What Parents Should Know About Academic Rigor
by Tom Cangiano, Head of School
It is a common refrain from parents that education seems more "complicated" now than when they were growing up. It doesn't have to be. Our parent education series is focused on debunking and on defining what it means to be a student not just at GEMS World Academy Chicago, but also a K-12 student in 2019.
What exactly is academic rigor? Depending on whom you talk to, the definition can vary pretty dramatically. Even among professional educators there is no consensus about what constitutes a rigorous academic program.
We’ve talked a lot about rigor at GEMS and what this looks like. For us, it’s been very much an exercise in backward design. We start with one essential question: What do colleges and universities expect our students to know and what skills do they need to have mastered? Our goal is not just for GWA Chicago graduates to be competitive applicants to the college of their choice, but we also want our students to have a seamless transition to the demands of university academic work.
Rigor for us is about a few things. First, we always want our students to do quality work, and all of our faculty, from upper secondary down through middle school and the lower school grades, must set ambitious expectations for the quality of work of our students. Second, assigned work or homework must be on par with the typical expectations of top independent schools, both in terms of quantity work and the quality of assignments. Moreover, with very few exceptions, work must be submitted when it is due. Finally, although minimum high expectations must be set at each grade level—and this is an ongoing, dynamic, evolutionary process—we must also find ways to challenge students who are excelling.
With appropriately calibrated rigor, naturally, comes appropriately calibrated stress. While younger children should feel little to no stress in our academic environment (although we do teach young students about the importance of being resilient), it will be quite natural for students to feel a little bit of stress as they mature and as the work demands become somewhat more intense. By the time students get to high school, they will begin to feel this with some regularity.
Our job as educators is to make sure that we give students the tools and the support to do the work we are expecting. It is also our job to give students the tools to mitigate and manage situations that can be stressful to them. Without this kind of training, students will have a much more difficult time transitioning to university where the academic demands are more intense and the support structures are fewer.
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