Ensuring Deep Mastery for All Students through Skill Building

May 13, 2021

Dr. Brandi Chin

Founding School Director, DSST Middle School at Noel Campus, Denver

“It’s not rigor for rigor’s sake. It’s not about test prep. It’s about engaging kids in critical thinking, so they can access positions of power in our society, and make changes in our country.” — Dr. Brandi Chin

The Problem:

Developing Adult and Student Capacities for Deeper Learning

Dr. Brandi Chin had set an ambitious but essential goal for the 2020–21 school year: to increase the rigor of teaching and learning at her school, despite all the complexities brought on by the pandemic. Now more than ever, she felt they needed to double down on the elements of teaching that could move students toward deep mastery of college and career-ready skills.

For Chin, Job #1 was to build a shared understanding among her teachers and instructional leaders of what rigor was, and what it looked like in lesson plans and student work (For more, see Supporting High Expectations for Student Learning, No Matter What”). Having done that, she next needed to help her team develop the skills to enable students to meet more rigorous academic demands.

The Innovation:

Skill Building for Academic Rigor

To enable deeper levels of mastery, Chin set out to clarify the process of rigorous learning for teachers and students. Summed up, her theory of action was to:

● Name a select set of rigorous learning habits that describe what ambitious learners do when engaging with academic tasks.;

● Explicitly teach both teachers and students how to employ those habits at a high level, and

● Infuse the use of the habits throughout every lesson and content area, so students are continually practicing and developing them.

Her thinking: By demystifying the process of rigorous learning, and continually reinforcing it, they could strengthen students’ capacities to learn at higher levels. Combined with other ongoing work to monitor and respond to the level of rigor in teaching and learning, this would over time close the gaps between learning as it had been and learning as it needed to be (For more, see Monitoring and Responding to Close Equity Gaps in Rigor)

The Story:

Breaking it Down and Building it Up

“Even when you’re not in a pandemic, making tools and making things simple is what helps you make it sustainable and ensures that it happens regularly and gets traction.”— Dr. Brandi Chin

Naming and Explaining

Chin says that while rigorous learning involves a set of skills that can be developed, students are rarely taught to employ these skills with intentionality. She uses her own education as an illustration: “When I was in high school or college, I just underlined everything and I didn’t understand how to take notes in a way that was effective and that was going to make it sticky for me.” Vague directions to “show your work” are another example.

In contrast, she wanted for her own students to perfect a few specific routines that support sense-making and precise problem solving.

The keys to doing so, she says, are: 1) make it simple, and then 2) practice, practice, practice. The habits of rigorous learning couldn’t be something they just turned to once or twice a week — they had to be a central feature of every lesson and content area. Chin recounts telling staff when she introduced the idea early in the fall: “This is going to be the air we breathe all year.”

‘Keep it Simple’

In naming a set of habits to emphasize, Chin borrowed from other schools whose students were achieving extraordinary results. These include skills around note-taking (“Annotate”), analyzing questions (“Attack the Prompt”), and using reason to identify incorrect solutions (“Process of Elimination.”). For each, her instructional leadership team fleshed out definitions and asked some of the school’s most expert teachers to further spell out what it might look like when practiced in each content area.

Her constant urge to “keep it simple” was partly to ensure students and teachers could remember the habits — but also to keep from overwhelming staff. Says Chin: “Our teachers are at their max, they’re stressed, and dealing with the pandemic too; at some point you can’t ask more.”

After more feedback and revisions, the group produced a School Wide Habits document.

Developing Skills through Explicit Instruction

Chin says it’s not enough for teachers to understand these habits; they also need to know how to teach them — and, at this moment in time, how to teach them in a virtual or remote environment. Hence her school’s professional development throughout the year focused on how to introduce, model, and give students practice with each habit — and on how to integrate their use throughout teachers’ regular instruction using a variety of online platforms.

This gave students extensive practice, for example, in jotting down the central idea of each paragraph in the margins as they read, and in organizing plans for solving math problems before actually solving them. Using interactive presentation tools like Pear Deck, along with shared Google Docs, teachers led students through group guided practice and provided feedback on their work in real time.

Below: Slides from School-wide PD on Academic Habits (See full deck here.)

To allow teachers and students to fully master each habit, Chin says they focused on one at a time. They started with “Attack the Prompt,” and after several weeks added annotation to the mix with additional professional learning, and so on.

That said, for individual teachers who mastered a skill quickly, they didn’t wait until the school wide PD to begin coaching them on the next habit. This maximized the pace of instructional improvement, and allowed her instructional leaders to capture videos of exemplary practice to use when they trained the rest of the staff. Indeed, rather than see the virtual environment as an impediment to professional learning, the ILT capitalized on the ease with which — on Zoom — they could observe, record, and share examples of effective teaching.


Below: notes from guided practice on annotating nonfiction, in which students worked with their teacher to identify and summarize the central ideas of each paragraph. Full document here.

Below: an example of a student practicing annotation while solving a math problem.

Chin says it’s important to see her team’s work around professional development as part of a multi-pronged strategy to increase rigor. To know if the PD was actually working, she also established a system to periodically audit the level of rigor and use of the school wide habits in teachers’ lesson plans and in student work. (See Monitoring & Responding to Data on Rigor”). Another key aspect of the work, she says, is “Intellectual Prep” (sometimes called “Lesson Internalization”), in which teachers work through what they plan to ask of their students to help them better understand what’s involved in learning the content.

Chin believes that too often schools approach rigor without addressing all that needs to happen to bring it about for every student: “I think some people think rigor is solved by getting strong lesson plans or a curriculum — like if you have those things then rigor just happens by osmosis. But that’s just foundational. You can have a strong curriculum, which we have, but then the way you execute the lesson can either increase the rigor or decrease the rigor.”

Taking it Back to Your School

  • Why is it important to teach the habits of rigorous learning? How can you message this to your team?
  • How will you “keep it simple” when defining the habits of rigorous learning for your team and students?
  • How will you build a shared understanding of what teaching these habits looks like in the classroom — to teachers, and to students?


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