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You may have noticed by this point in the series that the 4 secret ingredients of a Co-Created Education are all words you’ve heard before.
In fact, they’re often terms that get overused, misused, or vaguely used, which is unfortunately a pretty common phenomenon in the education world. We get these buzz words stuck in our heads, we throw them around too much, and they lose meaning.
I really hate it when that happens, because some of them are such good words!
So instead of spending time hating on these watered-down words or scrapping them altogether, we want to give them new life. We’re taking them one by one and defining them ourselves so that we can all work off of a shared set of definitions and a common language for the Co-CreatED community.
And we welcome your input on these!
Because another thing you might have noticed is the “co” in Co-CreatED. We know that nothing good happens in silos, and that we all have a lot to learn from each other.
We also know education is complex, and we accept the need for varying ideas and perspectives to co-exist if we have any hope of moving the needle. So each of the 4 secret ingredients requires not only a collaborative approach, but also a healthy dose of “both/and” thinking.
For an empowering education, teachers partner with students to co-create the learning path together.
For an inclusive education, we challenge educators to hold space for multiple truths. I.e., educating students who are living in poverty works best with an asset-mindset coupled with a poverty-aware, trauma-informed practice. (Both/and.)
The same holds true for a “rigorous” education. It takes collaboration, both/and thinking, and a clear definition of “rigor” for us to work off of.
A learning experience is rigorous when it pushes students to think deeply, to stretch their thinking in new directions, and to lean into their curiosity, knowing that the adults around them fully believe in their high potential.
In this article from Edutopia, Brian Sztabnik calls out some of the common misconceptions about rigor. It doesn’t mean MORE work. It doesn’t mean “harder” work (whatever that means).
These misconceptions have led to what the author cleverly describes as “push-down and pile-on syndrome,” such as college-level work getting pushed down onto highschoolers, or where Kindergarteners and even Pre-K’ers are expected to be reading fluently before they’ve even hit the developmental readiness window.
Or-- a "pile on" example I observed when touring schools-- an admissions professional from a prestigious, elite private school brags about the 2 hours of homework students complete each night, starting as early as 4th grade. Because "rigor."
These “push-down, pile-on” efforts, while perhaps well-intentioned, are misguided and can even be harmful, squashing the love of learning right out of overburdened students.
Luckily, there are ways to reach the pinnacle of Rigor Mountain without overburdening learners and without extinguishing their spark for learning.
TOP 3 WAYS TO MAKE “RIGOR” A REALITY IN YOUR CLASSROOM OR SCHOOL
Rigor Rule 1: Create a culture of high expectations for all.
Ever heard of the Pygmalion effect or the Golem effect? They are two psychological principles about our tendency as humans to rise to the expectations placed upon us.
The Pygmalion Effect explains that when others anticipate high performance from us, that’s what we tend to deliver. On the flip side, The Golem Effect shows that the opposite is also true-- when someone expects low performance from us, that’s what we tend to deliver.
Others’ expectations of us often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is why it is critically important for us as educators to believe wholeheartedly in our students’ capabilities. Our students need to know that they are surrounded by caring adults who hold them accountable, push them to their highest potential, and believe in their capability fully.
Our expectations must communicate the message, “I believe in you! I know you are capable! I care enough to push you, and I’m here for you every step of the way! I see your potential and I see you becoming the best version of you!”
You can't have high rigor without high expectations.
So how do we do it?
I got you. Use this free guide.
Rigor Rule 2: Focus on HOW to think, not WHAT to think.
In the digital age, how students think matters far more than what students know. They have nearly infinite information at their fingertips-- they carry tiny computers around in their pockets (that's what smartphones are, really).
I had a rule of thumb in my classroom: I’m not going to ask you to memorize something you can easily Google. That’s a waste of brain space.
Instead, I’m going to challenge you to think critically, to think creatively, and to apply what you know (or what you Google) to solve authentic, meaningful problems. Because that’s what today’s world and tomorrow’s workforce demands.
A rigorous learning experience is one where students either deepen or build thinking skills-- they use their brains in new ways.
No matter your starting point, here's a full buffet of options for you to start from exactly where you are with increasing rigor via thinking skills:
Rigor Rule 3: Go Deeper. Aim Higher.
Bloom’s Taxonomy first came on the scene in 1956 as basically a ranking system for ordering cognitive processes, then it got a makeover in 2001.
For reasons unknown, it is often visualized as some version of a colorful pyramid.
When we use the term “higher-order thinking,” it usually means the upper tiers of Bloom’s pyramid; the higher a thinking skill falls on the pyramid, the more complex it is.
Bloom’s goal was to give educators a tool and a language for setting rigorous learning goals, and then assessing students’ mastery of those learning goals with the same level of rigor.
A second and relatively newer framework for ranking cognitive demand is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (D.o.K.), developed in 1997.
Webb’s goal was actually very similar to Bloom’s-- to help educators align our assessments to our expectations. In other words, are we actually measuring what we think we’re measuring about students’ learning?
To figure that out, let's first break down the most basic structure of teaching and learning into its 3 component parts:
Sometimes when we go
from point A (goal) → to point B (activity) → to point C (assessment),
the rigor can get lost in translation like a bad game of telephone.
Instead, we want to focus on aligning the three, and keeping them all as rigorous as possible. Both the D.o.K. framework and Bloom’s Taxonomy can help with that.
A note about verbs...
One very ironic thing that has happened to both Webb's framework and Bloom's Taxonomy is reducing them down to a list of verbs to match each level. In fact, some people only ever know them to be menus of verbs.
When you stop to think about it, how could a tool about complexity have possibly gotten so oversimplified over the years?!
Good, now that we got that part out of the way, we can move on to a few tools that don't come with PSAs.
The 3 tools below are intended to be simple enough to be usable, yet meaty enough to maintain the complexity that is measuring cognitive rigor.
The bottom line is, we want all students thinking deeply and doing work that challenges them to grow.
Deepen Rigor Across Subject Areas
Wondering how to tell how rigorous an activity is within a certain subject? There's a tool (or 2) for that!
The first is a menu of learning activities, arranged by increasing Depth of Knowledge for each of the 4 main subject areas. This handy chart is basically a visualization of Webb's 2002 article "Depth-of-Knowledge Levels for Four Content Areas."
The second is Dr. Karen Hess' Cognitive Rigor Matrix, which overlays Webb's D.o.K. and Bloom's Taxonomy. This particular version combines her 4 subject area matrices into one master tool.
The trouble is, those matrices are still a bit dense as a starting point. To help use them more purposefully, here's a nice "decision-tree" type accompaniment. Together they make a perfect pairing!
Ask these 3 "more than one _______" questions
The 3 "more than one ___" questions hone in on the main factors that distinguish one Depth of Knowledge level from another. These questions do not stand alone, by any means, but they do help make D.o.K. more approachable!
Turns out rigor is a pretty daunting topic to try to cover in just one article. It is HUGE!
So to recap:
A learning experience is RIGOROUS when it pushes students to think deeply, to stretch their thinking in new directions, and to lean into their curiosity, knowing that the adults around them fully believe in their high potential.
To make rigor a reality:
How will you step up the rigor
in your classroom or school this year?
A sheet of paper rests on the table top. Two opposing teams lob legal jargon back and forth across the table, staying laser focused on the document between them. The plaintiff makes their case, and the defense makes theirs. The nonstop clickity-clack of fingers on keys fills the air as the recorder captures every word, every detail.
For a moment I forgot where I was. Was this a courtroom?
No. It was an IEP meeting.
It was the first one I’d ever attended, so I was shocked by how legalistic the whole thing was.
Weren’t we talking about a child? A real-life person who we all knew and cared about?
There was no human aspect to the meeting; it was sterile, rote, mechanical. We were dissecting a document. It had become all about the sheet of paper.
Well, that and making sure no one pulled any fast ones on each other. Which everyone seemed fully convinced was going to happen. There was no trust, and we’d forgotten all familiarity.
Perhaps as a coping mechanism, I caught myself daydreaming back to what felt like a past life, where students with disabilities were treated like humans, and where educators and families partnered together to collaboratively meet the needs of the child. Where students took an active role in advocating for their own needs, sitting at the same table as the adults if the conversation was about them. (It was their education, after all.)
It felt so far away. I let my mind take me back there for a moment.
Flashback to another place and time...
Being part of a school start-up team was one of the most formative experiences of my career. We had the unique opportunity to build a school basically from scratch, designing every aspect of the experience to reflect what we believed to be best for our students.
The school we were building was specifically purposed to serve students with a range of disabilities-- ADHD, Autism, and other learning differences.
Instead of IEPs, students got to know themselves by creating Learner Profiles that captured their unique learning style, regulation strategies, strengths and challenges.
Instead of high-stakes standardized testing, they curated portfolios of work that they showcased at Celebration of Learning events.
Instead of stuffy formal menus of accommodations and modifications (that rarely get followed correctly), class size was small enough that teachers could truly know the students and tailor the experience to their needs.
Instead of students with differences being suspended or expelled at disproportionate rates, we designed a school-wide positive behavior support system that met students where they were and helped them acquire the skills they needed to find success in a school setting.
But, doesn’t that sound a lot like the things that would be good for ALL kids?
It doesn’t take a diagnosis to benefit from a humanizing, student-centered education.
The only trouble with the environment I just described is that it technically wasn't "inclusive" by definition. In fact, it was purposely exclusive-- a whole school built just for students with disabilities. But I wanted more kids to have access to that kind of education. I knew it was time to try scaling up and sharing it in the public school world.
As you may have noticed in the first vignette above, I was a little naive with my ambitions and clueless about what it would take to bridge the gaping canyon between education as I'd known it in my tiny bubble, and what was going on in the wider public education world.
Regardless, I still haven't given up hope and I never will. I believe education can be better and can serve all kids well.
So how do we do it?
We co-create an inclusive experience.
Let's start with some definitions. At Co-CreatED, we define inclusive a little more... well... inclusively, to be frank.
We're talking differences in any of the dimensions of identity and culture.
Because inclusive means just that: it includes everyone.
(PS: Rosetta Lee, who made that model, is awesome!)
There are three particular elements of inclusion that if approached differently, could result in radically different outcomes for our students.
Whether you lead a classroom, a school, a district, or otherwise, these tips will help you do the self-work necessary to reframe your mindset around inclusion. Change comes from within. That's not to disregard the systemic factors at play-- trust me, I rack my brain about those pieces all the time, too. I know individual change can only go so far without systemic change. But ya gotta start somewhere, and looking inward is an important first step.
TRY THESE 3 INCLUSION POWER PLAYS:
1. Want to be inclusive across ability differences?
Learn more HERE.
2. Want to be inclusive across racial/ethnic differences?
Try this activity to discover your own cultural identity:
3. Want to be inclusive across socio-economic differences?
Buy Eric Jensen's book, Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind.
You won't regret it. See:
Make no mistake: leading a classroom or a school full of widely diverse learners is Really. Hard. Work.
One teacher trying to reach students across a range of ability differences, racial/ethnic differences, socio-economic differences, and more is a BIG undertaking, not for the faint of heart. Then throw co-teaching in the mix and you get a whole other set of challenges to navigate ("you mean I have to share my classroom with another grown up?!").
At Co-CreatED, we don't believe there are easy solutions to complex challenges. Inclusion is a big deal, and we'll only improve it by combining the necessary self-work with the necessary systemic and policy work.
To continue the self-work, check out:
To get involved on a systemic level, check out:
What's been the biggest mindshift for you in making your classroom or school a more inclusive space?
Breaking down the 4 "secret ingredients" that make up a co-created education, starting with #1:
It is an empowering experience
THE 4 SECRET INGREDIENTS IN A CO-CREATED EDUCATION
At Co-CreatED, we are in relentless pursuit of making education humanizing and equitable for all students. To do that, we think there are 4 big “secret ingredients.”
A co-created education is:
These BIG FOUR are where the magic happens. They are the make-or-break difference between education that maintains the status quo and education that disrupts it for the better.
The question is, what do we mean by those 4 terms, exactly?
This week, let’s take a look at the first ingredient: empowering.
How can you tell whether a learning experience is empowering?
There are two key features to look for:
Students are empowered when their learning is student-centered, and when their learning leads to greater awareness of and action on critical social issues.
I. Empowering through a student-centered approach:
II. Empowering through critical pedagogy:
Self-assess: How many things on the list above are you already doing in your classroom? Calculate your "empowered classroom score."
Student-Centered Learning visualized! Everything exists on a spectrum, including learning. Check out these continuums, ranging from teacher-centered to learner-driven. In my experience, aiming for the happy medium on the continuum provides a developmentally appropriate balance. What do you think? (Credits: images by artist Sylvia Duckworth; content by Barbara Bray & Kathleen McClaskey)
MAKING IT PRACTICAL
While theory, conceptual understanding, and definitions are all necessary, they don't exactly paint a clear picture of practical application. This next section will shed light on what an empowered learning experience actually looks like and sounds like in action, including resources and tips that you can try out as early as tomorrow (well...except that it's July... anyway, you know what I mean!).
What does an empowering education sound like in real life?
The learning goal I set for myself this unit is to get better at trying when my work is hard instead of giving up.” said Levi.
SEE IT IN ACTION:
First off, The Teaching Channel is such an awesome resource! They have hundreds of videos showing techniques and best practices put to use in real classrooms so teachers can learn from each other. I used it all the time when I was an academic coach, and it was super helpful!
Here are 3 Teaching Channel videos that show what some of the key components of an empowered education look like.
*DOABLE* 1ST STEPS YOU COULD TAKE TODAY:
In closing, we want to hear from you:
What have you found most frustrating about trying to make your classroom more student-centered or critically-engaged?
While all this “Why” language may be commonplace in the business world, it hasn't quite found legs in the education world just yet. At Co-Created, we love building bridges, breaking down silos, and learning across industries. So what could these “Why” statements look like in schools and even in classrooms?
Simon Sinek broke records with the popularity of his 2009 TEDx talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” marking the start of the WHY revolution in the business world. To this day, his is one of the most-watched TEDx talks of all time, which incidentally proves one of his main points in the talk: people are drawn to purpose.
Take a look at the power of Why:
In his talk, Sinek flipped the What & How paradigm-- the more common way of “selling” an idea-- on its head, encouraging leaders instead to start with Why. He illustrated this concept with what he called The Golden Circle, then connected it to brain science to explain why humans respond so well to it:
From there, Sinek pointed out the differences between those who made history and those who did not. He highlighted MLK jr., The Wright Brothers, and Apple. What set these figures apart? What took them from ordinary to extraordinary?
They knew their why. It was clear and it was at the forefront.
Apple didn’t say, we make good computers. They said, we get you: we think different.
MLK jr. didn’t say, I have a plan. He said, I have a dream.
The Wright brothers didn’t say, let’s get rich. They said, let’s change the course of human history.
In Golden CIrcle terms, these three were success stories because they went from the inside out instead of the outside in. They started with why. They gave us something we could feel, something we could believe in.
Sometimes it helps to see an idea in practice to really understand how it works in application.
Here is a collection of companies who have strong, clear WHYs:
“People don’t buy [in to] what you do. They buy [in to] why you do it.”
This is the phrase Sinek repeated throughout his talk, and for good reason.
For translating this to education world, I added the “in” and the “to.” We’re talking buy-in. We want all stakeholders bought into the why-- the higher purpose, the deeper meaning-- of educating students.
This has a few implications for both school-level leaders* and classroom-level leaders*.
* = At Co-Created, We use the term classroom leaders instead of "teachers," and school leaders instead of "administrators." These terms fit more accurately and help people outside the field of education understand the professionalism of our work. Teachers are leaders of classrooms. They do much more than teach, and they deserve to be recognized as the professionals they are. Administrators are leaders of schools, similar to a president or a C-suite executive. Words matter.
For school leaders, start by thinking of this one in terms of hiring and retention.
Of course we hire educators to educate-- but that’s just the what. Sure, we also want them to do a good job of educating-- but that’s still just the how. More importantly, though, why should they pick your school? Why is it the right fit and the kind of purpose they want to get behind? Why should they buy into this whole thing?
Hiring the right people: When recruiting, talk about what you believe to attract others who believe the same. Again, people are drawn to purpose. Draw them in by making your Why clear; if it matches their own, they will be eager to pursue.
Reducing turnover: The next step after recruiting is making the actual hiring decisions, and this is one of the most pivotal points in retention. The key? hire people who believe what you believe, and who believe in what your organization stands for. When someone chooses a job based on aligning with their own beliefs and purpose, then they feel they are being true to themselves. People do what they believe in, and they stick with it.
Many school leaders will remember the classic Jim Collins "right people on the bus" analogy. The right people get on the bus because they are bought into the why, and they stay on the bus when it stays true to the why they signed up for.
For classroom leaders, think about this "Why" stuff in terms of student motivation.
We spend a big chunk of our time giving directions to students, which mainly come in the form of WHAT to do or HOW to do it. How often are you describing WHY to do something? Likely only when a student asks, and at that point, likely with a justifiably annoyed tone at best, or a “because I said so” at worst.
What if we started with why? Imagine answering your students’ question before they even ask it. It saves you time and annoyance, and it gives them the answer they’re looking for right off the bat. In my experience, it became my go-to classroom management hack for preventing power struggles (no need to challenge or distrust authority when the authority figure is making their purpose and intent crystal clear).
PS: It applies just as well in adult-to-adult interactions as it does adult-to-child.
Why-Before-How Formula = “Since we [reason; why], I need you to [action; what] + [in this way; how].”
And that’s just for the little everyday Whys.
What about the big Whys?
Imagine if you and your students came together and wrote your shared Why, the purpose that would guide your work together for the year. It gives everyone something to anchor to, something to aim for, something to measure by. It aligns you in a common direction, bigger than yourselves. Purpose is unifying.
Back to you one more time, school leaders--
Could your staff and/or students articulate your school’s Why?
The purpose of going to school is not to get good grades, or get into college, or get a good job. Those are results, just like SInek’s example of making profit or getting rich are results. Results are different than purpose. They are not a why.
Why goes bigger. It inspires, it motivates. Your Why gets at the core of your beliefs. Why is a feeling.
TRY IT (with a freebie!)
Sinek was so passionate about the idea of being purpose-driven and leading from a why-before-how position, he wrote two great books on the subject: Start With Why to explain the concept in depth, then Find Your Why to serve as a companion workbook for applying the concepts in real life.
I highly recommend reading these books before or while using the tool below-- the tool will make MUCH more sense when paired with the books. Reading the books was a huge growing experience for me personally and professionally, and I would love for you to have that experience, too!
All leadership work starts with the self, so the first *freebie* tool here is the Why Discovery for Individuals.
What is your personal why?
Find out using the tool below, based on Sinek's book Find Your Why.
This tool is for anyone interested in living with a clearer sense of purpose-- it has nothing to do with your job title or field of work.
Getting back to the Why of Co-CreatED has been a journey. We are passionate about doing everything we can to make education humanizing and equitable for all students. We are laser-focused on that purpose, and we love helping other educators lead from a more purpose-driven place along with us.
Thank you for allowing yourself to envision a world where ALL students-- regardless of zipcode, SES, race, or ability-- reach their fullest potential.
Thank you for believing that all children have the right to a co-created education: an experience that is empowering, inclusive, rigorous, and supportive.
The path to learning is co-created; thanks for being a part of it.
So one last time as we wrap up the series:
What is YOUR why?
If you are a school leader or classroom leader interested in discovering a shared 'why' for the team you lead, we'd love to connect with you and help you reach your goals. Use the contact form below.
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