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Relevance Creates Rigor

"Rigor" is a term that is frequently bantered about within education circles. We speak of rigor as being a reflection of high expectations, a standard of excellence or a descriptor of challenge. We hold a common belief that if we expose students to a rigorous curriculum that they will see rigor as a motivating challenge and will, hopefully, rise to the occasion. We tend to see "rigor" as a climate of expectation that the system can create, and that the satisfaction of what we perceive to be "rigor" is a testament of student achievement, hopefully elevating the student academic and cognitive experience so that they may attain a greater level of content aptitude and appreciation.

Maybe not. What if we have it wrong?

First, some context. The online dictionary defines the noun "rigor" as "the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive or accurate." Parallel to this definition is its definition of the term "rigorous" as an adjective: "harsh and demanding." Read these two definitions again as we apply their implications to the classroom.

Schools, and school systems, pride themselves in offering rigorous course offerings to their students. We can easily anticipate that highly motivated and confident students will not shy away from the perceived demands of these courses. However well-intentioned, filling a course catalogue with rigorous content (ie: "harsh and demanding") may not prove to be very appealing to the very students we are hoping will avail themselves of these opportunities. While striving to level the playing field, this approach to curriculum design often misses the mark, resulting in the perpetuation of the common two-tiered track: college preparatory and general education.

In my humble, but accurate, opinion we are utilizing an incorrect approach in attaining rigor. Rigor is not, in and of itself, a specific stand-alone end goal. Rigor, that thorough, accurate and exhaustive inquiry, is the by-product of something else. It is the result of student interest and engagement, and the personal recognition that what is being explored is worth doing, that it is relevant. Systems don't create or define rigor. Kids do.

"Relevance makes rigor possible." This statement is from Dr. Bill Daggett, chairman and founder of the International Center for Leadership in Education. He coined the popular concepts of "relevance," "rigor" and "relationships" as integrated descriptors of the desired outcomes of a thoughtful educational system. Regrettably, the popular interpretation of these concepts became seperate indicators, a check list, of what schools and systems should do. As I wrote in my book, The Education Kids Deserve, we owe Dr. Daggett a collective apology that his concept was so woefully misunderstood. “Relevance makes rigor possible.” This is what I believe he meant by this statement. We must get to know the interests and background of students (relationships) so that we may design and deliver learning activities that are of high quality and not only satisfy the required instructional standards, but also offer students genuine opportunities to find personal relevance in what they’re learning. Then, and only then can we hope to observe the applications of rigor, which Dr. Daggett describes in his five layered application model:

1. Knowledge in one discipline.

2. Application of knowledge within one discipline.

3. Application of knowledge across disciplines.

4. Application of knowledge to real-world predictable situations.

5. Application of knowledge to real-world unpredictable situations.

Rigor is not merely difficult and accelerated courses, accompanied by the expectation that students will rise to the challenges they involve. That is a description of rigorous content. The attainment of true rigor, rigorous thinking, is the result of a student’s ability, and willingness, to engage in higher order thinking and deeper learning as a direct result of an educational experience they find relevant. It is relevance, not rigorous course work, that truly engages learners and propels them to pursue deeper levels of achievement.

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