"Equity" is a core value of Co-CreatED; it drives our "why," our mission, and our vision. Yet, it can be difficult to clearly define. What does Equity really mean, any way? Let's dig in.
CHAPTER ONE: GETTING TO A DEFINITION
I'll be the first to admit... I sort of have a tendency to overcomplicate things. Simplifying big ideas is super hard! So when I initially sat down to try to define equity, here's the rough draft I came up with:
Equity is the work of removing barriers that have obstructed the full advancement of certain groups. It is the pursuit of fair treatment, access, and opportunity for all people. It is recognizing that not everyone has the same starting line, then taking steps to remedy that, institutionally and systemically."
It's wordy. It's too much.
So like any good Millennial, I turned to Instagram for help.
And y'all, I have some really smart friends. Thank goodness! I always heard this saying that to be a great business leader, you should hire people smarter than you. I'd go even further than that to say if you want to be a great anything, surround yourself with people smarter than you, starting with your friends.
That said, I got some awesome responses! My hands-down favorite though, and the one I'm adopting here, was:
Equity is when everyone has access to what they need to be successful. "
How amazingly simple, straightforward, and TRUE is that?! That sums it up! THAT is equity.
The access piece is especially key.
Picture some people slogging their way up the long, steep staircase to access that top floor we call success, while others are taking escalators or elevators. All those people have access, but clearly some have easier access than others. How might we remove barriers and create pathways of easier access for ALL? That's a question of equity.
So now that we have a baseline, let's build.
ISN'T EQUITY JUST A FANCIER WAY OF SAYING EQUALITY?
Actually, they're pretty different.
Equal is everyone getting the same thing.
Equitable is everyone purposefully getting different things because we recognize that they have different starting points and thus different needs.
As an educator, it can be tempting to say, "I treat all my students equally." Those words sound good at a surface level. But if you dig a little deeper, is it right to give everyone the same thing regardless of their needs?
This infographic from The Inclusion Lab illustrates the difference well:
That's not to say we never want equality, of course! The reason we want to treat students with equity is so that they can all reach equally high levels of success, regardless of their starting points.
It's the difference between focusing on inputs vs. focusing on outcomes.
We know that schools do not exist in vacuums, and students come to us with a wide range of different baselines. Family dynamics, living conditions, socioeconomic status, health, and myriad other factors all play into how our students show up at school. They bring their whole selves, just like we do.
But someone's starting line shouldn't determine their finish line.
If we want equal outcomes for all-- which we do-- we have to vary the inputs to balance the equation. That's equity!
For our mathematical thinkers:
Different baselines + Equal Inputs --> Unequal Outcomes :(
Different baselines + Equitable Inputs --> Equal Outcomes :)
CHAPTER TWO: EQUITY IS A LITTLE... UNCOMFORTABLE.
Embarking on this mission to define "equity" in clear and simple terms proved to be harder than expected. Along the way, I realized that defining words is much harder when they have to do with an uncomfortable topic, and equity is just that. Uncomfortable.
Go with me for a minute, here.
In the nonprofit and private school sectors in particular, “diversity, equity, & inclusion" (D.E.I.) is a category of education work that has been gaining traction and momentum in recent years. "D.E.I. Practitioners" are becoming commonplace in independent schools, which is really great progress!
Over in the business sector, where a much wealthier and more powerful portion of society works, the equivalent term is "D & I" work. It's much more common to hear "D & I" (Diversity & Inclusion) than "D.E.I" (Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion). In that world, they tend to drop the "E" and focus on the "D" and the "I."
Perhaps the "E" gets left out because it is the uncomfortable part.
"D & I" -- Diversity & Inclusion-- are two concepts that feel good. Everyone is unique (diversity), yet everyone belongs (inclusion)... How wonderfully warm & fuzzy! These 2 words conjure up images in our heads of a rainbow of skin tones high-fiving, and happy thoughts of harmony, togetherness, and belonging.
The "E" on the other hand?
There are 4 reasons that "equity" makes us feel a little uncomfortable, especially in contrast with diversity & inclusion.
Equity is uncomfortable because...
It means we have to talk about unfairness and injustice.
If Equity had direct synonyms (which it doesn’t) the closest matches would be fairness and justice. So if we say we want equity, that implies that the current state of the world is unfair and unjust.
There are the haves, and there are the have nots.
If you’re in the "have"s camp, the suggestion that you have an unfair share of something feels like an accusation, an attack on your character. You’ve been accused of hoarding the goodness and keeping it away from others.
You might hear it as “YOU are being unfair,” or “YOU are being unjust,” which of course naturally triggers defensiveness. Thoughts like those usually then activate other thoughts, like "But I'm a good person!" Or "I worked hard for what I have!" Which are probably true, they're just beside the point.
It’s so much bigger than individual "YOU"s though. It’s systemic. More on that in a minute.
We can all see that there is unfairness and injustice in the world. That's a painful reality. I wonder what would happen if instead of that observation making us feel defensive, we opted to get curious about how we could take real steps to make it more fair and more just?
That mindshift could be a major step toward equity.
REASONS #2 & 3
Equity is uncomfortable because...
It means we have to confront stuff much bigger than us: privilege and systems.
We can't talk EQUITY without mentioning privilege.
What is "privilege," you ask?
Welp, here's a one-page Privilege Primer for you. We'll wait while you go get up to speed:
Got it... now what's that got to do with equity?
Looking back at our working definition of equity--
"when everyone has access to what they need to be successful,"
we see that privilege is a necessary part of the equity conversation, because it means some people have easier access to what they need to be successful than others.
Once we admit that we see privilege, just like we see disadvantage, we can start doing the hard equity work of addressing both.
...So back to that thing about systems.
I can't disrupt privilege on my own as an individual because it is systemic-- it's based on who holds power in our society, and what rules and systems have been historically put in place to maintain that power.
These rules and systems add up to what's known as Structural Inequality. And it even includes the laws governing our country.
There are current and historic laws-- actual laws! -- that carve out paths to power, success, and prosperity for some, while blocking the paths for others.
That's inequity on a systemic level. ( <-- click for an *AWESOME* resource!!)
Here are a few official, state-sanctioned policies that create structural inequality
(Most are still in effect even today)
While discrimination is of course appalling on the individual level, it is the systemic level that is most harmful. We are all part of a system that legally discriminates, resulting in better opportunity and better outcomes for some than others.
We are all accountable. What are we going to do about it? That brings us to...
Finally, equity is uncomfortable because...
It means we have to take action (and unequal action, at that!)
The fourth and final reason EQUITY can feel uncomfortable is because it necessitates action. Moreso even than its other two partner words we mentioned earlier (diversity, inclusion). It means we see the unfairness, and now we’re going to change.
Change is hard!
Human brains are wired to resist it.
Systems are-- by design-- built to resist it.
Then things get even more complicated, because to make the necessary changes, it means we have to take UNEQUAL measures to remedy the inequity--
We have to remove the barriers that block some people's paths, not all.
We have to fill the gaps that keep some people further from success than others.
Choosing to be UNEQUAL in the name of EQUITY can be a real mindbender.
But like we learned in preschool: "fair" isn't everyone getting exactly the same thing; it's everyone getting exactly what they need.
CHAPTER THREE: MYTHBUSTING
Once we get past the discomfort of defining equity, we also have to sift through the folklore that further obscures its true meaning.
There are two harmful myths that get in the way most of making equity a common vocabulary word.
The Myth of Meritocracy
Other aliases include: the American Dream myth, the Land of Opportunity myth, the self-made man myth, and the "pick yourself up by your bootstraps" myth
"If you just work hard enough, you can achieve anything! It doesn't matter where you start, success is there for those who work hard enough."
This myth is harmful to equity because it doesn't take into account the many social factors that make it easier for some to succeed, and harder for others to succeed.
It also creates an atmosphere of judgement, where it's easy to attribute nonsuccess to laziness or poor work ethic, and easy to attribute success to hard work even when it isn't the case.
It leads us to ignore the things that lead to success besides hard work, such as having educated parents, being born into a high social class, inheriting family wealth, having mentors, living in a resource-rich community, or the unearned privileges that go along with simply being white.
Similarly, it leads us to choose laziness as a singular explanation for nonsuccess, when the reality is actually a constellation of factors than might include having uneducated parents, being born into poverty, living in a resource-scarce community, exposure to addictive substances at an early age, and experiencing abuse or other childhood traumas.
The reason this myth keeps persisting is, it does happen.
There are of course people who overcome their circumstances and become successful.
American culture clings to these stories and retells them as though they are the norm, or at the very least, in a way that communicates that they are our expectation.
In reality, though, these stories are the exception, not the norm. That's where the trouble comes in.
Celebrating stories of exceptions means turning a blind eye to the norm and never getting around to answering the questions, "how might we make these stories more common? What is causing so many people to be unable to rise above their circumstances? What would change that pattern?"
Equity then, would be taking action to disrupt that pattern-- pinpointing and providing access to the things people need to become successful.
The "Education is the Great Equalizer" Myth
"Focus on your education and you'll go far! Education is the key to your future! No matter where you start, education can get you where you want to be."
It pains me that this one is a myth. It SHOULD be true!
Back in the early days of American education (~1840s), Horace Mann had a vision that schools could serve the purpose of closing gaps in society, equipping the poor with the skills and knowledge to rise out of poverty. He's often quoted for calling education society's "great equalizer" (p.59).
Unfortunately, his vision isn't quite coming to fruition, even (or especially?) nearly 200 years later.
In many cases, schools serve to further de-equalize (is that a word?) society. School funding gaps, discipline rate disparities, tracking, white-centric curricula, and more are all common fixtures that actively widen gaps, not close them.
The thing is, that vision doesn't have to be a myth. Education is the one institution in our society with the greatest potential to change the world. Schools could absolutely serve as the great equalizer they were meant to be.
What would it take to turn this myth into a reality?
Here is what *YOU* can do to make equity a reality:
Classroom leaders (teachers) :
School & district leaders:
Let's circle back one last time on that equity definition as we close out.
"Equity is when everyone has access to what they need to be successful."
Now that we know what it is, how will we know when we get there?
At the risk of getting a little too up-in-the-clouds-dreamy...
We will see a huge increase in positive outcomes for students who had a more challenging starting line in life, because school will have made the difference that they needed to succeed. The saying “school is the great equalizer” will ring true instead of feeling like a cruel ironic joke.
We’ll see community centers partnering with schools in high-poverty areas, acknowledging that it takes more than academic support to succeed. Community partners will come together to provide wrap-around services to meet children’s whole-person needs.
We’ll look at the day-to-day classroom experiences of children in high-poverty schools and high-affluence schools, and we won’t notice a difference in the way they are learning, the way they are disciplined, the way they are spoken to, or the quality of instruction they access. Hey, maybe we won't even have high-affluence vs. high-poverty schools any more.
We’ll have school board and district leaders with the courage to draw school zone lines that unite instead of divide races & SES-classes. We’ll see children learning with a variety of peers who are different than themselves.
We’ll see school funding formulas based on student need instead of based on local property taxes. We’ll stop talking about “the good schools” in “the good areas” because zipcode will no longer determine school quality.
We’ll see teacher prep programs at universities encouraging and preparing teachers to teach in high-need environments. Teachers won’t have to wait until grad school (if ever) to hear words like “cultural proficiency,” “culturally responsive practice,” “critical pedagogy,” or “social justice teaching.”
See you there.
Did this article resonate with you?
Ready to take the next step?
We'd love to work with you to make your school a more equitable place!
Get in touch:
Out of the 4 secret ingredients that make up a Co-Created education-- empowering, inclusive, rigorous, and supportive-- this final ingredient is the one with...
... the most information readily available online about it already,
...the most trainings geared in its direction already,
...the most attention paid to it already.
Yet, when it comes to putting all those things into practice, most schools and classrooms still have a lonngggg way to go in this area.
(So, on second thought, maybe the most lip-service paid to it, would unfortunately be a more accurate statement.)
Spoiler alert: the “it” I’m talking about supporting here is behavior and discipline.
There are a whole slew of resources and professional developments available on behavior and discipline, which shows that we all see a need.
So if we see the need, and the knowledge is out there, why is it still so rare to see it done really well in practice?
One explanation is that it comes down to mindset; handy tips and tricks can only go so far without addressing the beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, and expectations that we hold about behavior and discipline in our minds. We have to go further upstream and get to the source.
Before we do all that, let's get some definitions out of the way.
What does it mean to be supportive from a behavior and discipline standpoint? What does it mean to cultivate a supportive environment?
Students feel supported when their whole-person needs are met: clear boundaries provide security; a tightknit community provides a sense of belonging; and explicitly-taught social-emotional skills and executive functioning skills provide a practical toolkit for finding success.
Alright, now that we're clear on exactly what it means to co-create a supportive educational experience, let's take a deeper look at the role of mindset.
What's mindset got to do with it?
Dr. Marcia Reynolds is in the business of changing minds; she teaches leaders and coaches how to help people have breakthrough moments where they examine and challenge their own thinking patterns.
Check out how she visualizes the way we construct and deconstruct our mindsets:
Many things shape our mindsets-- our upbringing, our experiences, our education, our culture... the list goes on. These formative elements are what make up the "walls" in our minds that sometimes need to be brought down brick by brick so we can make positive change.
Self-Assess: What are the mental walls you've built around your concept of behavior and discipline?
Chances are, your responses to these questions reflect the type of environment you are creating in your school or classroom. Our actions don't come from nowhere; they come from our mindsets.
Everyone wants to feel successful and happy in their day-to-day work. Being honest with yourself about the questions above will feel uncomfortable in the short run, yet could lead to greater happiness and success in the long run for both you and your students.
If it's helpful to you, you could even draw it out-- literally visualize the mental walls so you can begin to break down any that need it.
Once you've done some big picture self-reflection, then it's time to drill down into the 4 specific mindshifts that will help you become a more supportive educator and help you cultivate a supportive learning environment.
TOP 4 SHIFTS TO GET YOUR MIND INTO SUPPORTIVE MODE
Supportive Mindshift #1
Support students as whole people-- instincts, needs, flaws & all.
Fifty years ago, legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow said,
When people appear to be something other than good and decent, it is only because they are reacting to stress, pain, or the deprivation of a basic human need such as security, love, and self-esteem."
Put in simpler terms, no one is their best self when something is missing or something is hurting.
Trauma, skill gaps, unmet needs, sensory sensitivities, or even unclear boundaries can all contribute to a student requiring some additional support.
Come to think of it, that doesn't just apply to our students-- that applies to all of us!
When we look for a root cause instead of looking for a culprit to blame, we move ourselves into a space of curiosity and compassion.
When we see that our students are just as human as we are and vice versa, we tap into empathy and connection.
A bit more on Maslow
Maslow’s work has since been commonly summarized in a hierarchy of human needs, visualized as a pyramid:
Although not all psychologists agree about the order or hierarchical structure of the pyramid, it still serves as a concise and accurate summary of our basic human needs.
It's likely that whatever might be hurting or missing for our students falls into one of the categories of that pyramid.
The simple act of recognizing that our students might be missing out on a basic need or hurting on a fundamentally human level helps us reframe the way we work with them, and it better positions us to provide support.
*Disclaimer* -- To be clear, this is in no way a plea to lower our standards based on students' circumstances, or to make excuses for them, or to let them off the hook. In fact, one of the most caring things we can do is hold students accountable.
The difference is in making sure they know it's coming from a place of human understanding, coupled with strong belief in their high potential.
Supportive Mindshift #2
Support students’ sense of security & belonging first.
As educators, we of course cannot meet our students' every need all on our own. We need partnership with families and the greater community in order to do that.
However, there are two particular areas of need that-- if we were to actively and purposely target them in the classroom-- could be making a HUGE impact in our students' lives.
Those areas are security and belonging.
The mindshift here is prioritizing those two areas as highly as any academic goal. The environment in which students learn makes *all* the difference in what they learn, how they learn, and to what degree they learn. Security and belonging come first if we have any hope of academic excellence.
Here are a few ways to make sure your students can answer "yes" to both those questions.
First, Community-oriented classroom management shows everyone they belong.
The dictionary defines community as:
"a unified body of individuals who feel a sense of fellowship with each other, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals."
( ...Ok, technically I combined two dictionary definitions to get that one, but still. It's a good one!)
That's the kind of community that will help our students (and us!) flourish and thrive. It's an environment where their innate need for belonging will be met, so that they can focus on learning instead of on survival. (Instincts are powerful things!)
That type of community doesn't happen magically or automatically. It takes purposeful effort and action. It takes working together to explicitly define what common attitudes, interests, and goals you all will share together.
To help kickstart that effort and action, here's a freebie for you, along with an example of the community commitments my class and I made together back in the day:
Second, clear boundaries make everyone feel more secure.
"Wow, I'm so thankful my teacher sets such clear boundaries and holds us all accountable!"
... said no student, ever.
Yet, even though they don't say it out loud, and even though they're probably not even consciously aware of it, they feel it.
Boundaries provide the safe perimeter that surrounds and defines the limits of the community. Inside of them is what we do tolerate in this community; outside of them is what we don't tolerate in this community.
As the leader of the classroom or school community, it is your sacred responsibility to ensure that those boundaries are defined, honored, and reinforced. While you will serve as the main caring authority holding students accountable to the boundaries, if those boundaries are clear enough, students will also hold each other accountable to them. Especially in the elementary years.
In the adolescent years, a hallmark of students' development is the need to push boundaries. So they need something sturdy to push up against! It is developmentally essential that the boundaries are clear, fair, reasonable, and consistently reinforced.
This is where natural and logical consequences come in as part of the learning process. A consequence is simply a result of an action; consequences can be negative, positive, or neutral. Students improve their decision-making skills each time they have the opportunity to reflect on what consequence resulted from the choices they made.
Final key to meeting students' security need: be the "solid object" in the room.
For just a moment, imagine yourself caught in a powerful storm, maybe even a hurricane.
You're out in the elements with no shelter, winds gusting, waters rising, hail pummeling. Just as you feel like the raging winds are about to sweep you away, you reach out desperately, grasping for anything to cling to. Your hand makes contact with a solid object, and you hold onto it with all your might. It's your lifeline. Over time the winds subside, and your safety is restored, thanks to your solid object.
I once heard an emotional meltdown described as a storm. During a meltdown, a child loses control-- sometimes emotionally, sometimes physically. Inside their minds and bodies, a storm is going on; everything is in tumult, swirling around in a cyclone of chaos.
Students need us to be the solid object in their storm, so they can feel safe and secure.
(Credit to the Handle With Care Program for this spot-on term and helpful model!)
Serving as a "solid object" looks like:
Supportive Mindshift #3
Support students’ behavioral challenges as learning needs.
What if the reason a student is behaving a certain way is because they genuinely don't know any better?
We've all been in situations with students where that explanation is true, and other situations where it very much is not. However, whether it's true 100% of the time or not is something I would challenge us all to let go of, and instead replace it with a new question:
"What can this student learn from this situation, and how can I support that learning?"
"What skill is this student missing that would help them do better next time, and how can I help them gain that skill?"
The two main learning gaps that result in behavioral challenges are in the areas of 1) social-emotional skills, and 2) executive functioning skills. Helping students fill these two gaps can be a complete and total game-changer, for them and for you (hello, regained sanity, reclaimed time, and renewed job satisfaction!)
Ideas for Supporting Social-Emotional Learning
Ideas for Supporting Executive Function Development
To sum up this third mindshift, there are specific skills students can learn to help them excel as students, as friends, and as people.
We can use this knowledge to reframe how we look at behavior challenges.
We wouldn’t kick a student out of class for struggling to read a challenging paragraph.
We wouldn’t kick a kid out of class for solving a math problem incorrectly.
Because those are learning problems. Learning problems don't trigger us the way behavior problems do.
But if we can train our brains to see behavior issues as learning opportunities, we can keep kids in class, learning, where they belong.
Because depriving a child of learning is not a fair or reasonable punishment for just about anything.
In Closing ...
Being a supportive educator and cultivating a supportive environment requires us to shift our mindsets around behavior and discipline in 3 key ways:
If becoming supportive educators and creating supportive environments were easy, it would be a widespread commonality. It would be the norm instead of the exception.
As you and I both know, that isn't the case.
If only there were an easy button for discipline and behavior! Sure there are several grab-and-go options out there. And those off-the-shelf solutions sound SUPER appealing when you're a hard-working educator, trying to fit everything in, without enough hours in the day.
I get it, I’ve been there. It makes sense.
Without the right mindset in place, though, that off-the-shelf solution has a pretty low ceiling of effectiveness. It can only go so far and can only do so much without a mindset to match.
The trouble with "mindshifting" is, it's inherently uncomfortable. A mindshift challenges our beliefs and paradigms, and brains don’t enjoy that feeling. Humans are wired to resist change. Which is why I’ve said it once before: a mindset might be the hardest thing in the world to change.
I’ve also been accused of being an eternal optimist, because I remain hopeful that we can all do hard things, and that change is possible, even when it comes to mindsets.
We are educators: we are in the business of shaping minds, literally.
Let's start with our own.
When was a time you effectively supported a student through a behavior challenge by connecting on a human level and responding with empathy?
This is the final installment of a 4-part series on the foundational pillars of a Co-Created education.
Check out the full series here:
Does this sound like the kind of environment you're trying to cultivate in your school or classroom?
Get in touch-- we'd love to work with you!
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?