Four dimensions to academic rigour

What is academic rigour? That particular question was the basis for a conversation over a coffee with a colleague earlier in the previous school year. Our discussion came about because assumptions were being made at work about the level of challenge within our academic programs. After far too much caffeine, I wrote out what I believe academic rigour to be. The result was a ‘conversation starter’ for my faculty on the topic of how academic rigour might be defined.

The ‘conversation starter’ defined academic rigour to be something that:

  1. Connects critical thinking with content. Academic rigour is a demanding yet accessible curriculum that engenders critical thinking alongside content knowledge. Critical thinking and content knowledge are not seen as two separate or discrete entities in the rigorous classroom. Rather, they are closely connected. In this sense, academic rigour pushes a student beyond that which he or she was at when they first entered the classroom. Academic rigour goes further than “easy”. Connecting critical thinking and content knowledge entails a process of working through that which one fears or struggles, learning how to modify what is being done until it can be done fully and with success.
  2. Enables reflection. Academic rigour entails time to reflect on what has been learnt. Cramming a lesson or homework task with more to do does not equate to a rigorous class or subject. Academic rigour engages a student in the challenge of learning to bring about understanding. Reflection is an essential part of the learning process. As soon as it is removed, not only does the learning process suffer but so too does any practical application of what is learnt. 
  3. Includes accountability to outside of the school for what is taught. In the same way as any business or organisation would look to have its accounts audited by someone independent of that business or organisation, so it must be for schools in relation to learning. For learning to be rigorous and challenging, it is important to avoid a scenario whereby only members of faculty develop subject content, criteria for success in a subject, and processes for ongoing curriculum assessment. Greeted with little or no external accountability, it would be unlikely that no other assessment would be arrived at other than “we are doing well”. Subject content may not evolve as needed, resulting in a curriculum that is dated or irrelevant. Criteria for success in a subject might become negotiable, leading to unintentional “dumbing down” of subjects or an unintentional slide away from a focus on learning. Processes for ongoing curriculum assessment potentially become subject to other changes in the educational environment, such as staffing.
  4. Means operating to consistent and visible standards that are known to all. Consistent, visible and accessible standards for both the teacher and learner should not be interpreted as those that are put forward by a syllabus. Rather, in this context, the notion of consistent, visible and accessible standards refers to what the school is asking of its learners and teachers. What type of learners do we seek to nurture? What type of teacher does the school need in order to foster such learners? If any school is to be successful in promoting academic rigour and increasing the academic challenge within its courses then a “same-language” approach to the language of learning, in addition to the shameless promotion of what is expected of both faculty and learners in any aspect of the school is a must. Implicit in this aspect of academic rigour is a demonstrative or practical approach to learning. That is, the teacher and the learner should be able to express the learning that is taking place in the classroom in such a way that all can see what is happening.

The purpose of the paper was to start a conversation (or conversations) amongst faculty about what it meant for a school to be academically rigorous. To that end, these four points (which, I hasten to add are in no particular order) are simply a starting point to develop an understanding of what academic rigour is and what it might look like in the classroom. There might well be other considerations to add to this list in conversations about academic rigour but perhaps the initial steps following this definition are:

  1. Evaluate the four aspects of the definition presented here and determine what is the most through to the least important in order to take the definition further.
  2. Upon reflection, determine the extent to which one’s own classroom is authentically demonstrating these four aspects of academic rigour?

Over to you.

Understanding intercultural education

This is the second in a series of posts about international education. To recap, international education might be something that is not aligned with the national curriculum within which the international school exists. It could also be considered something that is offered as “the other”. That is, it is something that exists because what it has to offer students will not be or may not be found in the national curriculum of the country in which the international school is found. The last post on this subject area presented several quotes that sought to define international education. In this particular post, the focus is shifting to what is meant by intercultural education.

The intercultural education network defines intercultural education as that which:

…promotes the understanding of different people and cultures. It includes teachings that accept and respect the normality of diversity in all areas of life. It makes every effort to sensitize the learner to the notion that we have naturally developed in different ways. It seeks to explore, examine and challenge all forms of “isms” and xenophobia, while promoting equal opportunity for all. Intercultural education works to transform not only the individual but the institution as a metaphor and mechanism for the transformation of society.

H. Chad Lane, in 2012, defined it as:

the acquisition of knowledge and skills that support the ability of learners to both understand culture and interact with people from cultures different from their own.

The UNESCO Guidelines on Intercultural Education states:

In a world experiencing rapid change, and where cultural, political, economic and social upheaval challenges traditional ways of life, education has a major role to play in promoting social cohesion and peaceful coexistence. Through programmes that encourage dialogue between students of different cultures, beliefs and religions, education can make an important and meaningful contribution to sustainable and tolerant societies.

Intercultural Education is a response to the challenge to provide quality education for all. It is framed within a Human Rights perspective as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948):

“Education shall be directed to the full development of human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial and religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace”.

More recently, UNESCO has published its Global Citizenship Education paradigm and in the process it set intercultural education within the context of global citizenship. Global Citizenship Education: Preparing learners for the challenges of the 21st century (p.14) defines Global Citizenship Education to have differences in interpretation but…

…a common understanding that global citizenship does not imply a legal status. It refers more to a sense of belonging to a broader community and common humanity, promoting a ‘global gaze’ that links the local to the global and the national to the international. It is also a way of understanding, acting and relating oneself to others and the environment in space and in time, based on universal values, through respect for diversity and pluralism. In this context, each individual’s life has implications in day-to-day decisions that connect the global with the local, and vice versa.

I do not believe that intercultural education or intercultural learning is a straightforward thing to define. From the couple of definitions presented here, and I realise there are others to look at, intercultural learning rests on the notion of promoting respect for others and their culture. Its aim is to equip and encourage students to engage in dialogue with each other. This is so that there is a mutual cultural understanding that is conducive to tolerance and sustainability within societies across the world.

In some sense, this appears to be synonymous with the idea of global citizenship. Perhaps to put it another way, intercultural education or intercultural learning is the outworking of or the teaching that underpins global citizenship. In having intercultural learning in our schools we are authentically raising up global citizens.

International, Intercultural, Interlingual – mapping out the Dreiländereck that is international education

I work in an educational world that is defined by the intersection of three different spaces: the international, the intercultural and the interlingual. It makes for an interesting environment. Living in an area of land that is often called the Dreiländereck (where Germany, Switzerland and France meet), the use of three terms to define this educational world seems entirely appropriate. In the same way that my school is made up of students of different countries, cultures and languages, so too is the geography of the Dreiländereck.

The application of the international, the intercultural and the interlingual into a teaching and learning environment can be challenging for those within it. The interactions between one’s sense of self and the national identities of those one teaches can prompt useful, in-depth discussions about teaching and learning. The same interactions can also contribute to points of friction or tension. Cultures collide in the staff room about what constitutes pedagogical ‘best practice’.

For me, this post is a starting point for a discussion about internationalism and education. Over the coming weeks I want to look at the ideas of international, intercultural and interlingual, all of which appear to be central to understanding what internationalism as it applies to education is about. So, with that in mind, and to bring this post to a close, here are some short, tentative definitions that might be used as a springboard for what is to come:

  • International – the basis for a comprehensive approach to education that intentionally prepares students to be active and engaged participants in an interconnected world.
  • Intercultural – an approach to education that seeks to develop student intercultural competence, which is the ability to act and relate appropriately and effectively in a variety of cultural contexts.
  • Interlingual – an inclusive teaching and learning approach that supports all languages and cultures present within the school by fostering an environment whereby all students are open and responsive to respecting and learning about other languages.