A Rigorous Debate on "Academic Rigor"

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I must confess that I am starting to grow weary of the “academic rigor” conversation that pits skill development, mastery, and a prescribed cannon of knowledge against creativity, collaboration, and imagination.  Does a school need to choose one side or the other as it gathers evidence of success for its students and, in turn, for its programs? Could a truly rigorous discussion on rigor perhaps, just perhaps, help us come to a very logical conclusion that today’s educational landscape requires an “all of the above” response?

I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics.  Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.

Steve Jobs

Yes, we must ask our students to communicate effectively, and properly, but in all modes: written, oral, technical, and artistic.  Yes, we should have students learn their “math facts,” but without an accompanying numeracy that allows for estimation, a deep understanding of  number sense, ratio, proportion, and plain old guesstimating, then why are we teaching and learning those facts? Yes, we need students to learn at least one other language, but with a deeper cultural understanding that goes beyond favorite foods. How does your school define rigor? How do you?

Tony Wagner, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests that even our best schools are not always preparing students for 21st century careers and citizenship. He identifies seven survival skills for the future:

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Collaboration and leadership
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

He bases his conclusions on both classroom observations and conversations with leaders in business, non-profit work, philanthropy, and education. He describes a “rare class” where academic content is used to develop students’ core competencies, such as those suggested above; where complex, multi-step problems are regularly featured, where students seek multiple solutions that require creativity and imagination; and where success requires teamwork. For me this classroom seems very familiar, because it is what we strive for at Seattle Girls’ School. It is what I observe everyday within our walls, and often beyond them in “being there” experiences such as understanding physics and math through sailing, biking an entire island to understand machines – both physical and biological, or launching a mission to the International Space Station to solve a crime.  This last one is pretend, but you need to visit us on “Mission Day” to see how real it can feel!

Take a look at Tony Wagner’s entire article HERE

Take a look at an Advanced Placement Psychology teacher’s approach that rejects the false choice HERE

I would love to hear your perspectives and feedback.

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