As an academic institution, the term academic rigor is used quite often. We communicate to parents and students that our program has academic rigor, but what exactly is academic rigor and why is it important? Academic rigor, as we use the term, refers to an academic program that has critical components that interact together on a daily basis. Academic rigor is the combination of a student-centered, challenging academic curriculum with long-term goals and opportunities for improvement. One without the other creates an empty academic program; it’s the interfacing of these aspects that creates academic rigor.
A traditional education program is teacher-centered. The teacher is the center of the physical space with the desks lined up in rows facing the center of the room. The teacher delivers an assignment, the students all complete the same assignment and they are all measured on whether the answers are right or wrong. Rarely is the student encouraged to reflect on mistakes and asked to correct the errors. A student-centered classroom encourages group work and has flexible seating. Throughout the week the desks will move in different configurations all designed to allow for students to work either independently or in groups. The teacher delivers assignments with choice. There is an opportunity to correct mistakes, and checkpoints for achievement are built into the assignment. Student-centered classrooms create a higher level of student engagement. It is human nature that a student will work harder on a task they choose because there exists a higher level of interest in the assignment. It is also human nature, although individual personalities vary to a degree, that if mistakes are allowed, and there exists an environment that provides an opportunity to correct mistakes, greater risks will be taken. Research shows that with choice there is higher student engagement and higher student engagement produces high achievement.
Any curriculum has common key parts. All schools teach the core subjects and core content. Each course has fundamental skills that need to be taught. The distinguishing parts of a curriculum are not what is taught but how it is taught. The classroom must be an environment that encourages students to take risks, to reach beyond where they currently are performing. The classroom must have a growth mindset where the conclusion is not that the student cannot do the work but just not yet. When the classroom pushes the student outside of their comfort zone, growth in ability occurs. Today we live in a world whereby we avoid anything that feels negative, parents want to protect their children from failure, but rigor comes through overcoming the failure. Creating a classroom environment whereby students are allowed to fail and successfully overcomes the failure creates rigor. The process of taking a risk stretches a student, and it is the “stretch” that strengthens the learning environment. The IB grading program allows for students to take risks and overcome failure. The process of overcoming failure creates resilience that produces long-term success.
An integral part of the International Baccalaureate ( IB) Program is long-term assignments. At the end of fifth grade, the final grade of the Primary Years Program (PYP), the students complete an Exhibition project whereby students conduct personal and group inquiries into an area of their own choosing. The project spans over several weeks. At the end of tenth grade, the final grade of the Middle Years Program (MYP), the students complete a Personal project. The Personal project is a student-centered practical exploration of a topic of choice. The goal of each of these projects is to have the students participate in sustained, self-directed inquiry. The rigor of the project is the ability to persevere for an extended period of time. In a world where everything is instant, the ability to focus on a sustained task over a period of weeks creates rigor.
Academic rigor is an important distinguishing part of an academic program. For long-term success, there are key outcomes from an academic program with rigor. With rigor, students are taught grit. Angela Duckworth has researched the power of grit. She left a consulting job to teach seventh-grade math. While in the classroom, she was struck by the fact that intellectual ability did not necessarily equate to high performance. She went on to become a psychologist and has dedicated herself to understanding what key factors determine success in life. While her conclusions are somewhat controversial, my teaching experience aligns with her conclusions; success in life is not based on good looks, great personality, intellectual ability, etc. Success in life is determined by stamina, the ability to work hard and approach life as a marathon. A student who engages daily in academic rigor learns how to persevere. The student learns that while he or she might not understand the concept now, it is possible to learn the concept with time. Dr. Duckworth defines this as grit “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort towards very long-term goals.” The academic program at Notre Dame Academy has academic rigor because the program offers a combination of student-centered environment, high academic standards with long-term goals and opportunities for improvement. Our desired outcome from this rigor is to produce students who develop grit and become successful, productive citizens.
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