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09.03.13“Rigor Collapse”–Thoughts on Break It Down 2.0

wine glass base

Watching video today with Team Taxonomy, my colleague John Costello coined a useful term that I am going to add to the 2.0 version of Break It Down in the coming revised Teach Like a Champion.  The term is “Rigor Collapse” and refers to what happens when you ask a really hard question that kids can’t answer and progressively “Break it Down” until the big misunderstanding is a little misunderstanding that students are able to leap across but the rigor of the original question has also been lost.

The idea behind Break it Down, you’ll recall, is that instead of giving students the answer when they can’t answer a question you narrow the question until you arrive at the core of the misunderstanding, a smaller question students can get right.  That’s generally a good thing. If you scale down the question gradually and cautiously, students will ideally do as much of the cognitive work as they are capable of, but the question is, how do you achieve that outcome without having a class consisting of simple questions.

Our discussion arose from a video of a 6th grade reading classroom.  The class was reading The Outsiders and the teacher had asked students an exchange between Cherry, a “Soc” (i.e. higher socioeconomic class) and Pony Boy, a “greaser.” (i.e.  lower SES and class).

“You read a lot, don’t you Ponyboy?” Cherry asked.

I was startled. “Yeah. Why?”

She kind of shrugged. “I could just tell. I’ll bet you watch sunsets, too. I used to watch sunsets, before I got so busy.  I miss it.”

The teacher asked what Cherry meant by “before I got so busy.”  She wanted students to recognize the personality similarities between the two but also the ways in which their cultural setting and expectations influenced their lives.  Cherry was the sort of girls who was likely “busy” doing things like school work and after school activities, the sorts of things on her side of the class divide, whereas Pony Boy was not busy with such things.  They could have been kindred spirits—watchers of sunsets–but class and caste expectations (at least partly) put them in different places.

The teachers kids didn’t get this.  They weren’t able to identify that kinds of things were keeping her busy.  When asked, they postulated, that the sorts of things Cherry was doing included “going shopping and hanging out with friends,”—two things which the author probably did NOT intend to imply that Cherry had meant.  Hanging out with friends was what Pony Boy would do.  So the teacher prompted- “Can anyone connect this to our Do Now.  We talked about that phrase the “Rat Race”? (Pony boy’s disparaging term for aspirational activities, for trying to succeed and cross the class divide). Again students struggled to make the connection.  Finally the teacher asked them a very direct question that was important for their understanding but not hugely rigorous. Were the things that Cherry was doing probably productive and important relative to the things Pony Boy did with his time?  Students answered correctly and they moved on.

The good news was that the teacher uncovered and remediated the fundamental misunderstanding—kids didn’t understand what kinds of things Cherry was busy with. By the end of the sequence they did.  But the result was also that a rigorous conversation with implications about “class” and expectations had been replaced by a literal one.  Kids couldn’t answer the richer question without understanding the literal one but in this case there was no time left, or the teacher forgot, because the sequence ended with the question, “Were the things she was doing important” and never  got back to implications about character or class: “Rigor Collapse.”

Our takeaways was that Break It Down is better if after necessarily winnowing the questions, teachers wrap the sequence by going broad and rigorous to make final sense of the answer students gave.  Here we imagined the teacher saying something like: “Good, now connect that to one of the themes we’d discussed from the book,” or “Good, now connect that to the theme of the difficulty of overcoming class divides” or “Good, now connect that to something important in Cherry’s or Pony Boy’s Character” or “Good, now connect that to how the characters in the book interact” or “Good, now connect that to our Essential Question, “How Does Class Affect Most People’s Lives in Ways They Don’t See?” “

If breaking it down takes a broad question and narrows it—imagine the bottom of a wine glass, tapering at its stem to a tiny point—the last move in the sequence should be like the base of the wine glass: a sudden re-widening to connect the narrow to a broader point.   That, for us, is going to be at the core of Break It Down 2.0… We’ve got a name for the narrowing—“rigor collapse”—now we just need a name for the broadening out at the end.  Any ideas?



4 Responses to ““Rigor Collapse”–Thoughts on Break It Down 2.0”

  1. Roberto de Leon
    September 20, 2013 at 4:16 am

    I think you said it yourself – the “Wrap Around” technique. The interesting thing about rigor (versus, as Kylene Beers so eloquently puts it, “rigor mortis”) is that it can also work in the opposite direction. Let’s say in any given scenario, you ask a question. The student gets it wrong, then you scaffold, you break it down. But, what if the student gets it correct? Then, you stretch it…until you reach “Rigor Collapse” (well, just before that moment, anyway). In that way, every question you ask a student is an automatic two-parter. And if it ends up that it takes more than two rounds, that works, too; you just involve some other students. It’s a beautiful little sequence. I picked it up from a teacher named Katherine Perez at Harlem Prep Elementary, and it’s stuck with me for a while. I hope all is well. -Roberto de Leon

  2. Robin Ramos
    May 14, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    Excellent observation and a true danger of “Break it Down.” Thank you. In mathematics, it might mean giving a similar example after having broken down the first to see whether students can then make the necessary connections.
    For example in Grade 2: 34 = ___ tens 14 ones. Students are unable to respond though they have used manipulatives and drawings to break down 2 digit numbers in various ways in earlier lessons, including renaming 1 ten as ten ones as would be done in the subtraction algorithm.
    Rather than returning to students with “hands on,” the teacher might break down 34 using a number bond with 2 parts, 30 and 4, and then break down 30 as 2 parts, 20 and 10. From that point the students can see the ten can be combined either with the tens or ones without changing the value of the total. The rigor has somewhat collapsed, yes, and deep enough understanding for independent success has certainly not been verified. The teacher can then give another very similar, but simpler example, 28 = ____ tens, 18 ones and progress with more problems initially less than 40 and then advancing to larger numbers. The real test is whether students can then answer a similar problem decontextualized from the instruction piece. Give an isolated example the following day at a random moment or as component of a “Do Now.”

    • Doug_Lemov
      May 14, 2014 at 2:00 pm

      Thanks, Robin. Really appreciae the (sound, I think) practical guidance on how to follow up and ensure durable mastery.

      • Robin Ramos
        May 14, 2014 at 2:31 pm

        At some point, they have to be able to solve without an instructional sequence. That is the point I didn’t make very well. Connections can help, too. Modeling the decomposition of 34 as 2 tens and 14 ones links directly to what students do using the algorithm both in Grade 2 and later when using different units, ones and tenths, subtracting 1.6 from 3.4… or 1 6/7 from 3 4/7 (or 3 4/9). This later observation supports teachers who need assurance that the extra instructional time is worth it. Hmmm… what has value mathematically in the long run? Yes. This does. It also shows teachers in upper grades how to break down for students who can’t rename/regroup to subtract.

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