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?