Welcome to part 3 of our series on the 4 secret ingredients that make up a co-created education.  Not only is the learning experience empowering and inclusive; it’s also rigorous.

​You may have noticed by this point in the series that the 4 secret ingredients of a Co-Created Education are all words you’ve heard before. 

In fact, they’re often terms that get overused, misused, or vaguely used, which is unfortunately a pretty common phenomenon in the education world.  We get these buzz words stuck in our heads, we throw them around too much, and they lose meaning.

I really hate it when that happens, because some of them are such good words! 

So instead of spending time hating on these watered-down words or scrapping them altogether, we want to give them new life.  We’re taking them one by one and defining them ourselves so that we can all work off of a shared set of definitions and a common language for the Co-CreatED community.

And we welcome your input on these!

Because another thing you might have noticed is the “co” in Co-CreatED.  We know that nothing good happens in silos, and that we all have a lot to learn from each other. 

We also know education is complex, and we accept the need for varying ideas and perspectives to co-exist if we have any hope of moving the needle.  So each of the 4 secret ingredients requires not only a collaborative approach, but also a healthy dose of “both/and” thinking.

For example…

For an empowering education, teachers partner with students to co-create the learning path together.

For an inclusive education, we challenge educators to hold space for multiple truths. I.e., educating students who are living in poverty works best with an asset-mindset coupled with a poverty-aware, trauma-informed practice. (Both/and.)

The same holds true for a “rigorous” education. It takes collaboration, both/and thinking, and a clear definition of “rigor” for us to work off of.

A learning experience is rigorous when it pushes students to think deeply, to stretch their thinking in new directions, and to lean into their curiosity, knowing that the adults around them fully believe in their high potential.

​In this article from Edutopia, Brian Sztabnik calls out some of the common misconceptions about rigor.  It doesn’t mean MORE work. It doesn’t mean “harder” work (whatever that means).  

These misconceptions have led to what the author cleverly describes as “push-down and pile-on syndrome,” such as college-level work getting pushed down onto highschoolers, or where Kindergarteners and even Pre-K’ers are expected to be reading fluently before they’ve even hit the developmental readiness window.  

Or– a “pile on” example I observed when touring schools– an admissions professional from a prestigious, elite private school brags about the 2 hours of homework students complete each night, starting as early as 4th grade.  Because “rigor.”

These “push-down, pile-on” efforts, while perhaps well-intentioned, are misguided and can even be harmful, squashing the love of learning right out of overburdened students.

Luckily, there are ways to reach the pinnacle of Rigor Mountain without overburdening learners and without extinguishing their spark for learning.



Rigor Rule 1:  Create a culture of high expectations for all.

Ever heard of the Pygmalion effect or the Golem effect?  They are two psychological principles about our tendency as humans to rise to the expectations placed upon us. 

The Pygmalion Effect explains that when others anticipate high performance from us, that’s what we tend to deliver. On the flip side, The Golem Effect shows that the opposite is also true– when someone expects low performance from us, that’s what we tend to deliver.

Others’ expectations of us often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is why it is critically important for us as educators to believe wholeheartedly in our students’ capabilities.  Our students need to know that they are surrounded by caring adults who hold them accountable, push them to their highest potential, and believe in their capability fully.

Our expectations must communicate the message, “I believe in you! I know you are capable! I care enough to push you, and I’m here for you every step of the way! I see your potential and I see you becoming the best version of you!”

You can’t have high rigor without high expectations.

So how do we do it?

I got you.  Use this free guide.


​Rigor Rule 2:  Focus on HOW to think, not WHAT to think.

In the digital age, how students think matters far more than what students know. They have nearly infinite information at their fingertips– they carry tiny computers around in their pockets (that’s what smartphones are, really). 

I had a rule of thumb in my classroom:  I’m not going to ask you to memorize something you can easily Google.  That’s a waste of brain space.

​Instead, I’m going to challenge you to think critically, to think creatively, and to apply what you know (or what you Google) to solve authentic, meaningful problems.  Because that’s what today’s world and tomorrow’s workforce demands.


​A rigorous learning experience is one where students either deepen or build thinking skills– they use their brains in new ways.

No matter your starting point, here’s a full buffet of options for you to start from exactly where you are with increasing rigor via thinking skills:


​Rigor Rule 3:  Go Deeper.  Aim Higher.

Bloom’s Taxonomy first came on the scene in 1956 as basically a ranking system for ordering cognitive processes, then it got a makeover in 2001

For reasons unknown, it is often visualized as some version of a colorful pyramid.

​When we use the term “higher-order thinking,” it usually means the upper tiers of Bloom’s pyramid; the higher a thinking skill falls on the pyramid, the more complex it is. 

Bloom’s goal was to give educators a tool and a language for setting rigorous learning goals, and then assessing students’ mastery of those learning goals with the same level of rigor.


​A second and relatively newer framework for ranking cognitive demand is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (D.o.K.), developed in 1997

Webb’s goal was actually very similar to Bloom’s– to help educators align our assessments to our expectations. In other words, are we actually measuring what we think we’re measuring about students’ learning? 

To figure that out, let’s first break down the most basic structure of teaching and learning into its 3 component parts:​​

  1. Learning goal— what do we want students to learn?
      (and/or what do they want to learn?)
  2. Learning activity— how will we go about reaching that goal?
  3. Assessment— how will we know whether we reach the goal?

​Sometimes when we go
from point 
A  (goal→ to point B (activity→ to point C (assessment),
the rigor can get lost in translation like a bad game of telephone. 

​Instead, we want to focus on aligning the three, and keeping them all as rigorous as possible.  Both the D.o.K. framework and Bloom’s Taxonomy can help with that.

A note about verbs…

​One very ironic thing that has happened to both Webb’s framework and Bloom’s Taxonomy is reducing them down to a list of verbs to match each level. In fact, some people only ever know them to be menus of verbs.

When you stop to think about it, how could a tool about complexity have possibly gotten so oversimplified over the years?!



​Good, now that we got that part out of the way, we can move on to a few tools that don’t come with PSAs.

The 3 tools below are intended to be simple enough to be usable, yet meaty enough to maintain the complexity that is measuring cognitive rigor.

The bottom line is, we want all students thinking deeply and doing work that challenges them to grow.

Here’s how.

​Deepen Rigor Across Subject Areas

​Wondering how to tell how rigorous an activity is within a certain subject? There’s a tool (or 2) for that!

The first is a menu of learning activities, arranged by increasing Depth of Knowledge for each of the 4 main subject areas. This handy chart is basically a visualization of Webb’s 2002 article “Depth-of-Knowledge Levels for Four Content Areas.”

The second is Dr. Karen Hess’ Cognitive Rigor Matrix, which overlays Webb’s D.o.K. and Bloom’s Taxonomy.  This particular version combines her 4 subject area matrices into one master tool.



​The trouble is, those matrices are still a bit dense as a starting point.  To help use them more purposefully, here’s a nice “decision-tree” type accompaniment. Together they make a perfect pairing!

Ask these 3  “more than one _______  questions


The 3  “more than one ___”  questions hone in on the main factors that distinguish one Depth of Knowledge level from another. These questions do not stand alone, by any means, but they do help make D.o.K. more approachable!


Turns out rigor is a pretty daunting topic to try to cover in just one article. It is HUGE!

​So to recap:

Rigor defined:
A learning experience is RIGOROUS when it pushes students to think 
deeply, to stretch their thinking in new directions, and to lean into their curiosity, knowing that the adults around them fully believe in their high potential.

To make rigor a reality:

  • ​Rigor Rule #1)   Create a culture of high expectations for all.

    • Believe that students can think deeply, use creativity, and do hard mental work. They will rise to the rigor of the expectation!
  • Rigor Rule #2)   Focus on HOW to think, not WHAT to think.

    • ​​Practice brain-builders, critical thinking routines, mental models, tinkering/making, inquiry, discovery, systems thinking, and design thinking.
  • ​Rigor Rule #3)   Go Deeper.  Aim Higher.

    • ​Let Webb’s Depth of Knowledge framework and Bloom’s Taxonomy (or Hess‘ combo!) be your guide.
How will you step up the rigor
​in your classroom or school this year?

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