27 Jan Great Lessons 2: Rigour
This series of posts is about the habits of teaching; the things we do every day; the strategies and attitudes that define our default mode. These are the characteristics of lessons that feel outstanding as soon as you walk in… no tricks, no gizmos, just embedded routine practice.
The first was about Probing Questions. This second post is about the general pitch and tone of a lesson. At KEGS ‘Rigour and Scholarship’ is our phrase of the moment, taken from our Zest for Learning jigsaw. It helps us to define the spirit of what we are trying to achieve and where we need to improve. The idea of rigour goes to the heart of what I have described as a ‘Total Philosophy of G&T’. In formal or drop-in observations, it is always true that great lessons are characterised by a high level of rigour.
The nature of rigour can be highly subject specific, but there are some over-arching characteristics:
- The teacher pitches the material very high; there is no doubt that the most able students in the room are challenged and engaged.
- The teacher presents a strong command of the subject and uses that to select appropriately probing questions and tasks… this may come across as ‘passion’ but not necessarily. Rigour isn’t about excited enthusiasm; that is not what we’re talking about here.
- The teacher can respond intelligently to questions and can back-fill or widen discussion with examples, counter-examples and tangential ideas.
- Students are required to give precise answers, extended answers and answers that focus on the Why and How… not just the What.
- The use of accurate subject specific language is expected and reinforced.
- The teacher is prepared to challenge and accept challenge back; it matters that things are right – or that they are examined for truth and the general tone of the lesson is one of searching ever deeper.
- There is usually a general sense of high expectations in range of areas: concentration span; extended writing; independence and self-help; maturity and sophistication etc. All these things reinforce a rigorous approach to learning in the classroom.
- The focus is on intrinsic reward and motivation through the learning; rigour is rarely associated with ‘having a bit of fun’.. but actually, in great lessons, students get engrossed in rigorous tasks and enjoy the feeling of making progress. Serious endeavour, rigour and enjoyment are intertwined… a great teacher never dumbs it down or suggests that the ‘fun’ is all the easy stuff.
In some circumstances it can be true that relationships and good behaviour management are more important than subject knowledge, but only to a degree and only if we’re setting our sights low. More and more I feel that teachers need to spend more CPD time deepening or refreshing their own subject knowledge. ‘Knowing your stuff’ is an important element of being a teacher whose lessons are routinely outstanding and it shows if you don’t.
However, importantly, it isn’t a ‘sufficient condition’; in our house we often refer to ‘Michael Syndrome’, named after a former colleague, (name changed to protect identity) to define the ultra pedantic ‘strictly speaking’ dullness of someone who ‘knows their stuff’ but can’t get more than two kids in the class to take an interest…. On the other hand, a likeable, well-meaning teacher who busks their way through the material, not really knowing how to nail a solid A* answer with confidence, isn’t what you want either. I think we’re entitled to expect all three areas to be outstanding; routinely. This has implications for anyone who teaches new material; a new syllabus or a ‘second subject’; you need to do your own homework and get on top of it.
How does rigour come across in different subjects? Here are examples I’ve witnessed recently:
Y7 Geography: Students plotting graphs, being drilled in the precision required; points in the right place; aligning multiple variables in the appropriate columns; starting the line in the exact spot required and getting the decimals places correct. This early training allows them to tackle complex synoptic tasks later on at GCSE and A Level where accurate data analysis is an assumed prerequisite for a range of problem solving challenges.
Y12 Maths: Students asked to identify a general formula to cover all possibilities to define the factor theorem, comparing the method with long-division of polynomials where the vertical alignment of each power of x was critical. The ability to identify different equally valid methods was key, whilst also challenging students to select the most effective.
Y11 Physics: Students needing to produce a 5 mark answer to describe and explain the function of a transformer… using electromagnetism and concept of induction. The scope for waffle and ‘winging it’ is huge so the teacher has to filter out misconceptions, challenge sloppy use of terms (such as current, potential difference and magnetic field) and ensure all students can relate the theory to the practice.
Y12 History: Students reading and discussing the latest examiner’s report for the American Civil War sources paper, to see how subtle the requirements are in terms of using prior knowledge in conjunction with interpretations of sources to answer a question; then applying this to a sample question.
Y9 Art: Students set a challenging multimedia project with a high degree of freedom but also a tight brief in terms of the progression of ideas from the B.A.S.H. stimulus. The rigour comes through the pace expected, the depth of thinking behind the composition and the level of detail in the application of various painting techniques.
Y13 Economics: Students in pairs identifying the key consequences for global businesses of reducing interest rates; sharing the answers and defending their positions under questioning. The rigour comes from expecting students to weigh up the relative effects of competing trends and come to a conclusion, again, using appropriate terminology and citing relevant examples.
Y9 German: As profiled in this post, students given a translation task, using various resources to identify the grammatical features of a sentence and the required word endings. A strong understanding of cases is developed from Y7 to allow students to experiment and explore new and unknown phrases.
Y7 English: students discussing structure and imagery in The Lady of Shallot, following a student presenting an extended exposition of the key elements of one section. The rigour comes mainly through probing questioning.. and challenging soft answers that don’t go far enough or are too sweeping.
I could go on….. The point is that in each case, the level of the work is pitched right up to the top; the expectations of students in terms of work ethic are also very high and the focus on detail, accuracy and precision is strong. Rigour in this context goes hand-in-hand with creativity, open-endedness and experimentation; in fact, the more rigorous the general approach is, the more confident both teachers and students are to then go ‘off piste’; conversely, if the rigour is lacking, everyone feels insecure in the whole process and no-one ventures anywhere near the edge.
Rigour is part of a great teacher’s attitude. You don’t settle for sloppy thinking, mediocrity, half-hearted writing or incomplete answers. You can’t do a bit of rigour every now and then; it is part and parcel of every lesson, relentless and automatic.