The most important element of student success?

November 3, 2012

 How should we assess how much students are learning? Veteran educator Joanne Yatvin takes a new look in the following post. Yatvin, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, now teaches part-time at Portland State University.

By Joanne Yatvin

Not long ago I wrote a post condemning rigor in education and hailing vigor as the most important element of student success. Unfortunately, I used dictionary definitions and metaphors and gave only sketchy examples of vigorous learning activities to make my case.  This time I want to be more factual and descriptive to let readers know what reformers mean when they call for more rigor and what good teachers mean by vigor.

Looking at the recommendations of policy makers, the widely adopted Common Core Standards and the practices in “reformed” schools, it’s easy to see what they mean by rigor: a demanding academic program for all, beginning earlier than at present and advancing more rapidly through the grades, with little tolerance for variations in student progress or behavior.  Specifically, grade level performance is expected of all students in all subjects.  There is greater complexity in reading materials and much more non-fiction at all levels. Algebra belongs in middle school, and there should two years of math and science in high school for everyone.  Formal testing starts in kindergarten and test frequency increases in subsequent grades.

 Vigor, on the other hand, is not defined by grade levels, curriculum, materials, or testing, but by the types of work students do.  Although most teachers who champion vigorous learning work in traditional public schools and follow regular curricula and grading practices, they believe in differentiated instruction and the value of individual progress. They give students more freedom to make decisions about their work and classroom operation.  They assess student achievement through multiple aspects of daily performance rather than by testing.

 Specifically, vigorous learning experiences are multi-faceted activities in which students not only use the knowledge and skills they have been taught but also reach beyond them to bring their own ideas, interests, and personal skills to bear.  Teachers offer students opportunities to work on tasks similar to what people do in the real world.  To help you see the differences between these views of what education should be, I will describe two lesson sequences I observed in elementary level classrooms.

 After a period of heavy rain cased flooding around the state and anxiety among his fourth graders, Mr. Marks decided to have his class read an article on the behavior of rivers in the United states.  Because his classroom textbooks were old and boring, he went to the Internet and found an article that appeared interesting and manageable for his students. But because there were several English language learners (ELLs) in the class, he planned to read it aloud first and explain any words that were technical.  He distributed copies of the article so that the class could follow along while he read.  The reading went smoothly, with students quiet and following instructions.  Since there were no questions afterward, the teacher felt confident that he had provided enough scaffolding for all students to understand the article.

 Next, Mr. Marks instructed students to read the article a second time silently and take notes on important ideas and details.  The class completed their assignment in about thirty minutes.

Later, when he read the students’ notes, Mr. Marks saw that several students, mostly ELLs, had misunderstood words or omitted important facts.  So, the next day he divided the class into five small groups, making sure that each group had at least one ELL, and directed the students to take turns reading the article aloud, discuss it together afterward, and then write a group summary.  Walking around the room while the groups worked, the teacher noticed that only a few ELLs were contributing much to group discussions or summaries.  When he read the group papers after class, he was disappointed to see that they resembled lists more than summaries.  But he was not surprised.  The class had not often worked in groups like this, and he had not taught them how to write a summary. He vowed to repeat this type of lesson with another non-fiction article later that week, preceded by an explanation of how to construct a summary.


After teaching her sixth graders how to draw scale diagrams, Ms. Young introduced the idea of having them construct a floor plan for their dream houses.  But they would not have free reign.  Each student would be randomly assigned a family size and the amount of money they could spend on building and equipping their house.  She told the class that they did not have to pay for land, mortgages, or workers; only for the size of the house, external and internal features, and appliances. They would also be able to consult catalogs picturing appliances and giving their prices.

Although the students seemed excited and set to work right away, the assignment was not easy.  Most of them soon realized that they could not have the house they wanted for the money allocated.  One boy, whose card gave him three children, decided early that he could have a well-equipped game room if he economized wisely on other features.  But when he showed the teacher his preliminary plan, she noted that he had forgotten to put in any bathrooms.  Reluctantly, he scaled down his original plan and included the missing facilities.

 As the class neared completion of their floor plans, several students complained about not being able to furnish their houses.   Ms. Young considered their concerns and made a change in the assignment: she would allot an additional sum for furniture, supply furniture catalogs, and give the class three more days to finish.

 When all the house plans were completed, some students suggested an open house for parents to see their work.  When the teacher agreed, everyone wrote an invitation to their family, and two students volunteered to explain the project to the visitors. A few students who had finished their assigned work early still wanted to do more, so the teacher suggested making “For Sale” flyers for their houses, based on newspaper advertisements.   That idea appealed to more than the original proposers.  Many students produced credible ads, some of which were adorned with drawings of finished houses.


 Although readers may see a bias in my choice of the vigorous vignette, which includes a wide range of skills, differentiated performances, and student-originated ideas, I would argue that Mr. Marks was in a better position to broaden student activities than Ms. Young, since the topic he began with grew out of his students’ interest in a real situation that affected their lives while hers started with an academic exercise.   To my mind, the differences in student activities were the result of the teachers’ basic beliefs in rigor or vigor in their classrooms.  In addition, I suspect that Mr. Marks was more inclined to follow the tenor of the Common Core Standards, which do not suggest projects or student-originated activities.

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