Rigor and Relevance

Preparing students for a 21st century world

11/20/2009  |  WILLARD R. DAGGETT
21st century learning


The first step is defining the education our children must have in today’s globalized society. Here is a good starting point: A quality education prepares students to enter the global economy with the ability to apply what they learned in school to situations that they cannot foresee before graduating.

Unfortunately, despite the ongoing efforts of educators and communities to improve schools, the changing nature of the workplace, including the expansion of technology and competition in the global job market has far outpaced the way the U.S. education system prepares students. The first step in reversing this trend is defining rigor and relevance, the two pillars of a sound education.

Rigor and Relevance

Rigor and relevance are at the foundation of everything we do at the International Center for Leadership in Education. Although school districts across

the country are increasingly using the words “rigor”and “relevance,”these terms are seldom defined. To provide a descriptive understanding of these critical interlocking elements of education, we created an easy-to-read framework that reaches across the spectrum of learning and reveals what needs to change in schools. Its main purpose is to help educators organize curriculum and instruction to prepare all students for the future.

Defining Rigor

Academic rigor refers to learning in which students demonstrate a thorough in-depth mastery of challenging tasks to develop cognitive skills through reflective thought, analysis, problem solving, evaluation or creativity. It’s the quality of thinking, not the quantity, that defines academic rigor, and rigorous learning can occur at any school grade and in any subject.

Defining Relevance

Relevance refers to learning in which students apply core knowledge, concepts, or skills, to solve real-world problems. Relevant learning is interdisciplinary and contextual. It is created, for example, through authentic problems or tasks, simulations, service learning, connecting concepts to current issues and teaching others.

Rigor without relevance can enable students to be successful in school, but results in failure once they no longer have that structure and guidance. In other words, there are students who do well academically, but who seem to be dysfunctional in the world beyond school because they lack the ability to apply their knowledge to real-life situations.

Kennesaw Mountain High School in Kennesaw, Ga., for instance, has a real knack for building their curricula around rigor and relevance. One example of an engaging activity that incorporates rigorous and relevant learning is a team-taught technology and English class in which groups of students each select a technology and project how it may change in the future. They then identify what breakthroughs are required for the “new” technology to become a reality as well as describe the positive and negative consequences on society. They also challenge each teacher to develop a highly rigorous and relevant lesson to share, not only within the department, but also across disciplines. The culminating activity is an American Idol type contest, where teachers share best practices across the curriculum. It is a positive way to infuse rigor and relevance throughout the entire curriculum and teachers have fun in the process. The real winners of the contest are the students who will benefit from these lessons.

Rigor/Relevance Framework

The Rigor/Relevance Framework™ was developed to ensure the inclusion of both rigor and relevance in instruction. The framework consists of four quadrants that reflect these two dimensions of higher standards and student achievement.

The first dimension is the Knowledge Taxonomy, which describes the increasingly complex ways in which we think. The second dimension is the Application Model that describes five levels of relevant learning.

In Quadrant A (Acquisition), students learn and store bits of knowledge and information. Quadrant B (Application) requires students to use their acquired knowledge to solve practical problems. In Quadrant C (Assimilation), students extend their acquired knowledge to use it automatically and routinely to analyze problems and create unique solutions. When working in Quadrant D (Adaptation), students have the competence to think in complex ways and apply their knowledge and skills when confronting perplexing unknowns and creating solutions.

Learning in Quadrant D is demanding and requires students to apply their thinking and knowledge in complex ways to solve difficult problems. Roles shift from teacher-centered instruction in quadrants A and C to student-centered instruction in quadrants B and D. In these latter quadrants, the teacher serves as more of a coach or a facilitator of learning.

Good instruction is not a choice of a single quadrant, but a balance. It may not be necessary for all students to achieve mastery of content in Quadrant A before proceeding to Quadrant B, for example. Some students may learn a concept better in Quadrant B, when they see its application in a real-world situation. But no matter what the grade level, students require Quadrant B and D skills if they are to become lifelong learners, problem solvers, and decision makers. In essence, students need to know what to do when they don’t know what to do.

So, should the education debate continue across the nation? Of course. But it requires a systematic approach that begins with a focus on preparing students for their future, not our past.

Willard R. Daggett is President of the International Center for Leadership in Education (www.LeaderEd.com). Since 1991, the International Center’s mission has been to prepare ALL students to be college-work-life ready through delivering rigorous and relevant curriculum based on positive relationships.
Comments & Ratings