Rigor and Fun: Can They Coexist? (We Believe They Must!)

October 25, 2016
October 25, 2016

Rigor and Fun: Can They Coexist? (We Believe They Must!)

Walk through the hallways at Grymes Memorial School on any given day, and you’ll find fourth grade students excitedly picking apart owl pellets to examine what kinds of critters birds of prey have eaten, sixth graders walking arm-in-arm in small groups through the foyer of Gardner Hall re-enacting caravans of tradesmen along the Trans-Saharan salt and gold trade, or seventh graders seated in the round in English class engaging in a lively conversation about reading but without a book in sight. Visitors often remark at how much the students seem to be enjoying themselves and ask with a look of disbelief: “But where are the worksheets?”

It can be difficult for visitors to reconcile smiling, conversational, energetic, enthusiastic children with learning – not to mention with academic rigor – yet, that connection is the very hallmark of a Grymes education.

It can be difficult for visitors to reconcile smiling, conversational, energetic, enthusiastic children with learning – not to mention with academic rigor – yet, that connection is the very hallmark of a Grymes education. As an elementary school that prides itself in preparing students for success at the secondary level and beyond, a challenging, rigorous curriculum that pushes our students to learn at an advanced level is an important part of our program. While there is certainly educational value and important skills that come from worksheets, memorization, lecture-style listening and note-taking – and rest assured that, because we are preparing students for education beyond Grymes, this style of learning happens too in our classrooms – to us, “Launching Learners” means creating an active learning environment where students participate in the process of learning by doing. It’s the “doing” that is often deceiving. Fifth graders pretending to be numbers, decimal points and commas and rearranging their order in a wiggling, giggling line as the mathematical function changes doesn’t look like rigor. It looks like fun. Likewise, first graders learning about digestion by pinning velcro shapes of organs to their bodies (and laughing at the silliness of it all) are having fun, but are they learning?

The answer is a resounding YES.

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Fifth graders learn to multiply and divide large decimal numbers

As any teacher will attest, learning is not a spectator sport, and in an age when children are passive consumers of media, they must be taught to engage with information.

As any teacher will attest, learning is not a spectator sport, and in an age when children are passive consumers of media, they must be taught to engage with information. While memory and rote learning are important for cultivating and disciplining the brain, children must use information in active and creative ways to make knowledge their own if they are going to comprehend and retain it. True understanding and retention comes from students discussing what they are learning, writing about it, manipulating it, applying it in activity that engages the brain and the body. Kindergartners reading a story engage with that story when they then build a character or setting from within that story with Legos. Third graders learning about water consumption around the world experience how many gallons the typical American consumes in a day by passing jugs of water around and around… and around… as a group until they reach 100 gallons. The experience (not to mention the tired arms) is what makes that information tangible – and quite powerful!

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Third graders learn about water consumption (the hard way!)

If a rigorous academic program is one in which each student is expected to learn and perform and think at an advanced level, then teaching for academic rigor needs to effectively foster active learning. And when you give teachers the freedom to teach to this end, learning becomes fun. FUN is the happy byproduct of engagement in a productive, active learning environment. It is a sign that rigor is at work – and working well – inside (and often outside) of the classroom.