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Reconsidering Rigor in Schools

By Mike Crowley
Reconsidering Rigor in Schools

“There is a momentous, broad-based cultural shift underway that has struck at the roots of every industrialised system of education. The result is a demand for more personalized learning, brain-friendly environments, less recall and more thoughtful application of knowledge, optimal conditions for eliciting intelligent behaviors, constructivist tools, and respectful, caring relationships that honor the learner.”
– Thom Markham, Redefining Smart: Awakening Students’ Power to Reimagine Their World
The impetus for the cultural shift that Markham describes is well-documented. The wide-ranging dialogue concerning this new reality is no longer a debate. Part of the challenge for schools implementing these changes includes the obligation to make the transition without unduly alarming those who assess the quality of schooling through a lens traditionally known as rigor.
It is necessary to address the many misconceptions that govern the worldview of rigor in education. At its most fundamental level, advocates of rigor believe that school should be “hard.” Rigor is most frequently characterized by an abundance of homework, tests, grading, and compliance. The paradigm shift to a learner-centered school context provides a new perspective on rigor, which can be challenging for educators and parents who are familiar with the 20th-century perspective. According to Markham, “We’re starting to redefine what is ‘hard’ in school.”
What must proponents of traditional rigor think when their child attends a school that:
• Does not grade homework or believe in assigning it unless it serves a clear learning purpose.
• Believes that averaging grades is illogical and allows students to negotiate assignment deadlines.
• Eliminates streaming to increase challenge while believing that every student can succeed.
• Regards the development of a digital presence and personal learning as educational priorities.
• Is committed to the arts, design, creative expression and physical education as core curriculum.
Much of the above, for some, represents a lowering of standards, a dilution of rigor. The reality of where we have come from and where we need to go is clear, but the pursuit of this direction is not without its challenges. According to Markham, “It is indisputable that a set of industrial beliefs are ingrained in the mental model we call education… Moving from the quantifiable apparatus of schooling to the qualitative expressions of deeper intelligence—and to more personal, individual standards for thinking and accomplishment—is a huge thought barrier to cross. Welcome to 21st-century life.”
I was fortunate to enjoy a screening of the film Most Likely to Succeed last year and to hear the perspective of executive producer, Ted Dintersmith. I highly recommend that schools make arrangements for a screening of this important film ( There is one scene in the film that especially resonates. In this scene, a teacher at High Tech High in San Diego holds a meeting with some of his “stronger” students who appear disgruntled with modern learning strategies.
To paraphrase the exchange, he asks these students whether they would prefer to be equipped to lead meaningful lives or to ace the test. Their shared perspective that the test results were more crucial than learning how to live meaningfully—that the development of personal interests and passions could wait—speaks volumes about the cultural expectations around schooling these days.
The task of redefining rigor is an important one. I like the new definition that Brian Sztabnik set forth: “Rigor is the result of work that challenges students’ thinking in new and interesting ways. It occurs when they are encouraged toward a sophisticated understanding of fundamental ideas and are driven by curiosity to discover what they don’t know.” This definition is notable in that it makes no reference to getting into the best college.
The real essence of rigor is doing the right thing for students and ensuring they have the most dedicated, personally invested teachers to guide, mentor, coach and support them. We must have rigor in schools, but in a new context. Modern learning needs to be productive and have purpose. That purpose is related to the real world, not the game of school, long the domain of traditional rigor. While learning will inevitably look different in this new context, the core essence of the relationship between engaged students and caring teachers has never been more important.
Engagement and personal meaning are the new rigor. Digital learning, balanced with traditional, challenging expectations deepen, rather than dilute rigor. Parents and educators are right when they suggest school needs to be rigorous. But if we accept—as we must—that the needs of the first half of the 21st century are inevitably and distinctly different from the second half of the 20th century, what this rigor looks like needs to be reconsidered and embraced with the modern mindset required. Nothing less than a rigorous commitment to this paradigm shift will prepare our young people for the futures they deserve.
Markham, Thom. 2015. Redefining Smart: Awakening Students’ Power to Reimagine Their World. California: Corwin.
Most Likely to Succeed. 2015. Greg Whitely. USA: One Potato Productions. Film.
Sheninger, Eric C. 2016. UnCommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids. California: Corwin.
Mike Crowley is Assistant Director and Middle School Head at The International School of Brussels.

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