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.

Being an effective Principal

There are a number of scholars who have influenced my perspective of teaching and learning. Michael Fullan is one such scholar. His recent The Principal: Three Keys to Maximising Impact has proven to be a challenging and useful text as I look at what the role of an educational leader should be. To use Fullan’s term to answer this question: lead learner.

Fullan unpacks what is meant by being a lead learner throughout the book and what he has to say goes beyond simply changing the title on one’s business card. Being a lead learner is a mind shift. The book starts with how the current role of the principal is out of step with where things should be. Indeed, the redefining of the role encapsulates Fullan’s vision for the future of education referred to as New Pedagogies for Deep Learning whereby teacher and student work together in a learning partnership. Fullan’s critique of the role of the principal starts with a simple statement:

Principals’ responsibilities have increased enormously over the past two decades. They are expected to run a smooth school; manage health, safety and the building; innovate without upsetting anyone; connect with students and teachers; be responsive to parents and the community; answer to their districts; and above all, deliver results. More and more, they are being led to be direct instructional leaders, and therein lies the rub. How is this for a shocker: the principal as direct instructional leader is not the solution! If principals are to maximize their impact on learning, we must reconceptualize their role so that it clearly, practically, and convincingly becomes a force for improving the whole school and the results it brings.

M Fullan (2014) The Principal: Three Keys for Maximizing Success, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, p.7

The notion of lead learner has been around for a while, something that Fullan acknowledges. Where The Principal comes into its own is to clarify the new role of the principal and explain how that role can model learning and shape the conditions for all to learn on a continuous basis. To use Fullan’s own words, the book “sorts out the details of what is problematic about the current role of the principal and how it can shift to that of an agent of contagion and fundamental change” (Fullan 2014: 8).

The three keys to making this shift happen are, according to Fullan:

  1. Being a learning leader;
  2. Being a system player; and
  3. Being an agent of change.

Fulfilling these three functions can be a stressful matter for some principals. Indeed, at the end of the book, Fullan poses the question: do you still want the job? A fair question to ask given what he has been discussing. To assist those, like me, who would want to see his principals operate according to Fullan’s model and approach, there is a study guide that accompanies the book. Each chapter concludes with questions upon which individuals can reflect as well as questions that are designed to be asked in a group context. This is a very useful feature and I look forward to seeing how it works out in practice, particularly as this text will be a key part of the professional learning I have planned for my school’s educational leaders.


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.

By way of an introduction


At the time, I suspect many people thought it was one of the most ridiculous decisions I have ever made. In fact, I’m pretty sure some people thought it was downright stupid. I had willingly put myself into a situation whereby I was completing my PhD at the same time as changing jobs and moving my family of five to a different country.

Such was my passion for teaching and learning, and in particular for working in international education, that the absurdity of making the decision to move when I was in the final stages of my doctoral studies made me barely raise an eyebrow.

Fast forward two years into the future and here I am, living in Germany, with my family, PhD completed and awarded, fulfilling the role of Director of Student Learning and Head Principal of an international school. My role entails not only overseeing all the academic programs of the school but also the operations of three campuses, and leading the strategic planning process to make the school a better place for learning; to be the school’s ‘lead learner’, as it were.

Formative assessment, deep learning pedagogies, alternative credentials, technology accelerating learning are some of the topics that might be covered in this blog. They are certainly relevant to me and my own context, at this point in time and are definitely topics that have a wider application to teaching and learning in general. I am sure there will be other things covered as well.

So, my intent with the posts to this blog is to reflect on teaching and learning and to contribute in a meaningful way to the discourse about learning, and the discussions about the changes taking place in realm of teaching and learning. International education will be a particular focus but not the only one. So, thank you for stopping by this particular quiet backwater of the blogosphere. I hope you will continue to come back and see where and how this blog ends up.