Robert Harrell on Rigor

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15 thoughts on “Robert Harrell on Rigor”

  1. Robert, you could make an awesome little book (or a big one!) out of all this bedrock material you are constantly analyzing and synthesizing. This particular piece, as are others, is SOOOOO important. I mean, how many people truly think of “rigor” in the way you describe above? It is confidence boosting for us who know we should teach language this way, and I would guess it’s quite hard to deny for those who don’t yet get it (i.e. Melissa’s colleagues).

    1. Thank you, Jim and Ben. I find that many people use words like “rigor” and “relevance” without ever defining what they are, and that often leads to a lot of confusion. When I was doing biblical exegesis and textual criticism, we were encouraged to look for presuppositions and clarify them, so I attempt to make certain that people start from the same base.

      1. “biblical exegesis and textual criticism”, I don’t even know what that is but it sounds hard core. As my good friend says often… ‘glad you’re on our side’!

  2. Friends, I got this email from our colleague Melanie Bruyers. She and I worked together in the same district and made great changes. She was a long-time member of the blog but for personal reasons had to let her membership lapse.

    Her German program enjoyed the best results on the independent proficiency assessment we use, the highest retention rate, and the most equitable retention (male/female) of any other language program in the district.

    But, the district cut German off at the knees and she was forced to go elsewhere. Now, she’s having to retrain her new admins.

    She sent me this note. I’ve copied and pasted this post, Robert Harrell on Rigor in an email to her. But I was wondering if you all had additional thoughts specific to her request. Many thanks. – Grant

    Hi Grant, How are you? Hope you are having a good year. I am the only TCI teacher in my district and I am feeling a bit isolated professionally, but my students are super nice and enthusiastic and we just had 13 German visitors for a GAPP exchange for 3 weeks and I hosted the teacher in my home.

    Question: My principal and I had a disagreement in our post-observation meeting about whether my students were “cognitively busy” (from the Danielson rubric culture of learning level 4). I argued that listening, answering questions, making connections and creating meaning, analyzing input and creating grammar rules are all cognitive processes that are going on during PQA and storytelling. Do you have a better/different explanation of why language acquisition is being cognitively busy? I even told him there is a special part of the brain that is just for language.

    Update: I went to Mexico in August and spoke Spanish all day every day and tested into the 300 class at St. Thomas and I am doing well in the class (I would say one of the best students), not to brag, but to say that following Krashen’s advice of reading your favorite books really does work! I have been reading my favorite science fiction in Spanish for almost a year! I think I met my goal of learning 4 years of high school Spanish in less than a year.

  3. I copied and pasted from “Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching (2011 Revised Edition) NYC DOE Priority Competencies. The only place in the document that “cognitively busy” occurs is given below:

    The classroom culture is a cognitively busy place where learning is valued by all with high expectations for learning the norm for most students. The teacher conveys that with hard work students can be successful; students understand their role as learners and consistently expend effort to learn. Classroom interactions support learning and hard work.
    • The teacher communicates the importance of learning, and that with hard work all students can be successful in it.
    • The teacher demonstrates a high regard for student abilities.
    • Teacher conveys an expectation of high levels of student effort.
    • Students expend good effort to complete work of high quality.

    I note the following:
    1. Cognitively busy remains undefined. Melanie needs to get her administrator to define it and describe what it looks like.
    2. Most of the statements are “teacher statements”. Melanie needs to get her administrators evaluation of her performance with regard to the teacher statements.
    3. The “student statements” are vague, open to varied interpretation, and without unambiguous criteria. What do the following statements mean?
    3.1.1. Students understand their role as learners and consistently expend effort to learn. How does the administrator define the student’s role as learner? How is understanding of this role manifested? In the foreign language classroom, the role of the learner is to listen with the intent to understand, indicate comprehension or lack thereof, ask for clarification, and respond appropriately to questions and prompts form the teacher. Were students doing this? Then they demonstrated understanding of their role as learners.
    3.1.2. What does “consistently expend effort to learn” look like? In the foreign language classroom it looks like students sitting up, with squared shoulder, eyes focused on the speaker; sustaining focus by not having side conversations, not fiddling with extraneous materials, and consistently demonstrating the role of learner. It is not doing worksheets, having group conversations in English or any of a number of things that often go on in other content areas.
    3.2. Classroom interactions support learning and hard work. Did students ask for clarification? Did they pursue areas of interest in depth and with integrity? Did they seek to speak the target language? Did Melanie encourage them to use the language they have acquired? Did she encourage them to work out grammatical concepts on their own? Did she praise them for indicating lack of comprehension and then work through the area of incomprehension? Did she and the students persist in establishing and negotiating meaning? All of these are classroom interactions that support learning and hard work.
    3.3. Did students expend good effort to complete work of high quality? The administrator definitely needs to discuss what this looks like. Since language acquisition is an internal, even unconscious process, other than what has been mentioned in the points above, what else does the administrator want to see that indicates students are expending good effort? Doing worksheets? That is not necessarily work of high quality. Expanding and deepening relationships is work of the highest quality, and we do that through interpersonal communication.

    If part of the lesson was interpretive communication, then there are some other criteria and evidence that could be discussed, but my impression from this is that it was not the literacy portion of the process.

    BTW, I think Melanie’s answers (listening, answering questions, making connections and creating meaning, analyzing input, and creating grammar rules) were excellent. Her administrator probably is not equipped to understand it, though. Does he understand that language processing requires the involvement of the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for symbolic representation, primarily through the activation of Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area but with involvement of other areas as well? Obviously, these two areas must communicate with one another, so learning a language involves establishing neural pathways between them. While both of these areas are in the dominant hemisphere of the brain, the non-dominant hemisphere is also involved in cognitive function.

    Someone learning a foreign language must first hear a flow of non-native sounds, then separate them into discrete units. Once that has been done, the learner must analyze the units for meaning based on morphology (form), comparing them with the personal lexis to see if they are known or unknown. If the sounds are not separated correctly or if the resultant unit is unknown, the learner may not be able to construct meaning immediately. A lacuna in understanding must be negotiated, so the brain analyzes what is known and posits potential meaning for what has not been understood. If the result is logical and seems to fit the context, the person generally is satisfied that the message has been understood and is ready to move on. (Incidentally, this is one area in which rigor becomes important: the learner cannot be satisfied that the first-posited understanding of the utterance is correct; rather than jumping to a premature conclusion, the hypothesis must be tested.) If the result does not make sense, then the learner either re-analyzes the utterance or asks for help in deciphering what has been said.

    All of the above is internal. How does the administrator propose to analyze and evaluate what is going on in the cerebral cortex of students to determine whether or not students are “working hard”? Would filling out a worksheet demonstrate this? From personal experience as a student, I can assure your administrator that it does not. Negotiating meaning, responding appropriately to questions and prompt, and generally participating in genuine human interaction does, it sounds to me like that is what Melanie was doing.

  4. Robert,
    I was sharing the four elements of rigor with a TCI oriented colleague. He was (pleasantly) surprised. As a former department coordinator he had only heard the term “rigor” used in the onerous sense of the word by administrators. Thanks for bringing this up in a variety of contexts. It is starting to take hold in my mind. And it must be crystal clear lest it be used as a sledge hammer against those who understand that rigor can look like ease, sloth, and goofing off.

    1. I’m glad you’re finding the definition useful. When I first came across it, I thought, “Wow, this is great. I need to make certain I define rigor this way so that people don’t confuse it with just working harder.” It has proven valuable in numerous conversations.

      When I talk about this with my students, I tell them that Sustained Focus looks like sitting up, perhaps leaning slightly forward (because when we are interested in something we physically want to “get into” it), squared shoulders (i.e. no slouching), and eyes on the speaker or text (focused eyes; I use “focused” rather than “clear” in my poster). The closer to supine/horizontal your body is, the less engaged your are.

      I wish administrators, legislators and the domestic “experts” paid greater attention to the Department of State’s definitions and descriptions. Their discussion of relevance on the same page is also good.

  5. Addressing the point about rigor, think about professional basketball players. When they are relaxed and in the zone, they put up shots that, if they thought about them, would never go in. But when they are in the zone, the term used by some sportscasters is that they go “unconscious”. So if a pro athlete is unconscious, they are in the zone, they are not thinking, and the ball goes in. That’s what we do, we speak to our students’ unconscious faculties, they engage with the meaning of what we say and don’t consciously focus on the words, and they acquire. As Robert said, learning a language “involves establishing neural pathways between [different parts of the brain]”. I would say that shooting a basketball so that it goes in involves establishing the same kind of pathways, which cannot be established by the conscious mind. So when the work being done by the student in the CI classroom or by the basketball player on the court is unconscious, that is rigor. It is a new definition for most people, and it’s ours.

    1. The only problem I see with your analogy, Ben, is that the game itself is output rather than the learning phase. The great basketball players take that same mental focus and attitude into their practice, though. Larry Bird spent hours after everyone else had gone home shooting baskets from every part of the court until he could do it without thinking. He had both sustained focus and depth and integrity of “inquiry”. Another famous basketball player – I think it was Magic Johnson – would put up folding chairs in different places on the court and practice dribbling around them after everyone else had left. None of them concentrated on the “grammar” of the activity (i.e. the firing of each individual muscle, the angle of the arm, the position of the foot, etc.) until they were highly advanced; they concentrated on the meaning of the activity (getting the ball into the basket, going around defenders to get closer to the basket). Explicit “grammar” is for refinement, not for learning the basics.

      Just my thoughts on the matter.

      1. Speaking of analogies . . . I heard Helena Curtain give this analogy: “Teaching language without speaking the language is like teaching someone how to swim without water.” At first, I thought it was brilliant – the necessity of input. But then, the analogy breaks down, because the person has to move (output) and practice in order to learn and improve at swimming.

    1. I stole that from Ben.
      He may not have had Helena Curtain in mind.
      But I love that image, and must- must- must not drown my own kids with too many new words.
      It’s so much easier said than done.

  6. Robert – Thanks for the well-thought out explanation for Melanie. I like to mentally be on the proactive side, thinking about how I may “defend” what I do in the classroom whenever I might need to in the future.

    I really like the point about how worksheets, English discussions in groups, etc. are not rigorous work in our language classrooms. Having a real conversation with live human beings is work and it cannot be faked or cheated through!

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