Redefining Rigor

By Adam Rohdie

I have read a lot about the word rigor recently as it has been applied to education. Growing up, my elementary through high school years defined rigor as spelling lists, “mad math minutes,” hours of homework, which was usually page 147 in my math book problems 1-20 odd only (the even ones had the answers in the back!), reams of content memorization, multiple choice tests, “chalk and talk instruction,” vocabulary lists in Spanish, and, of course, study halls with absolutely no talking.

Unfortunately, today, many parents continue to search for these very same aspects of learning as markers of “rigor.” If we are honest, many of us felt the same way high school students feel today—as noted in a recent Yale University study—“bored”, “stressed” and “tired.” This state of mind while in school does not bode well for deep and long-lasting learning. Study after study has shown that when students are engaged with their learning, where they have real “voice and choice” in the course of study, and where instruction includes both direct instruction, but also focuses on project based outcomes in a cross disciplinary manner with real world assessments, the learning for children is so much more “sticky.” This is the new level of rigor, taking content knowledge to a deeper level of understanding, fostering curiosity and choice, and constructing new meaning to solve real-world problems.

At Greenwich Country Day’s new high school, students just completed a three-week intersession, where they were engaged in deep, rigorous, transformative learning. Our juniors and seniors all took part in internships. They commuted to businesses and not-for-profits around the tri-state area, taking a deep dive into how the real-world works. One student declared that after her internship, she has found her life’s calling! Our ninth and tenth graders chose from a smorgasbord of course offerings, with a three-week focus on one topic. Some students began EMT certification, with a culminating exercise to save a victim with the help of GEMS. One group of students studied and explored the neighborhoods of NYC, another focused on sports and spent time talking with people like Brian Cashman, General Manager of NY Yankees, and Gerry Cooney, former heavyweight championship contender. Students learned mechanics and electronics, designed products, developed business plans, and refurbished a greenhouse. Many of our students have found ways to continue their interests in the intersession topics on their own through clubs or personal projects.

The list could go on and on, but what struck me was a comment from one of our parents. He shared with me that he often does not get back much when he asks the famous question, “How was school?” Yet, during the weeks of intersession he “could not get his child to shut up!” All he wanted to do was discuss what was happening at school.

Parents looking for rigor, need to look no farther and perhaps more importantly they need to be shifting their lens to the most important aspect of school—deep and joyful engagement!

Adam Rohdie is headmaster of the Greenwich Country Day School, the only co-educational, Nursery-Grade 12, college preparatory day school in Greenwich, CT. In addition to leading GCDS for the past sixteen years, he teaches eighth grade U.S. history and coaches boys basketball. Prior to Country Day, Rohdie was the assistant headmaster and head of the Upper School at the Pingry School in Martinsville, NJ.