Monday, March 7, 2011

Our Quest for More R&R

Many of you probably viewed the title of this post and immediately thought of rest and relaxation.  I will be the first one to admit that we all need more of this, but the focus of my post is increasing rigor and relevancy in schools.  While attending the 2011 NASSP Conference in San Francisco, CA I listened to a keynote by Dr. Bill Daggett.  His message centered on the need for increasing rigor and relevancy in schools.  In an article for SEEN Magazine Dr. Daggett provides some nice working definitions for these two terms:

Rigor - Academic rigor refers to learning in which students demonstrate a thorough in-depth mastery of challenging tasks to develop cognitive skills through reflective thought, analysis, problem solving, evaluation or creativity. It’s the quality of thinking, not the quantity, that defines academic rigor, and rigorous learning can occur at any school grade and in any subject.
 Relevance- Relevance refers to learning in which students apply core knowledge, concepts, or skills, to solve real-world problems. Relevant learning is interdisciplinary and contextual. It is created, for example, through authentic problems or tasks, simulations, service learning, connecting concepts to current issues and teaching others.

Another fantastic resource in addition to the definitions above is the Rigor/Relevance Framework by the International Center for Leadership in Education.  This tool helps educators and schools adjust curriculum, instruction, and assessment to create high standards and increase student achievement.  The research has found that successful high schools provide learning opportunities that are relevant, contain rigorous coursework, and establish meaningful relationships with teachers (See Improving High Schools Through Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships). 

I believe that we are moving the the right direction at NMHS in terms of increasing rigor and relevancy in the quest to improve student achievement.  With the assistance and support of Central Office, we have worked together to make the following changes: 
  • Replaced the antiquated Departmental structure including “Chairs” with an Interdepartmental system that includes “Interdepartmental Liaisons”.  Teachers now meet as part of three overreaching groups that include Humanities, S.T.E.M., and Special Programs (special education, arts, and technology).
  • Overhauled our District mission statement to reflect a new shared vision and philosophy that not only reflects, but puts into practice, many of the core concepts outlined in Dr. Daggett’s definitions above.
  • Created The Academies@New Milford High School.
  • Expanded our Virtual High School Offerings.
  • Added 3 new A.P. courses (European History, Language and Composition, Physics B) and making all such courses available to any student wishing to take them.
  • Total overhaul of our Program of Studies, which included the re-branding, refinement, and creation of innovative courses more relevant to the interests of a student in the 21st Century.
  • Implemented Professional Learning Communities (PLC's) as our means of professional development entirely focused on improving student achievement.
  • Systematic use of research-based Classroom Walkthroughs by the HS Administrative Team.  This week we presented data the the staff on student engagement that we have been acquiring over the past three months.  This was accompanied by a discussion of numerous strategies that our teachers could utilize to increase engagement in an authentic fashion.
I feel that a solid foundation has been set at NMHS to increase rigor, relevancy, and student achievement.  How do you think we are doing based on the changes and initiatives listed above?  Do you have any ideas and/or strategies that have worked in your institutions to increase rigor and relevancy? 


  1. Love your thoughts, and would thoroughly enjoy incorporating the higher levels of new Bloom's...but that doesn't change the fact that the multiple choice tests at the end of the year are what drives our curriculum. I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place.

  2. Love the bait & switch. You got me to read your post. Great job.

  3. Congratulations for your efforts to provide more rigorous, relevant work. I'd be interested in hearing more about your new courses. One way in which our teachers are providing rigorous work is to tap into students' interest in digital tools to engage them in collaboration, problem-solving, and communication. Students have used their cell phones at schools to take photos of mock crime scenes while analyzing crimes. They are blogging to debate historical issues. They are using probeware to help answer scientific questions.

    On a related note, check out my post regarding how Odyssey of the Mind reflects rigorous work and connects with the Daggett framework.


  4. Very articulate posting.
    I wonder why the Rigor and Relevance Framework still uses the outdated Bloom's Taxonomy.

  5. What does your walk-thru data suggest about your engagement levels as you ask teachers to intentionally plan with R&R in mind? In my school we've had to teach the R&R quadrants. We've used a Tuning Protocol to facillitate teacher discussions around an existing lesson, tuning it to be more rigorous and more relevant. We've also incorporated cultural relevancy training in an effort to increase the relevancy by encouraging better relationships and learning about your students. It's been a slow process, but we have structured our entire PD schedule around that framework.

  6. Reading about your school's and district's initiatives is a great validation for what we are endeavoring to build. We are implementing some of the same initiatives [PLC's, Vision/Mission reBuilding] and some new ones. We are especially maximizing our working hard on our collaborative planning. We are learning that the more we plan for rigor and relevance, the more we have to work at it! We are constantly seeing opportunities to improve and do better, the good work is seizing every moment to improve our practices for student achievement.

  7. Relevancy can be increased in any classroom by having some type of authentic integration event or evaluation, especially if it summarizes or requires students to use skills they have learned in new/novel situations.

    In one of my classes, students learn geology, programming, robotic sensing and data analysis throughout the course. At the end, they must make and program rovers with cams that are controlled over the internet. These rovers "explore" a simulated Mars site, where they must collect temperatures, light, and look at and identify rocks/minerals found at the site and then summarize what the site contains and come up with a geological history for the site, as well as analyze the cyclical data (we adjust heat and light throughout several hours of exploration)via mathematical regressions and use those models to calculate length of day, etc. Student are evaluated on how well they use what they collect as evidence to back up their conclusions.

    We have another course where we learn electronics, engineering design, 3D CAD modeling, etc. and then at the end of the course, they must build an underwater ROV that can explore, collect data, etc. They draw 3D models of their creations, make videos of unusual or key components, produce brochures and then meet with teams of judges who will be "awarding" contract to the best product. After presentations, students them must actually go to the pool with the ROV and demonstrate it can actually do what they say to the judges.

    These types of simulations and authentic events help students be motivated because they know they aren't just doing busy work ... they are doing work just like NASA workers, or Oil Company Engineering teams that work on remotely operated vehicles. Plus ... most think this is really fun, even though it is very challenging.

  8. I commend the initiatives to institute rigor and relevancy in your school. However, I do agree with E.K. Dunton's post that we are driven by outside forces that present a counter-productivity to such initiatives your school is presenting. I would like to add another portion to this equation. How do we institute rigor and relevance while balancing accountability? Does installing rigorous instruction and expectation necessarily translate to improved performance in standardized exams? Unfortunately, the issue always reverts back to how well our students perform on standardized tests.