Let’s take a moment to think about what we used to mean by “good teaching.”

It’s a question I often ask myself as I walk classrooms across the U.S., consulting with educators. And it’s an especially important question now, as teachers and school leaders begin to understand why it’s so vital to make the shift to standards-based classrooms that develop the “new economy” skills students need in the 21st century. We have moved rapidly from a manufacturing-centric economy to a global, technologically advanced, knowledge-based economy. Twenty-first century employers are searching for workers who can analyze, problem-solve, communicate effectively and work in autonomous teams. We are preparing students for a world we can’t even imagine. 

Do today’s classrooms develop the analytical and collaborative skills students need to enter the future with confidence? Are our classrooms truly rigorous? Unfortunately, we would have to say no. The data collected at Learning Sciences International suggests that the majority of U.S. classrooms from primary to high school, even in advanced AP classes, are not supporting the level of cognitive complexity and student autonomy necessary to prepare students for the new economy workforce. Teachers are, for the most part, working from an old-economy cultural script, first identified by James Stigler and James Hiebert in their 1999 book, The Teaching Gap, variously described as “the sage on the stage,” “teacher-centered instruction,” or “Lecture-Recitation,” which does not facilitate deep learning.

But we have seen some schools, teachers, and students making the leap into a very different kind of learning environment. Educators and students at Demonstration Schools for Rigor across the U.S. have been revising their concept of what a “good teacher” and even a “good student” is and does. One such school is Acreage Pines Elementary in Loxahatchee, Florida. When we visit classrooms at Acreage Pines, we don’t walk out of classrooms saying to ourselves, “That teacher was terrific!” but rather, “Those students were amazing!” Learning is evident in the conversations students are having and in the depth of the projects they’re engaged in. From kindergarten to fifth grade, they are using academic vocabulary, peer coaching, challenging each other for evidence. They’re working in autonomous, collaborative teams. And they are taking responsibility for meeting their learning targets and achieving competency. Principal Amy Dujon describes what these classrooms look like, where “8, 9, and ten-year-olds are looking at state standards and working backwards to understand the skills they will need to meet the standard. We give them the essential questions, and ask students, ‘what standards will we need? Do we need literature standards or informational standards? Can you find the targets that align to those standards?’ Our students are driving that now.”

A New Definition of Rigor

“New economy” classrooms are student-centered. Learning in these classrooms is rigorous. We define rigor as the place where higher cognitive complexity meets higher student autonomy. It’s important to distinguish that it is not just the content that is complex, but rather the level of complexity in student thinking. Students are routinely engaged in analysis-level cognition, in applying their analyses to real-world scenarios and inquiry-based problems. They are making decisions, learning to work effectively with peers, and holding themselves and their teams accountable for meeting learning targets. At Acreage Pines, the entire school holds a common definition of rigor, a common vision of what classroom rigor looks and sounds like. “Once you see it, and you experience kids and teachers living in it, you can’t unsee it, you can’t unknow it,” Dujon says. “So the question becomes how do I scaffold to get all my classrooms to this level?”

This is not an easy shift to make—it’s an example of second order change. We know that second order change alters the underlying philosophical beliefs that drive practice. But in our work with Demonstration Schools for Rigor, we have seen teachers, students, and school leaders making this transition to rigorous, student-centered classrooms that develop new economy skills and knowledge. At Calusa Elementary in Boca Raton, Florida, Principal Jamie Wyatt says that her classrooms were already student-centered before they became a Demonstration School. “What was missing was the rigor,” she admits. “I did not realize as a leader, until I looked at things with a different lens, that what I thought was really good teaching was not at the level it was supposed to be. We were good at tracking data, setting up interventions, moving our reading levels up. But if your core instruction is not where it needs to be, you have to do a lot of remediation. If your core is strong, there is less need to remediate, and that remediation can be targeted.”

When Acreage Pines principal Amy Dujon discusses the changes she and her teachers made, she openly acknowledges it was not easy. But she and teachers agree it was worth it. When we visited one third grade class recently, 8-year-olds were gathered in small groups, debating precise definitions of ‘key detail,’ ‘supporting detail,’ and ‘main idea’ until they reached consensus. When they did, they shared their ideas with the rest of the class. They were also partnering up to develop lists of “criteria” for comparing and contrasting two texts on the same topic, discussing what evidence they would look for. Students were using academic vocabulary in a rich, authentic environment. Their understanding was evident in their writing, speaking, and reflecting. Says Dujon,

“You see a lot of difference in the way the students talk. Kids asking each other, ‘well, why do you think this? And then, ‘do you want to revise your thinking? You’ll hear this in first grade. They are using their peers as resources. And you’ll hardly ever see a textbook in our classrooms, unless they’re doing a foundational lesson. Students are starting to ask teachers things like, ‘How do you know that?’ Now our teachers have to provide evidence for their own statements!”

We haven’t touched on one further benefit of the shift to rigorous student-centered classrooms.  When students begin to think and work independently, collaborating and solving real-world problems, their test scores reflect their learning. In Princeton, Minnesota, Superintendent Julia Espe engaged her entire school district in making the transition to new economy classrooms as Demonstration Schools for Rigor. Princeton’s first year reading scores improved by 9% in Grade 3, 10% in Grade 5, and 5% in Grade 7. In Math, scores improved for Grade 5 by 5% and 8% for Grade 7. The following year’s preliminary scores show double-digit increases for 10th Grade Reading and 8th Grade Math. One Princeton Middle School teacher noted that the shift to student centered classrooms had helped both students and teachers improve their learning: “I’m seeing a lot more participation in class, a lot more students asking questions if they don’t know something. They know I’m checking into what they know. It’s been very positive for me in the classroom. I’ve grown, and I know they have too.”

Teachers continually tell us that making this shift has renewed their purpose and their mission, reminding them why they chose the profession. “Going through this deep dive, for the first time, I felt invested in.” Dujon says. “My teachers feel that they have been invested in. The joy of teaching is back.”

Michael Toth is CEO of Learning Sciences International and author of Who Moved My Standards? Joyful Teaching in an Age of Change. To learn more about Demonstration Schools for Rigor, visit www.LearningSciences.com.

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