Wednesday, October 5, 2011


As a principal, I’m on a journey. I am eager to learn how our school can continue to meet the academic, social, emotional, physical and spiritual needs of all our "21st century students".  

Let me openly declare that   I am not an expert in “21st Century Learning” (I am excited about this topic and I recently ordered the book 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times by Bernie Trilling).

As we engage in conversations around topics like personalized learning, 21st Century skills, learning for all,  etc – I am, at times, confronted with the concept of “academic rigour” as not being inclusive or supportive of the aforementioned.

I have heard comments and questions like:

“Can we personalize learning and still maintain academic rigor?”

“It seems that academic rigor no longer exists - no more Provincial Exams, assessment polices that “ban zero’s, etc.) 

These are questions and comments that need to be addressed. I certainly invite the dialogue. However before we go further, we need to have a firm handle of what we mean when we use the term “academic rigor”.

Given my own lack clarity around the idea of  “rigor” I decided to do some reading and reflecting  on the topic. 
Here is what has out stood for me: 

Rigour is not synonymous with More:

  • content 
  • worksheets 
  • homework 
  • lectures 
  • tests
  • high stakes exams 
  • learning outcomes 
Rigour is not synonymous with Faster:
  • Pacing 
  • Lectures/Talking 
  • Covering of curriculum
Rigour is not synonymous with Uniform
  • Instruction 
  • Delivery 
  • Assessment 
  • Classes (Honours Classes, AP Classes, etc.) 
I have come across a number of good working definitions of rigour for the 21st Century, including:
“Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.”
Teaching What Matters Most: Standards and Strategies for Raising Student Achievement 
R. W. Strong, Harvey F. Silver and Matthew J. Perini, 
ASCD, 2001. 
“…in a rigorous school, students not only learn, do, and reflect, they also master such twenty-first-century skills as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, project management, and written and oral communication”

At this time, for me, rigour is about challenging and supporting students to be “deep thinking” (i.e. critical thinkers) and reflective learners in an environment that is passion driven, motivating, collaborative, accountable and maintains a climate of high expectations for individual learners.

It might be more constructive, when we talk about “rigor” in school, to consider that we are not talking about More, Faster, and Uniform

Still figuring it out...


  1. Johnny,
    When you say you're trying to "figure it out" you are really taking it on - great questions and follow up discussion to have with your staff.

    My favourite definition of rigour comes from Larry Rosenstock:
    "Rigour is being in the company of a passionate adult who is rigorously pursuing inquiry in the area of their subject matter and is inviting students [and staff] along in that pursuit."

    In terms of personalized learning and rigour, Rosenstock's High Tech High in San Diego nails it:

    Great video I showed last year (also served as the impetus for our Digital Immersion Program)

    Thanks for sharing and continuing to ask the questions that make a difference

  2. Great post. Causing some discussion in my house in regards to "rigor" and learning. Great skills to apply to life in general. Parenting, teaching, working. Giving kids these tools will only enhance their education going forward.

  3. Great post Johnny. I wonder how rigorous work can be if all students have to do is find the answers from one source mandated by the teacher (i.e. textbook/worksheet). To me rigor comes from complex questions that require students to access multiple sources. Thanks for pushing my thinking yet again.

  4. Thanks, Johnny for this post. This is one of the questions I am exploring in my work at the elementary level. Do you have any recommended readings to share?