process.  For students to be empowered in a culture of rigor and excellence, they must have a deep sense of their learning pathways and have some sense of control over their direction and progress.  Allowing student choice is essential.  While students all have to achieve the same standards, how they arrive at mastery of these standards may vary.  Learning pathways may be personalized and allow for some decision-making on the part of your students.  Within this paradigm, instruction is shared and the teacher acts as a facilitator, guide and co-learner with students.  Students are able to pursue topics of interest as they work towards mastery of standards.  The roadmap for one student may vary somewhat from that of other students, but their destination is the same—mastery of standards.  These roadmaps are co-constructed; as a teacher, you are skilled at instructional design and play an essential role in designing students’ personalized roadmaps, but the students themselves also play an essential role in envisioning and creating their own roadmaps.  This process calls on their prior knowledge, experiences and interests thus serving as a powerful driver and motivational tool for learning.  When students have a voice and decision-making power in their own learning, they are more likely to be invested in their success.

In a rigorous classroom, students and teacher are co-learners co-creating personalized learning pathways.

Assessment

Assessment is commonly viewed as the teacher’s work.  However, in a culture of rigor and excellence, students must also be consumers of assessment data if they are to be empowered learners.  Assessment 101 tells us that we have to begin with the end in mind (know where we are headed so that we can more effectively plan to arrive at that destination).  To be empowered, students must also know where they are going.  Learning targets (AKA instructional objectives or learning outcomes) need to be front and center for your students if they are to serve as a guide for their learning.  The results of assessments (assessment data) also need to be front and center for students.  Empowered learners can use assessment data to guide their learning just as teachers use it to guide their instruction.   Students who have opportunities to monitor and track their growth are better positioned to use assessment data to their advantage as learners.  In essence, they become informed learners.  The question, “why did I get the grade I did?” is no longer a mystery for students who are involved in their own assessment and can articulate well their learning and growth to others.

Classroom Management

In a culture of rigor and excellence, ownership and accountability of the classroom and all of its operations are shared between teacher and learners.  Because students have voice and a sense of ownership of their classroom, they are more invested in its success. A spirit of collaboration and interconnectedness shapes the classroom environment and interactions within it.  Students not only have a sense of individual responsibility for learning, but also a responsibility for the success of the class as a whole.  When learning becomes a collective and collaborative endeavor there is a higher likelihood of success.  In such a classroom, the motto, “we sink or swim together” shapes the actions and interactions within a classroom environment.   This type of classroom environment is often described as a democratic classroom where students have a voice and are invested in the outcomes of the classroom as a whole. They take pride in their individual and collective efforts and are not spurred by individual competition.  Rather the success of the classroom as a team becomes a common goal that students are challenged by and motivated to achieve. Such a culture is necessary for achieving rigor and excellence in the classroom.

In a rigorous classroom environment success is achieved through the a spirit of collaboration; students are invested in their collective success and take responsibility for their own and each others’ learning.

Mindset

We know some things about learning and how it occurs yet as teachers, we never lose sight of learning as a phenomenon that has a magical quality to it.  This leads to our awe of learning as a complex and dynamic process over which we have some control, but not entirely.  When that light bulb goes off in a student’s mind, we may not be able to trace what triggered it, but indeed somehow it lit up.  One of the things we know about learning is that motivation is essential.  When we believe that all students can learn and be successful, we have to believe that effort matters.  When we encourage effort in our students and value progress and growth on the learning continuum just as much as achievement (grades, benchmarks, products, etc.) our students are more apt to embrace effort as a pathway to their success as well.  Failure is viewed as a part of learning and as an opportunity to learn.

What we believe about our students is transferred to them in various ways but the most powerful way is through the expectations we set.  In communicating expectations, we also communicate our belief in their potential.  Students will not always come to the classroom with a belief in themselves and their potential making it essential that we cultivate this in the classroom.  They may come to school with what Dweck (2007) refers to as a fixed mindset, whereby they perceive intelligence as fixed and unalterable.  As teachers, cultivating a growth mindset, whereby we view intelligence as developed through powerful learning experiences, can offer students opportunities to embrace effort as essential to learning. Getting them past any perceived limitations is key.  Language is important to cultivating a growth mindset; we have to do away with words like, “I can’t” and replace them with “I will try my best and see what happens.”  Operating from growth mindset, students believe that that through their persistent efforts, they will progress in their learning and achieve success.  They become the little engine that could; empowered, persistent and resilient.  Our approach to curriculum, instruction, assessment and classroom management should be geared to cultivating a growth mindset in our students; this by far will be the most powerful way to empower them and ensure their success in the culture of rigor and excellence we have created in our classrooms.

 The realization that effort makes all the difference in achievement and success in the classroom can serve as a powerful motivator for students; essentially this realization serves as the intrinsic fuel for learning.

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