Friday, February 23, 2007

Academic Rigor: A Rough Cut

I'm intrigued by a the discussion of academic rigor, and I think our experience homeschooling our oldest daughter might shed some light on this subject. This is a draft of my thinking:

The dialog around academic rigor often feels as if it is based on the two opposing, but exclusive, viewpoints, between which we are asked to choose: 1) the environment which emphasizes passion, or 2) the environment that focuses on rigor. (The former being seen as "loose," and the latter often being the rationale for high-stakes testing.)

And just stopping here, I think there are many that would agree that the two should not be mutually exclusive. But even then, there is still an inherent assumption to the discussion that I want to challenge: either or both are almost always presented in the structure of our traditional school system--that is, where education is something that adults impose upon children.

Now, before you write me off as being flaky or weird, here is the alternative assumption: that education is essential to the health and well-being of ourselves as individuals, and when we are rigorously engaged in our own life learning, we can generatively mentor students by communicating the value of being both passionate and rigorous, and expecting both. And it is amazing to find that when education is treated this holistically, students can accomplish incredible things. We're all aware of students who have done this, we just don't see it as the norm (which is part of the problem).

In the homeschool program our daughter was in, it was believed and communicated that a student by the age of 14 - 16 should be so self-engaged in their education, that they have chosen challenging fields of interest to immerse themselves in, and are studying deeply 10+ hours a day. They are becoming scholars. They are reading the great books, interacting with challenging the brightest minds of their culture.

Do we believe in rigor and passion in our own educations? It's a hard message, but if our free time is filled with unchallenging and mindless entertainment, and if when we talk about our school days we speak of something that is behind us that "we got through," then our children will not know any better. When our major method for accomplishing something is enforcement (which is really what the culture of school is now), we give the implicit message that it is not something that is going to be enjoyed, no matter how much we say otherwise. Want to help your child become a better learner? Let them see you studying math or reading a classic...

All of the best stories of education come from instances where the students became so engaged and passionate that they sought rigor themselves.


  1. Steve,

    Fantastic post, and something my wife and I were discussing just the other night. I have been reading Po Bronson's posts on "How Not to Talk to Your Children," in New York Magazine and on his blog, and your post resonates with some of the points he makes about how we treat our children academically.

    A while back, when my son was not yet 2, I worked volunteered at a big mountain bike race and witnessed families where the children, mother and father were all participants in the races throughout the day. It made me see how easily we pass along our passions and our habits to our children. Your post reminds me of that. Thanks.

  2. This comment is exactly right.

    Neither of my parents were academics. Neither attended university (except some night classes my father took at Sir George Williams). But in our household, academic virtues were celebrated and practiced:

    - the radio was tuned to CBC (Canadian public broadcasting) and so we would hear world news, scientific programs, 'Ideas', and more...

    - there were always newspapers in the house - we all ended up delivering newspapers - and articles of importance, such as the current membership of the Cabinet (in the Canadian government) were posed on the wall. There was always a big map of the world on the wall.

    - my mother bought a complete set of the classic works of literature for the house (these were very specifically my mothers, and I had to ask to read them), very cheap Pelican's (low-cost Penguins) that fell apart when you read them. Everything from Shakespeare to Butler to Thoreau to Twain. I read about half the 120 book collection before the middle years of high school (talk about an advantage!)

    - I joined the Book of the Month Club with my father, through which I learned a lot of history - Pierre Berton, William L. Shirer, and Albert Speer all stand out, as do my Complete Sherlock Holmes

    - there was also technology, and an evident interest in technology, in the house (we weren't just about academics). Our house radio was built from a kit. Bits and pieces of telephones were always about, as my father worked for Bell. We had telescopes and microscopes (much to the distress of the local bug and amphibian population). My younger brothers benefited from my father's interest in computers, but by then (1980s) I had left home. Still, I got my first model, a big 300 baud box, from my father.

    - somehow I came into possession of an old Underwood typewriter (the reason I can't type to this day, because the keys took too much force to push) and a limitless supply of paper.

    - I also somehow had access to tools - hammers, saws, screwdrivers, the works - to build things (and we built numerous things, including clubhouses, tree houses, go-karts and even a stage coach).

    - we had a (large) garden and learned how to grow food. We were involved in preserving and canning the food (I can still remember piles of beans, a supply that would last the entire winter). We could cook basically whenever we wanted, so I took the opportunity to bake some cakes and pies.

    Things like this - which, really, began with my first set of blocks, which had letters stamped on the sides, characterized my childhood. Knowledge and learning were always valued and supported.

    At the same time, though, none of it was forced on me. These things were always in my environment, but I wasn't required to read the books (though the garden work was not voluntary - everybody helped because everybody ate). It was all about the environment, and not some rigorous academic regime.

  3. I appreciated both comments. They led me to think about the difference between "training" and "education." May I suggest that "training" is something that is mandated from above, can be very important, and is probably mistaken for education in most discussions about rigor in K-12 education. Education, from its latin roots (to draw forth, to lead toward) is essentially an invitation to learning and knowledge.

    Here is one possible rationale for our current thinking about education: as a nation (whatever nation), we need a standardized set of knowledge to be received by each child in order to maintain (or grow) our prosperity --> we need to mandate that education because if left to the parents, it will not be consistent or even guaranteed --> now that we have this system in place, improvements to the system come from additional mandates. To me, that is training, not education. What has typically taken place in higher education, since it is "voluntary," is closer to what we call true "education."

    If we look at the results of the mandated education system in the U.S., for example, are we happy with the results? Of course, they vary, but I think by and large we are very concerned that students leave high school much less educated than we believe they should. So, if we're not getting the result that we would like, are we willing to question our methods?

    And that leads me back to the theme of "choice"--if we don't know what the right answer is, then we are most likely to see successful methods and innovation by allowing more choice in our schooling (especially since, as I've written, we aren't likely to even fully agree on what we think success is). So why are we afraid of choice? I think because we are afraid to not be in control; it is much easier and more comfortable to work within a system we know, no matter how flawed. And there are power structures that are inherent in existing systems, that aren't easily ceded.

  4. I enjoyed reading your posts about your experiences home schooling. You must be brave, organized, and determined.

    The reason I am writing is to in no way put you down or diminish your message.

    I just have a couple of questions about the term "academic rigor." First, do you know when it was first coined as an academic term? Where did it come from? Second, a more philosophical question. How were these two words put together? It seems the opposite of what it is supposed to mean. Rigor is only defined as inflexibility, harshness, cold, stern, cruel, harsh and a whole bundle of like synonyms. As an elementary teacher I feel our mission is to provide children the tools to become flexible problem solvers in the future. So, in turn, we as educators must also be flexible problem solvers to find the avenue to reach the children and help them grow. As a word lover, I am a little offended. Why rigor? Did they possibly mean vigor? What are your thoughts?


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