Growing Minds: A Heavy Backpack & Today’s Learners

January 8, 2020

The Director of the Aerie Program, Mark Harris, is known for his many contributions to Wheeler and his many talents, but one thing I especially appreciate about him is his ability to make a complex issue simple.

He and other colleagues spoke at a faculty panel earlier this school year on academic rigor. When asked about the “old” definition of rigor, he said, “A heavy backpack,” and, “Lots of homework.” A fellow panelist elaborated, “A cycle of lectures and tests, lectures and tests, where a teacher transfers his knowledge to the students.” A math teacher defined the old version of academic rigor as, “Teaching an algorithm in class and assigning twenty practice questions for homework.”  Unfortunately, many schools still subscribe to this kind of educational philosophy which explains the disenchantment and boredom of many students.

Wheeler’s form of academic rigor has strategically evolved well beyond heavy backpacks and an endless cycle of lectures (the “sage on the stage”), rote memorization, and tests. The Lower and Middle School version of academic rigor expects more of students because they can and should do more than listen to lectures, take tests, memorize facts, and do homework. Bloom’s Taxonomy offers a framework for understanding Wheeler’s concept of rigor by categorizing and showing the interactions among educational goals and the many dimensions of learning. 1 Below is an illustration created by Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching.

A graph illustrating the educational theory called Bloom's Taxonomy

In third grade, students learn an age-appropriate form of data analysis counting the type and number of backpacks. Students look for everything from the number of keychain decorations to the quantity of unzipped backpacks. They then analyze the data making conclusions and creating the best graphs to show their findings. They still learn essential math vocabulary and concepts and experience quizzes and tests like when you and I studied our own school’s version of data analysis, but these third graders examine real-life and relevant situations. They also learn that data is everywhere and that math has a real function in life.

Seventh-graders are challenged in a similar way in their US history unit on industrialization. They read from a variety of sources about industrialization learning about labor, management, strikes, strike busting, petitions, mechanization, and much more. They analyze injury reports, accounts of working conditions, and data showing wages and cost of living trends. Their teacher takes the students to exciting places, literally and figuratively. Students travel to the Lowell National Historical Park to experience first-hand everything from water wheels to the factory floor. Students write scripts depicting different scenarios (e.g. women laborers organizing a petition for safer working conditions) to perform for their fourth-grade counterparts (and occasional siblings) who are also studying US history. Looking at the graphic above, you can easily see these seventh graders learning at every level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. And at a simple level, students are having fun while learning about a complex topic and acquiring skills from researching and long-form writing to collaboration and public speaking.

These are just two of many examples of academic challenge that occur every day of the year. From the night sky unit in Early Childhood to students interviewing the mayor of Providence for a Cityside documentary, our N-8 educational standards and approach rise well beyond the traditional notion of academic rigor.

By Young Un
Head of Strategic Innovation and N-8 Divisions

Growing Minds is the periodic blog about Grades Nursery – 8 at Wheeler


1. This taxonomy is often misunderstood as highly stratified and hierarchical categories with the peak of the triangle forms of learning as most important. Bloom understood the levels to be interdependent. In other words, knowing facts and concepts are the basis for all the other levels.

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