Balance and Rigor, Not a Paradox

“Eighty-five percent of all performance problems are not people problems, they are process problems.” I heard this two decades ago from the most competent person I ever worked with. He spoke from experience but had borrowed this teaching from William Deming, one of the acclaimed Founding Fathers of Total Quality Management. It is fitting to consider how this relates to education.

Systems are not only curriculum based but tie into the overall structure. Schools routinely reflect on schedules. Conventional or rotating bell schedule? 4×4 or A/B schedule? Multiple Period Flex Block or Traditional 6 or 7 Period Day Schedule? These are just some of the possibilities to consider. The choice largely dictates how time is prioritized. A significant decision, as schedules have the potential to create balance. Or not. Everyone is surely pining for the former.

A schedule that allows students to chew their food and pass casually between classes. For teachers to run to the washroom. Built-in breaks are not only proven to improve productivity but also well-being. This balance that is created falls under what Deming would stamp as a “process.” So, if balance truly can be controlled in schools, what about rigor? 

Radical Simplification

Rigor ultimately is contained in the people, that other 15%. But can schools be both balanced and rigorous? As I reflect on this question, I harken back to thoughts of radical simplification and of what learning looks, sounds, and feels like for a toddler. According to Emma Elsworthy of the Independent, “Children ask a staggering 73 questions every day … half of which parents struggle to answer, according to a study.” In an answer-driven world, seemingly bent on a default to Google everything, the key to rigor is actually not turning to Google. Instead of seeking the answer at the tips of our fingers, maybe it is more about the joyful and honest discovery of the unknown. 

Rigor Anchored by Curiosity

Understanding how the roots of the word rigor are rigidity, cold, and stiffness, 20th-century novelist, David Foster Wallace, shared a revised definition of rigor. Brian Sztabnik alluded to this in an Edutopia article sharing, “Rigor is the result of work that challenges students’ thinking in new and interesting ways. It occurs when they are encouraged toward a sophisticated understanding of fundamental ideas and are driven by curiosity to discover what they don’t know.”

Again, rigor is anchored by curiosity. Understanding this, I am left asking, what are the questions my students are wondering most? Questions not necessarily with answers. Questions that are unGoogleable because, to Google, is not to be engaged in the rigorous. Yet, at seventeen and eighteen years of age, most students likely have been conditioned out of rigor. And out of child-like wonder. It however remains within them I know and I would argue, wonder has a role in being human, not just in being a child.

Our Imagination Sets Us Apart

Akin to the chicken or the egg causality dilemma, is the question, which came first curiosity or imagination? If asking questions denotes curiosity and a desire to know, this then will ignite the imagination. Or, does one’s imagination spur the desire to know? Whichever the case, causal or not, best-selling author, intellectual, historian, and professor Yuval Noah Harari maintains that our imagination is what sets us apart. “Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money, and human rights.”

Education as we have known it is a system steadfast on compliance and test scores. Where teachers traditionally have held the questions and in effect, did the rigor. Neither curiosity nor imagination was necessarily prized. If it is balance we are after, students should be coming up with the questions. Yet, how commonplace the inverse is, students often are simply responsible for the answers. Teachers ask the questions and students answer. This seems like an easy enough shift. One that we can all begin today.  

A Transition to Invitation

So, a more invitational path and approach to learning is to be paved. This likely will take time. Time for the education system as a whole; teachers, and even students to catch up. Or, dare I say, go BACK to! Where there is a realization of how learning is a natural and joyous process. Not something to feel forced to do. Nor a passive process of downloading. Rather a rigorous and active upload. Where learning equates to doing. I like to think that with such consciousness being developed, more and more students will wish to follow this age-old “new” path. At some point, there will be a critical mass of students and schools, though not likely contained within four walls, which will result in a transformation back to what learning always was.

The people and process can will it so!


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