Rigor, or Just Rigor Mortis?

Posted by David Hickson on Dec 17, 2015 12:21:46 PM


“How much homework do your students have at night?”  We hear this question frequently at SSFS admissions open houses, and it’s a reasonable question.  It is also a very difficult question to answer given that the amount of time needed to complete readings and assignments varies widely from student to student.  Some parents are trying to gauge what their child’s life will be like attending our school.  Other parents are seeking to gauge how rigorous our academic program is.  It turns out that the amount of homework is not only difficult to generalize, it is also a poor measure of academic rigor.  In fact, the quantity of work a student does in general assumes an overly narrow, and not very helpful, definition of academic rigor, if one is talking about the kind of rigor that has lasting value for students.

Students, parents, and unfortunately many educators correlate academic rigor with the amount of work a student does, particularly how much homework they have. This kind of “rigor” is actually very easy to manufacture.  Instead of assigning ten math problems, the teacher can assign 30, all prewritten in the textbook.  Instead of reading 12 pages a night, the teacher can assign 50. This can generate a “Wow that teacher is really demanding” reaction that assumes rigor.  It is a bit more work for the teacher, too, to grade longer assignments.  But it is mind-numbing for the students, and also for the teacher. A growing body of research suggests that, in general, homework for elementary students creates stress but has limited or no academic value. For older students, homework can have academic value if it is properly designed and not overdone.  (Check out the writings of Alfie Kohn, such as this article for Principal magazine.)  Repetition has its place, but it’s easily overrated, and a steady diet of this kind of rigor is an impoverished, grinding education.

There is something to be said for developing a student’s ability to juggle multiple assignments and a quantity of work.  Quality college programs, and most any job, demand the ability to “move the freight,” whether that freight is boxes, problem sets, writing sales reports, or demanding surgery schedules; I describe this as “quantitative rigor.”  However, in an increasingly technological, global economy, “moving the freight” involves less repetitive work - that’s what computers and machines are for - and more cognitive, creative, collaborative work.  Developing creative solutions, synthesizing quantities of information, collaborating with others who have a spectrum of opinions and ideas, navigating the cultural worlds of clients, patients, and management teams - that’s 21st century rigor and what I will term “qualitative rigor.”  Schools need to prepare students for qualitative rigor by challenging them to be collaborative, creative, inventive, entrepreneurial, and analytical.   These are what are commonly referred to as “higher-order skills.”  Perhaps this middle/high school example can illustrate the difference:

Quantitative Rigor:  Solar panels at the school have a combined peak output of 975 kilowatts.  Assuming an average of 50% maximum production for 8 hours each day, calculate the amount of electricity produced per year.  Now do these 15 similar problems...

Qualitative Rigor:  Our school has a solar panel installation that generates a portion of the electricity used by the school.  Work with your team to research and develop a written proposal that will make the school fully “carbon-neutral” (all energy from renewable sources) in five years.  Be sure to consider actual facility energy use, economic and cost factors, available technologies, and human behavior in drafting your proposal. All teams will present their proposals to the class for discussion.

Most students find the first assignment mind-numbing after the first few problems.  Students will have mastered a particular calculation after the first few, but only that.  Most students will find the second, open-ended, interdisciplinary assignment not only rigorous, but engaging and relevant.  Students will likely detest and avoid the first, but many students will go above and beyond for the second assignment, learning math, physics, collaboration, energy economics, costing, report-writing, and persuasive presentation. Which of these assignments will better prepare students for college and careers?   

Open-ended, higher-order assignments should not be reserved for the oldest students.  Educational programs at all age-levels should strive for this kind of intellectual rigor in developmentally appropriate ways from Pre-Kindergarten on up.  It is the kind of educational experience we seek to create for all students at Sandy Spring Friends School.

For another perspective on college-preparatory rigor, check out AP English teacher David Sztabnik’s post for Edutopia.

About SSFS Blog:

The Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS) blog shares information weekly that inspires personal and academic growth in every aspect of life for parents and students.