Tennessee teachers have been offered an extraordinary opportunity.  With implementation of the Common Core State Standards, we can redesign the way we teach to better prepare our students for an unknown future.

The Internet provides an abundance of resources that promise “Common Core aligned lessons” that allow students to apply knowledge. Apps and web tools allow students to produce and create with what they learn. This is an exciting time to be in education! And while these tools provide catchy, exciting, and even memorable classroom experiences for our students, I would offer a word of caution: Don’t get so caught up in the fun and flash that you forget about rigor.


Admittedly, this is a mistake I myself have made over the past couple of years. In creating and implementing lessons for an elementary STEM lab, I have gotten excited about the overwhelming student engagement but neglected the learning outcomes. Don’t get me wrong – a student engagement is an essential part of good teaching. But I fear, at times, I have sacrificed rigor for relevance. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the art of strong pedagogy is finding the sweet spot where students are so engaged that they embrace challenges that push them to apply their understanding at a deeper level.

In an age of increasing digital instruction through “Bring Your Own Device” or “one-to-one” device initiatives, how do we make sure that we do not get so caught up in catchy content that we neglect high expectations for learning? I would argue that just about any app can be included in a rigorous lesson when used as part of an engaging learning process as opposed to standing alone as the entire learning experience.

For example, a few months ago, I was planning a lesson on landforms and how the earth changes. Immediately, the old baking-soda and vinegar volcano came to mind since it always proves to be a memorable crowd pleaser. However, as I thought about it, I realized that the demonstration, although fun, presents students with very little challenge or even interaction with the content. So I continued my search. I then found an app called “Volcano 360” which allows students to take a 360-degree helicopter tour of an erupting volcano. Again, this was a very fun-sounding prospect, but it lacked the potential for deep learning.

Finally, it occurred to me to use both of these experiences as part of a language arts lesson on compare and contrast. After spending a few minutes experiencing each of these short activities and an introduction to compare and contrast, the students created a Popplet web comparing and contrasting the real volcano with our model. In doing this, they were able to discover how a volcano changes land and why our old way of modeling a volcano was inaccurate. From this example, you can see how an app or activity that lacks rigor can be used as part of a lesson that is both engaging and produces higher-order learning outcomes.

One of the most important considerations when developing rigorous lessons is setting strong objectives from the very beginning of the learning process. Recently, I was helping a teacher plan a science lesson on physical and chemical changes. Although we had identified an engaging science experiment for the students, we felt that the students needed more explicit instruction about facts related to these topics. We decided to create a Padlet wall with links to websites and videos that would provide the necessary information. Although all the information would be disseminated to students, the links themselves did not provide an opportunity for productive academic struggle. Therefore, we decided to create a task for students to complete for each link that provided them with more challenge.

When creating these tasks, we wanted to make sure that students were considering answers to higher-order questions.  We used a Bloom’s taxonomy diagram to help us create a rubric to establish student learning goals for each task. (Do an Internet search for “Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs” and take your pick from hundreds of images.) In grading students’ responses, we were able to screenshot evidence to justify our evaluation of each task. Again, this activity began with a simple science experiment and research tool but was transformed into a much more rigorous learning experience by focusing on higher-order outcomes and integration of content areas based on cross-cutting concepts.

From my perspective in elementary STEM, providing engaging, memorable, and meaningful learning opportunities for our students in the Common Core State Standards era is quite exciting. There is no question that neat apps and interactive projects make content more relevant and enjoyable for students. However, in using these, we cannot forget the pitfalls we learned from the whole learner movement. A lack of rigor is what led us to standards-focused instruction in the first place. Exciting classroom experiences that lack opportunities for students to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information are likely to yield basic-level understanding at best and educational gaps at worst.

There are a multitude of amazing digital resources for teachers out there. But it is up to us to apply those resources in a way that will produce optimal learning outcomes and motivate students to embrace increasingly difficult academic challenges. For the sake of our students, let’s find a balance between relevance and rigor.