Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What Is Cognitive Rigor?

Rigor has become the educational "buzzword" of the 21st Century.  Cognitive rigor is marked and measured by the depth and extent students are challenged and engaged to demonstrate and communicate their knowledge and thinking.  It also marks and measures the depth and complexity of student learning experiences.  This instructional model developed by  Karin Hess, Dennis Carlock, Ben Jones, and John Walkup (2009)  superimposes two educational frameworks that are commonly used to establish performance objectives and learning targets:​
Bloom's Revised Taxonomy: The revised version by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl (2001)  defines the kind of knowledge and type of thinking students are expected to demonstrate in order to answer questions, address problems, accomplish tasks, and analyze texts and topics.  In their revised version, Anderson and Krathwohl distinguishes between knowledge and thinking by splitting the Cognitive Domain of Bloom's Taxonomy into two dimensions that address the following:
  • The Knowledge Dimension (Content and Concepts)
  • The Cognitive Process Dimension (Cognition)
​Each of these dimensions within the Cognitive Domain ​of the revised taxonomy categorizes "the skills and stuff" students will learn based upon their complexity. 
 The skills are the cognitive actions and processes students are expected to demonstrate and develop.  The stuff is the curriculum and subject matter that is being taught and learned - or what the landmark report A Nation at Risk (1983) describes as "the very stuff of education".  By splitting the Cognitive Domain into two dimensions, Bloom's Revised Taxonomy clearly distinguishes between the subject matter content (knowledge) that is being taught and learned and what students must do (thinking) with what they are learning. 
Webb's Depth-of-Knowledge Model: ​The depth of knowledge levels in the model developed by Norman Webb (1997, 2002) establishes how deeply or extensively students are expected to transfer and use what they are learning.  This model consists of four levels:
  • DOK-1: Recall and Reproduction
  • DOK-2: Basic Application of Skills and Concepts
  • DOK-3: Strategic Thinking
  • DOK-4: Extended Thinking​​
​While Bloom's and Webb's both deal with establishing and evaluatIng the depth and complexity of student learning experiences, they differ in regards to their their scope, application, and sequencing. 
Bloom's defines the skills (cognition) and stuff (content, concepts, and courses of action) students will learn as part of an educational experience.  Webb's designates the scenario, setting, or situation (context) in which students will transfer and use the deeper knowledge and thinking they have acquired and developed.  The "rigor" of a learning experience is marked and measured how deeply students are expected to think about what they are learning and how extensively they are to express and share what they have learned.​
Also, Webb's Depth-of-Knowledge Model is not a taxonomy that scaffolds based on complexity like Bloom's.  Hess (2006) describes the Webb's levels as "ceilings" that designate how deeply or extensively students are expected to transfer and use the knowledge and understanding they have acquired and developed. For example, learning experiences at a DOK-1 level expects students to develop and demonstrate background knowledge or foundational understanding about a specific text or topic.  An educational experience at a DOK-2 level challenges students to examine and explain how academic concepts and skills can be used to answer questions, address problems, accomplish tasks, and analyze specific texts and topics.  An educational experience at a DOK-3 level engages students to think strategically about how and why they can transfer and use what they are learning to attain and explain answers, outcomes, results, and solutions.  A learning experience at a DOK-4 level encourages students to think extensively about what else can be done with the deeper knowledge and understanding they have acquired and developed as well as how can they personally use what they have learned in a variety of academic or real world contexts. 
Teaching and learning for cognitive rigor expects students to demonstrate and communicate their learning.   The cognitive categories of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy --which Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) renames as verbs -defines and determines what students will do with the concepts and content they are learning.  Webb's Depth-of-Knowledge levels designates how deeply and extensively students will express and share their knowledge and understanding.  The cognitive rigor of a learning experience is marked and measured by how deeply and extensively students are expected to demonstrate and communicate the knowledge and thinking they have acquired and developed.  Cognitive rigor challenges and engages students to express and share their deeper knowledge and thinking both concretely and abstractly through description, discussion, and design. 
Marzano's (2004; with Simms, 2013) methodology of deepening background academic knowledge through direct vocabulary instruction and language development fosters and promotes communication of depth of knowledge by challenging and engaging students to do the following:
  • Describe, explain, and elaborate upon ideas and information with textual evidence and personal examples.​
  • ​Rephrase or restate formal definitions and explanations in their own words and in their own unique way.
  • Convey deeper knowledge through linguistic (language-based) and nonlinguistic (image-based) representations.
  • Express and share depth of knowledge through oral, written, creative, or technical communication.
The communication of knowledge and thinking can be tiered based upon its complexity based upon the criteria set by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002).  
  • Tier 1 Communication: Students understand and use concrete and high frequency words, expressing knowledge and ideas using everyday speech, and developing English language acquisition.  
  • Tier 2 Communication: Students determine and distinguish words with multiple meanings, develop understanding of general academic words and cognitive action verbs (e.g. analyze, apply, interpret, evaluate), and express knowledge, understanding, and usage of complex language.  
  • Tier 3 Communication: Students develop and demonstrate of disciplinary literacy - reading, writing, speaking, listening, and using domain-specific language in the academic disciplines.
Tiering the communication of knowledge by its level of complexity helps students better understand how to consider the task, purpose, and audience when sharing ideas and information.  It also serves as a method to foster and promote English language development, helping students with limited English proficiency to develop and demonstrate deeper knowledge and understanding of how to express themselves in English in different contexts.
Questioning for cognitive rigor is an instructional method that supports teaching and learning for higher order thinking, depth of knowledge, and language development.  It involves rephrasing academic standards, performance objectives, and learning targets into good questions that prompt and encourage students to think deeply and express and share the depth and extent of their learning.  It also makes learning environments and educational experiences more active and authentic, challenging and engaging students to attain and explain answers, outcomes, results, and solutions using the content, concepts, and procedures they are learning.  It also supports differentiated instruction, encouraging students to show and tell the depth and extent of the self-knowledge and awareness they have acquired and developed in their own unique way.​
The instructional delivery of questioning for cognitive rigor can be scaffolded in the following manner:
  • C.R.Q.-1: What are the skills and stuff?  Students show and tell background knowledge and understanding of academic vocabulary and subject-specific details and terminology.
  • ​C.R.Q.-2: How can the skills and stuff be used?  Students show and tell how to answer questions, address problems, accomplish tasks, and analyze texts and topics.
  • C.R.Q.-3: Why can the skills and stuff be used?  Students show and tell why answers, conclusions, outcomes, results, and solutions are accurate or inaccurate, true or false, or valid or invalid using what they have learned.
  • C.R.Q.-4: What else can you do with the skills and stuff?  Students show and tell what they personally can do with the deeper knowledge they have acquired and developed into thinking and talent and how else the skills and stuff can be used in different academic and real world contexts.
Categorizing and scaffolding questioning for cognitive rigor in this manner fosters higher order thinking in that students must actively acquire and gather the information they need to develop and process into the deeper knowledge and understanding they can transfer and use in different academic and real world contexts.  It also addresses each kind of knowledge students must develop and demonstrate as categorized in the Knowledge Dimension of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy.  Questioning for cognitive rigor also extends depth of knowledge by engaging and encouraging students to express and share the knowledge they have acquired and developed authentically through some format or type of oral, written, creative, or technical communication.
 By using good questions instead of performance objectives that direct students simply to do something to prove they are learning, we not only prompt students to think deeply about the texts and topics they are reading and reviewing but also express and share how they can use the concepts and procedures they are learning in detail, in-depth, insightfully, and in their own unique way.  That's what truly marks and measures rigorous learning!
Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the lead professional education specialist and owner of Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development and consultation on teaching and learning for cognitive rigor. His book Now THAT'S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning will be published by ASCD in July 2016.  For more information, please visitwww.maverikeducation.com.

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