In last week’s blog post, Enthusiasm and Lifelong Learning, I wrote about needing education for this generation that is Rigorous, Relevant and Responsive. I attribute credit for these new three “R’s” to a leader from Colorado Succeeds who spoke at the ExcelinEd conference Amber and I attended in Washington, D.C. in early December. This leader stated that these three R’s do not replace the original three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), but instead build on them. The overriding message was that mastering the original three R’s is no longer sufficient to ensure successful outcomes for students. During the panel discussion on innovative educational models, leaders from many states, including Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota and Rhode Island, described how they were preparing students for success in postsecondary education, career and life by making education Rigorous, Relevant and Responsive.
To explore this idea further, we must first establish a common definition of the new three R’s. What do we really mean by rigorous and furthermore how is rigor measured? For many of us, standardized tests, AP courses and multiple hours of nightly homework are examples of rigor in education. Although certainly these examples can be arduous and stressful, do they really tell the whole story of rigor? Furthermore, if students become highly skilled at standardized tests, AP courses, and completing long hours of homework will this translate to success in college, work and life? I would argue that today’s world requires a broader definition of rigor in education.
To illustrate this point, I’d like to use a sports analogy. If you consider today’s best athletes, most would agree that their training is rigorous. However, regardless of their chosen sport, they all cross train. No high performing athlete is just running sprints, just lifting weights, or just working on their endurance. They are doing it all. Their training goes well beyond achieving physical excellence and extends to the creative and mental aspects of the sport or game. It’s not enough to be the fastest or strongest. They watch other athletes and teams in order to develop winning strategies. They work with their coaches and teams to craft creative solutions that will lead to successful outcomes. They look at themselves holistically and take great care about their nutrition and emotional wellness. So I would argue that rigorous education for today’s students must consist of cross training. Otherwise, we end up with students who are great test takers, but not great problem solvers. We also run the risk of losing out on the contributions of those who are not good “sprinters,” but may be amazing “weight-lifters” if we limit our definition of rigor to “sprinting.”
As I’m still reveling in Green Bay’s win over Dallas this past Sunday, allow me to make the analogy specific. Mason Crosby’s ability to kick not one, but two 51-yard field goals after being “iced” by a last second Dallas time-out is equally attributable to his laser focus and mental toughness as it is to his physical kicking strength and technique. The rigor of Crosby’s cross training is undeniable. Go Packers!
We sell our students, ourselves and our country short when we define rigor in education too narrowly. Therefore, the definition of rigor must extend beyond the traditional model to encompass wrestling with open ended challenges where solutions are not known, analyzing different perspectives on a problem, collaborating with others in the identification and pursuit of solutions and publicly presenting our work to authentic audiences.
Now the skeptics reading this post might argue that this broader definition of rigor sounds good in theory, but how realistic is its achievement when we still have difficulty getting many students to master the original three R’s. The leaders on the panel at the conference would argue that the answer to this question is Relevance. All of us, as parents or teachers, have heard students ask the question, “When will I use this information in the real world?” This question should be a wake up call to all of us to make learning relevant. Larry Rosenstock, founder of High Tech High in San Diego, noted early on in his teaching career that carpentry students sought out learning geometry when it enabled them to build a better chair. Students saw the relevance of understanding and applying geometry in their carpentry work. We know from the studies of short and long term memory that context matters a great deal for retention of information in long term memory. If we simply memorize a formula or date absent of a meaningful context to us, the information will never move from short to long term memory and therefore will not be available for recall at a later date.
Educators can create meaningful contexts or relevance for the learning students need. One way to create relevance is to stop compartmentalizing information and promote multi-disciplinary learning. Math becomes much more relevant and interesting when applied in the context of solving scientific problems. English and History can be learned in the context of each other. The separation of the subjects is an artificial construct that has outlived its usefulness given ubiquitously available information via technology. Another way to create relevance is through student-driven inquiry or project based learning. When students are empowered to pursue knowledge by asking the questions they want to solve and developing solutions to real world problems that affect them, learning takes off like a rocket. A consistent response from students we interviewed for the XQ Super School Project regarding their greatest learning experiences was that they occurred when the students were making a contribution to the community. Learning was meaningful.
A third way to create relevance is to enable students to pursue and acquire business and industry certifications (wisconsinfastforward.com) on a broad range of topics. One of the panelists at the ExcelinEd conference was a recent college graduate who acquired 30 industry certifications before he graduated from high school. He saw the value of these certifications as gateways to jobs that paid a living wage directly after high school as well as colleges that could further enhance his career prospects. Too often in our culture and education system, we have believed that the acquisition of wisdom is separate from the acquisition of skill. Not only is this belief a fallacy, it’s detrimental to students and our economic growth. I would concur with the panelists from across the country that when education is truly relevant students are gaining both wisdom and skill.
Now let’s turn to the third new “R,” responsive. The definition of “responsive” is reacting quickly and positively. I think most people would agree that our education system is not known for its nimbleness or fast reaction time. Unfortunately, the best intentions are often stymied by layers of bureaucracy. The other complicating factor is innovation is occurring at such a rapid and accelerating pace that it seems impossible to prepare students for careers when they graduate. In fact, according to a reference in Most Likely To Succeed by Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner, 65% of students entering grade school this year will work in jobs that don’t exist today. With this staggering data how do we create education that is responsive both to the needs of students and the needs of the world? The answer lies in helping students develop the skills to flourish in complex, rapidly changing environments with diversity of people and thought. The good news is that we know what these skills are and we know they are developable. Specifically, some of these skills include critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication. These skills as you’ll recall are also necessary for developing rigor so I would argue the new three Rs of education are highly interdependent. Developing rigor and relevancy makes responsiveness in education possible. And, like the legs of a stool, all three are required to create a rock solid base from which students can thrive and pursue both existing and yet to be discovered pathways to success.
For additional exploration: