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NASSP middle level task force members Rose Colby (administrator-in-residence, New England League of Middle Schools) and Patsy Dean (principal, Upson-Lee Middle School, Thomaston, GA) share a framework for rigor that helps middle level leaders identify practices that promote rigor in the classroom.

What should middle level leaders expect to see in classes as teachers engage students in rigorous and relevant learning opportunities? Practices such as student choice, student voice, problem/project based learning, critical thinking, Socratic approaches, an understanding of what the student is learning, discovery learning, group learning, active and relevant learning, continuous assessment for learning, and curriculum integration are all components of a rigorous classroom. But above all, it’s the level of thinking and application that defines the culture and climate in a classroom where academic excellence is a norm.

At the heart of every effective middle level school must be a commitment to academic excellence. As educators, we need to create classrooms that engage students in complex thinking where the outcomes of that thinking lead to new discoveries. And at the center of this high-quality learning is a teacher’s ability to stretch student thinking beyond the lower levels of thinking and application.

Some notable work in rigor and relevance has come from Dr. Bill Daggett of the International Center for Leadership in Education (I.C.L.E.). This group has developed a framework to examine curriculum, instruction, and assessment based upon the two dimensions of higher standards and student achievement. It combines the application of knowledge or relevance to the purpose of a particular topic to an appropriate level of rigor, according to Bloom’s taxonomy.

The first continuum, the knowledge taxonomy, is based on the six levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. At the lower level of this continuum lies acquiring knowledge and being able to recall or locate knowledge in a simple manner. At the upper end is the ability of a student to take several pieces of knowledge and assimilate them in logical and creative ways. The second continuum is the application model. The lower level represents knowledge acquired for its own sake while the upper level calls on the student to solve complex real-world problems while creating projects, designs, and other works for use in real-world situations.

The four quadrants represented by the knowledge taxonomy and application model provide teachers with a guideline for the design of rigorous and relevant student learning. For example, in the mathematics illustration below, quadrant D work devises a scale to test consumer products and illustrate data graphically, challenging the student to critically think through data that has been created by designing a real-world problem.

So then how do middle level leaders move their school in the direction of providing rigorous and relevant instruction? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Perform a comprehensive needs assessment: perceptions of teachers, students and parents of current practice, inventories of current instructional strategies, and student achievement data
  2. Create a schoolwide definition of rigor as it is applied across all content areas and determine what observable teacher and student behaviors will indicate its presence in the classroom
  3. Determine, as a school, what students need to understand, know, and be able to do (essential learnings) and the strategies needed to incorporate them into current instructional practices
  4. Share research and data on rigor and relevance with faculty
  5. Identify the resources needed to redesign units of instruction around rigor and relevance
  6. Determine how the school schedule enhances problem-based learning that is rigorous and relevant; make changes as needed
  7. Determine the professional development support that teachers will need to introduce differentiation in the framework of rigor and relevance; use of onsite teacher exemplars as models
  8. Determine how this change in the instructional framework should be communicated to the shareholders in the learning community
  9. Determine timeline for implementation
  10. Monitor the progress of the initiative over time through focus walks and peer coaching while reflecting on the implications on instructional practices.