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.