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The Role of Rigor in Digital Learning

In shifting instructional techniques to utilize new technology and support Common Core instruction, it is easy for teachers to access an abundance of exciting applications, web tools, and lesson plan ideas that allow students to practice skills in a new way. Scrolling through Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers, or other such sites, one could spend hours looking at examples of neat digital tools and captivating lessons that teachers are using in their classrooms. And although these tools provide catchy, exciting, and even memorable classroom experiences for our students, I would offer up a word of caution: Don’t get too caught up in the fun and flashy, and forget about rigor.

Admittedly, this is a mistake I have made myself over the past couple of years. In creating and implementing lessons for an elementary STEM lab, I have gotten excited about the overwhelming student engagement, but neglected the learning outcomes. Don’t get me wrong— student engagement is an essential part of good teaching. But I fear, at times, I have sacrificed rigor for relevance. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the art of strong pedagogy is finding the sweet spot where students are so engaged that they embrace challenges that push them to apply their understanding at a deeper level.

So as we begin developing lessons for next year, how do we make sure that we do not get so caught up in catchy content that we neglect high expectations for learning? I would argue that just about any app can be included in a rigorous lesson when used as part of an engaging learning process, as opposed to standing alone as the entire learning experience. For example, a few months ago, I was planning a lesson on landforms and how the earth changes. Immediately, the old baking soda and vinegar volcano came to mind since it always proves to be a memorable crowd pleaser. However, as I thought about it, I realized that the demonstration, although fun, presents students with very little challenge or even interaction with the content. Therefore, I continued my search. I then found an app called “Volcano 360” which allows students to take a 360 degree helicopter tour of an erupting volcano. Again, this was a very fun-sounding prospect but it lacked the potential for deep learning.  Finally, it occurred to me to use both of these experiences as part of a language arts lesson on compare and contrast. After spending a few minutes experiencing each of these short activities, and an introduction to compare and contrast, the students created a Popplet web comparing and contrasting the real volcano with our model. In doing this, they were able to discover how a volcano changes land and many even argued why that particular way of modeling a volcano is somewhat inaccurate. From this example, you can see how an app or activity that lacks rigor can be used as part of a lesson that is both engaging and produces higher order learning outcomes.

One of the most important considerations when developing rigorous lessons is setting strong objectives from the very beginning of the learning process. Recently, I was helping a teacher plan a science lesson on physical and chemical changes. Although we had identified an engaging science experiment for the students to learn about the two, we felt that the students needed more explicit instruction about facts related to these topics. Therefore, we decided to create a Padlet wall with links to websites and videos that would provide the necessary information.  However, although all of the information would be disseminated to students, the links themselves did not provide an opportunity for productive struggle. Therefore, we decided to create a task for students to complete for each link that were more challenging for them. When creating these tasks, we wanted to make sure that students were considering answers to higher-order questions.  Therefore, we used a Bloom’s taxonomy diagram to help us create a rubric to set student learning goals for each task. (Google “Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs” and take your pick from hundreds of images.) In grading their responses, we were able to screenshot evidence from their responses to justify our evaluation of each task. Again, this activity began with a simple science experiment and research tool, but was transformed into a much more rigorous learning experience by focusing on higher-order outcomes and the integration of content areas based on cross-cutting concepts.

Moving forward in our instructional shift and digital conversion, perhaps no one is more excited than I am about providing engaging, memorable, and meaningful learning opportunities for our students.  There is no question that neat apps and interactive projects make content more relevant and enjoyable for students. However, in doing so, we cannot forget the pitfalls we learned from the whole learner movement. Exciting classroom experiences that lack opportunities for students to analyze, evaluate, and synthesis information will yield basic-level understanding at best and educational gaps at worst.  There are so many amazing digital resources out there.  But it is up to us as teachers to apply those resources in a way that will produce optimal learning outcomes and motivate students to embrace these challenges.

This article was originally posted on the Sam Houston Elementary School blog. You can view the original post here.

Written by

Miranda Reagan worked two years as a STEM teacher and technology coordinator at Sam Houston Elementary School in Maryville, TN. In this capacity, she has designed and implemented lessons for a K–3 STEM lab and mentored teachers in “STEM-infusing” their classrooms. Last year, Miranda was a full-time instructional coach where she served as a resource to teachers for STEM-infusion and technology integration. Because of her passion for children, she moved back into the classroom to teach 3rd grade, using the STEM-infusion method of instruction in a 1:1 iPad classroom. Miranda Reagan’s book entitled STEM-Infusing the Elementary Classroom will be available from Corwin in March 2016.


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