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PrinciPALS Podcast Transcript: 1.02: Academic Rigor

By Jij de Jesus, Emma Wellman, and Conor Bentley

Listen above or on Apple Podcasts.


The princiPALS are back in the studio to discuss academic rigor during the early childhood and elementary school years. While traditional education focused on the memorization and regurgitation of facts to display knowledge, Jij and Emma show how today’s students succeed when they know how to seek, evaluate, and use knowledge. They also provide practical tips to help parents and caregivers inspire lifelong learning and collaboration in children.

The transcript of this episode appears below.


Conor Bentley (00:02):
From Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah...

Jij de Jesus (00:04):
I'm Jij de Jesus.

Emma Wellman (00:06):
And I'm Emma Wellman.

Conor (00:07):
And they're the princiPALS.

I'm Conor Bentley, and on today's episode of princiPALS, we'll be talking about academic rigor.

Emma (00:24):
On The PrinciPALS Podcast, we tackle big questions and share big ideas about how to raise excellent humans.

Conor (00:30):
Emma, Jij, thank you for letting me join you in the princiPALS' office again today. Today, we are going to be talking about academic rigor, and the big driving question for this episode is: how do we understand academic rigor in the context of early childhood and elementary school? So, do you want to define that for us and talk about that a little bit?

Jij (00:53):
Actually, Conor, this is a thing that Emma and I talk about often: academic rigor, the learning that our students do every day. I'm actually interested to hear how you think about this idea of academic rigor. What comes to mind when you hear those words?

Conor (01:10):
Well, I think of it in a context of kind of a selling point, in a way, and a degree of difficulty. So the word rigor, to me, means difficulty, hard. And I think, you know, when I was teaching, that was sort of a buzzword that got thrown around a lot for challenging and difficult programs and classes. And so if it was academically rigorous, that meant it was more difficult, it was more challenging, you were going to have to work harder. You know, you were going to have to push yourself. Maybe you were leveling up into a program that was maybe above your level. So if you were, you know, in a third-grade math class, maybe you would be doing math at a fifth-grade level or something like that. So, to me, that's what academic rigor means, but I'm sure that it's definitely more than that.

Jij (01:58):
I'd agree. It's definitely more than that. And I think it's interesting, you know, when you talk about difficulty and challenge, that's like a narrow little bit of how we think about academic rigor.

Conor (02:10):
Right. Well, that's good. I'm glad that we have something to talk about on this episode because if that had been it, it would've been a really poor second episode.

Emma (02:18):
It would be boring.

Conor (02:18):
Yeah.

Emma (02:18):
Yeah, I think there are, we have a set of sort of values that help orient us as we're thinking about how to provide academic rigor in a way that's useful for our students. And so some of those are valuing depth over breadth, quality over quantity, mastery over mere achievement—or over-performance, perhaps—and we value authenticity over something being contrived. These are all helpful frames as we consider what counts as academic rigor for younger students.

Another thing that I think is interesting to consider is that academic rigor for younger children is valuable in and of itself not only in terms of preparing children for the rigors of middle or upper school, for example, but also because it's good for them to be challenged and learning in complicated and interesting ways right now.

Conor (03:11):
And that's kind of what I was talking about, too, is, I remember it in the context of being a high school student and thinking about going off to college. I know that was when I heard the term academic rigor was, you know, eighth, ninth grade when you're getting ready to go off to college. And so I love the idea of thinking about it in a context for younger learners because that wouldn't have even entered my mind. To me, academic rigor was something that was meant for older students or people getting ready to go off to college.

Jij (03:39):
Yeah. And our hope is that academic rigor gives kids a sense of loving learning and experiencing real joy in engaging in the process of learning.

Emma (03:49):
So let's talk a little more about reframing this notion of academic rigor. And Jij and I want to share a bit of information about what we've learned in recent years about how this applies for younger learners. So, for example, access to knowledge and information has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. The worldwide web, which we usually just call the internet, was only just invented in 1990. That wasn't really very long ago. Wikipedia is about 10 years younger than that. So this really changes the value of having many facts in your head and being able to call them up on purpose, which is how we used to think about what it was to be an expert, right? And so that was a major outcome of really excellent education was knowing a lot of stuff in your head and being able to talk about it at various impressive times. But this seems sort of moot at this point because we all carry all of the world's knowledge and facts in our pockets all the time. So instead, what we need now is to know when we need information, how to get it, how to evaluate that information for credibility and reliability, how to analyze it and synthesize it in order to use it, to deploy it on purpose, often collaboratively. So this is a lot of what we mean when you hear people say that we want to teach students how to think and not what to think. It's really about this shift.

Conor (05:14):
So we don't want any more Ken Jennings who can win Jeopardy! tournaments, is what you're saying.

Emma (05:19):
Well, we already have that one Ken Jennings.

Conor (05:21):
Right, so we're good then, we don't need any more.

Jij (05:24):
So this notion of a shift, I really see it as a shift around the importance of academic content knowledge. Back in the day, academic content knowledge was sort of the ultimate outcome of school, right? And hearken back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse—and I did just say the word hearken. So, you know, knowledge was fixed, it was relatively static because the knowledge that was accessible in that one-room schoolhouse was in the book. And that was the most up-to-date representation of the stuff that people knew. And if you knew that stuff in that book, you were the best student or, you know, you knew the most stuff, and that was the most important thing. And so at that point, rigor was about knowing stuff, a whole bunch of stuff, and that stuff was typically coming from a book. Right? That's not the case anymore. Knowledge is readily available via the worldwide web. And so, since content knowledge is no longer primary, it can't be the only thing. So it's not enough to just be a Ken Jennings who wins Jeopardy!; now we need students who know their academic content, but also can apply it in new and novel ways.

Conor (06:32):
So, applied learning.

Jij (06:34):
Mm-hmm. This is the thing. So the shift is really from academic content as the primary thing to now academic content as a vehicle to practice and solidify the competencies and skills that will be applicable, you know, in the classroom and beyond.

Conor (06:50):
So we're thinking about long-term things here. We're not just: it's to get you through this grade level or to get you through, you know, your high school or your college. It's: we want everybody to be able to take whatever skills they learn over a lifetime and utilize them.

Jij (07:08):
Right, yeah. And so, you know, I really think about the idea that rigor is not just what you know, rigor is what you can do with what you know. You know, I do struggle with the word itself: rigor. And, you know, rigor, I think, can imply challenge, like you talked about at the beginning of our little podcast. It can imply a certain level of thoroughness or comprehensiveness. But, literally, it can also imply inflexibility and stiffness. Right? Rigor mortis. And if I think about that aspect of rigor and think about our kids learning—I don't want kids to learn, you know, and have a word that implies stiffness and inflexibility, define their learning experience.

Conor (07:56):
Or difficulty for difficulty's sake. And I think that's, again, that's what comes to mind when I think about it. So I'm glad we're talking about this because you're right, that's not what anybody wants for their student.

Jij (08:09):
You're right, we don't want inflexibility and stiffness. We don't want difficulty for difficult sake. We want engagement. We want depth of thought. We want dynamic and flexible thinking. And, you know, when I think about rigor, I don't think about stiffness, I think about stretch and growth and novelty and innovation. And this old notion of rigor almost sounds like something that is done to or imposed on a student. I'm imagining, you know, a student at a desk and this outdated understanding of rigor—like, that student is under a pile of books and has worksheets and papers. And that's not how I see kids learning and doing their best learning, right? I'd like to imagine that true rigor, and true rigorous learning, is something to be experienced and, dare I say, enjoyed.

Emma (09:04):
I think the other thing to keep track of is that the world is changing rapidly, and I alluded to this a few minutes ago, talking about the beginning stages of the internet and Wikipedia, but, you know, at Rowland Hall, the youngest students that we have could be our high school graduating class of 2034, which sounds like sort of a made-up Jetson year. When I think ahead in my mind, I feel really curious about what that will look like. What will jobs look like? What will higher education look like when they're ready for it? What will transportation or communication or money look like? We've been promised flying cars for quite some time now; I'm hopeful that our Beginning School students will get to have some of those.

Conor (09:46):
Underwater bubble cities.

Emma (09:47):
Exactly. All of this. But luckily, we don't have to know for sure what's going to happen. But I do feel charged with equipping students with the skills that they'll need when they graduate, when they enter that world. And our best futurist suggests that the jobs of the future will likely be comprised of non-routine tasks that require social and emotional intelligence, that require complex, critical thinking and creative problem solving, especially in collaboration with other people. And so at school, one of the ways that we provide rigor is to introduce students to a manageable amount of muddlement, because it's in line with where they're eventually headed. And I think muddlement is sort of a defining characteristic of the world today, and I think will continue to be so. We provide students with desirable difficulty on purpose because we want to prepare them for what is sometimes called the VUCA world; VUCA is an acronym for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. It actually comes from the military, but I think it's really a useful extension as we think about how to prepare students for their future lives as adults.

Conor (10:56):
Right, because it could be Star Trek or it could be, you know, Road Warrior. But either way, you're going to need to be collaborative and adaptable.

Jij (11:06):
Well, and Conor, I love that you're talking about movies because, you know, Emma likes to talk about acronyms and the future, I like to talk about movies. And there's one movie in particular that I think is relevant to our conversation. Have you seen Apollo 13?

Conor (11:20):
Absolutely. It's a classic.

Jij (11:21):
The 1995 blockbuster starring Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon.

Conor (11:25):
And let's not forget Bill Paxton, I mean, it's a great—go and watch it. Go out and watch it.

Jij (11:28):
So there's this scene in Apollo 13, and hopefully you recall this scene, where, you know, they're kind of in trouble and Houston, they have a problem, and they have to fit a square peg in a round hole. I don't remember exactly what the round thing was. It was like a filter.

Conor (11:44):
It's like an air filter so they don't, because, yeah, they're going to have too much CO2 in the cabin when they're coming back.

Jij (11:49):
Yeah.

Conor (11:49):
And so they have to jerry rig this thing.

Jij (11:52):
Yeah, the line is, you know, we have to fit a square peg in a round hole, and we have to fit this into this using nothing but this, and the last this is, they spill all the gear they have on the spaceship onto the table and, you know, it's like the astronaut helmet and, you know, a toolbox, and they have to figure out how to address this dilemma. Right? And I think that clip, that moment in Apollo 13, perfectly illustrates the essence of what we're trying to accomplish in education right now. Right? These were NASA engineers because this is a true story. Right?

Conor (12:32):
Yeah.

Jij (12:32):
So in real life, not just in the movie, NASA engineers were faced with this real problem. And there was no worksheet, no manual, no step-by-step algorithm or answer to regurgitate from memory that told them how to solve this problem. Right? Instead, they were faced with a challenge. They had to apply their knowledge, their diverse areas of expertise, their varied levels of understanding, and they had to work together as a team to find a solution to fit a square peg into a round hole. You know, essentially we want our students to know stuff, that's the content part, but more so, we want our students to know what to do with the stuff they know, and that's the skills and the practices. And if, you know, I think about our school, Rowland Hall, and our mission statement, we talk about being a college-preparatory school, and I want to make sure that, yes, we're preparing our students for that part of college that happens in the classroom, the academic part, which is about 10 percent of the college experience. But we're also preparing them for the 90 percent of the college experience that happens out of the classroom, when they'll have to make good decisions, when they'll have to navigate challenging dilemmas and moments, when they'll have to build strong friendships and relationships with people around them, when, you know, they'll have to do laundry. These are all important life skills that go beyond just the academic content.

Emma (13:59):
So we've just talked a lot about what we believe about academic rigor and our convictions, so now we'd like to share a bit about how we got there and some of the research that's informed our opinion.

So, something I learned just this last summer as I was doing some reading is that recent research on many kinds of early childhood programs has shown that the positive effects of the earliest years of school fade out, that they go away by third grade. This is problematic for people who are in my line of work, right? So, what are we doing here? But, in fact, upon digging deeper, researchers have found that this happens in programs where the focus is on teaching so-called closed skills. Closed skills are those that can be acquired quickly with repetition of procedures, they take place in a static and structured environment, and most everyone will pick these up eventually anyway. These same researchers have also found that lasting, positive impacts come when, instead, the focus is on developing open skills. Open skills require more complex decision-making. They require adaptation, accounting for context and knowledge of self. These take longer to learn—of course, they're more complicated. The tricky thing is that this is really different from how lots of us, including myself, were educated, and so it's harder to see progress in open skills because they're messier. The learning doesn't look linear. They take longer. And so a big takeaway for me from this research is that a head start might be fast, but deep learning is slow.

Jij (15:31):
Yeah. And I often think about, when we're talking about these kinds of things, Tony Wagner, who's an education expert. So Tony Wagner often talks about the skills all students need for careers, college, and citizenship in the 21st century. And he has this list of seven that he, again, often talks about. So, the first is critical thinking and problem solving, and that's really sort of asking great questions. Also, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, and really that emotional and social intelligence. Agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism (that word's hard to say), effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity and imagination. And his thought is, if we develop intentionally these skills in our students, then they'll be prepared for anything that comes their way and they'll be the innovators that drive change in our society.

Emma (16:35):
Yeah, and I can't help but mention—forgive me for being a giant nerd—but although we're citing recent research and talking a lot about the future, a lot of what we're saying is actually not at all newfangled. This is stuff that we've known in the field of education for more than a hundred years, actually. Famed educational philosopher John Dewey rejected the idea that learning is about passively perceiving and observing and, thereby, knowing the world. Like, you cannot just be a sponge; that's not good learning, according to John Dewey. Instead, he asserted that learners have to actively manipulate both objects and ideas in their environment, ideally with help from a more skilled guide, and that's what great teachers do. So I think, although there is this futuristic lens, and I think we're very right to be thinking about it in that way, it's also, I think, I hope, comforting to know that this is a set of ideas that we've been thinking about and testing and chewing on for a really long time in education.

Conor (17:38):
And we don't need to throw out—just because something is old doesn't necessarily mean that it's bad. But at the same time, thinking about what's also to come, and, to me, again, thinking about the future and thinking about also holding onto the good things from the past, it reminds me of Star Trek, like we were talking about. And they still read books, actual hardbound books, in Star Trek.

Emma (18:05):
On the fleet?

Conor (18:06):
Yeah. I'm just saying. But there's still a place for some of the old things, even though it's this futuristic, technologically advanced society, right? So there is a place for both in the world.

Emma (18:19):
Mm-hmm.

Jij (18:20):
Agreed.

Conor (18:21):
So what are some things that you both have observed? I mean, we've talked about the research, we've talked about your personal views on this and kind of defined it, but what's going on on the ground right now with what's happening in the school and the things that you guys see every day?

Jij (18:38):
Yeah, I think a great place to see this sort of shift is in math. And if we think about sort of the old definition of a strong mathematician and, back to movies, if we think about mathematicians in movies, what do you picture?

Conor (18:52):
They're at the board, like with a ton of equations. It's like, you know, Good Will Hunting—he's just scribbling away and there's just, the whole board is full of numbers and, you know, decimals and things.

Jij (19:04):
And they're often working alone at the board, right? And they're working furiously and quickly, and it's about speed and about things that no one else can understand. And that's actually not what strong mathematicians do. Right? Strong mathematicians often create meaning and figure things out in teams. They're accurate, yes, and speed can be important, but depth of thinking is important. They're flexible problem solvers. Strong mathematicians are creative. They can construct viable arguments. So, you know, it doesn't work if you understand what you're doing, but no one else does. You have to get people to understand your thinking, and support and explain your thinking and reasoning by using models, or by drawing, or by using different ways to express your thinking and make it visible. So that's a great way to understand the shift from perhaps an outdated understanding of rigor to: this is what it looks like now.

Conor (20:03):
Right. And I know, too, we're talking about young children when we talk about this, because you two obviously are focused on the youngest learners in the Rowland Hall community. So what else is going on with young learners and, you know, thinking about the context of students who are at the beginning of their academic careers?

Emma (20:24):
So a big one, of course, for lots of kids, and lots of families, is learning to read. You know, this is a big sort of rite of passage culturally. And it's a really special task for young children because it requires bringing together a set of innate skills, those that every human who's typically developing will acquire, which is understanding and using language, with the skills necessary to use a relatively recent piece of technology, which is writing. Humans would not innately be writers. We acquire the ability to read and write because we have access to this particular technology that, you know, in our culture we've standardized around a particular set of symbols that are representative of sounds, mostly, in English. And that's a really interesting task for children, and it's complicated. In fact, the mechanics of reading can be taught pretty early on, especially if you focus on developing those closed skills that I talked about earlier, so: identifying and writing letters, memorizing particular sight words that are short ones. And this is why some systems of schooling push intensive literacy instruction as early as three or four years old. And you can see some gains if you do that, but guess what? You can teach a child to read a little bit early, but it doesn't give them a lasting advantage because most everybody's going to catch up with those closed skills anyway. Instead, teaching them how to hunt for and connect contextual clues to understand and think about what they're reading, that can be an advantage. And this is what great literacy instruction looks like for young children: teaching children to deeply engage with reading and writing, to become people who learn, who escape, who connect, think, express themselves, who make arguments and use evidence through reading and writing from the earliest times that they're trying those skills out. This is the good stuff. So again, a head start comes fast, but the deep learning is slow.

Conor (22:32):
So now let's talk about how we can actually apply what we've learned, because it wouldn't be a princiPALS podcast if we didn't give out a little homework. So what are some things that our listeners can do to help our young friends with this idea of academic rigor?

Jij (22:49):
The first thing I would suggest for homework is to really focus on the learning versus performance. And the way we talk about this often at school is focusing on process over product. And parents can do that by, you know, you often talk with your children, and providing positive reinforcement for strong effort and persistence is a great strategy to reinforce that learning is challenging, and challenge can be good.

We also encourage parents and caregivers to be specific with praise. And oftentimes I think grown-ups fall into the trap of saying a blanket statement like, "Oh, you're so smart." And instead of making that sort of general statement that doesn't really give a kid any sort of sense of why they're smart or what they're doing that is related to that, being specific by saying something like, "You know, I noticed how you figured out that really tricky problem in a very new way this time around. That was really cool."

I think focusing on and framing mistakes and failures as opportunities can be a real gift for kids to understand that learning can happen at any time and there are always opportunities to learn and grow. You know, assuming that those mistakes and failures are a result of strong effort. If kids are not putting in that strong effort, then, you know, then that can be some constructive feedback.

Conor (24:21):
Well, and that could also be detrimental, too, if they're not putting in a strong effort but still getting high achievement marks. And I think that's the thing is, rewarding a child for getting a good grade on something that was very easy for them isn't really helping them either. It's giving them, like, a false sense of where they really are.

Emma (24:42):
It can be hard, I know. So that was the first homework: focusing on the learning rather than the performance. And this last note about framing mistakes as opportunities for growth, I think it can be hard, sometimes, for families to know: "OK, well, how do I do that? What does that actually look like?" So that's our second piece of homework, is to model learning and struggle in a productive way. And so, just some really practical suggestions that Jij and I came up with is, you could pick one night a week when, at the dinner table, you as a family discuss your failures, flubs, mistakes, and the learning that comes from them. And maybe you haven't even figured that learning out yet, right? But you're at the point where you can say, "Man, I really messed this up at work today and I don't feel so great about it, but I feel committed to figuring out how I can fix it and how to avoid it happening again next time." And that's so valuable because our kids, you know, they think that grown-ups are superheroes. And so, while we sometimes benefit from and enjoy that false belief, we want to show them that part of being a superhero is figuring out how to make things right when they've gone wrong.

Another great strategy is to play games as a family that promote deep and creative thinking, which will inevitably involve mistakes, losing, practicing not being the winner and the best all the time. And so, you know, lots of families play this game. Set block is another one. Apples to Apples. You know, I think any kind of game where you're having to use some strategy and be creative and where the outcome is not totally clear is a really good family practice.

And then the other one is, I think, to talk about folks in history, especially if you've got a history buff kid, who've learned through mistakes and struggled through challenges. And this is most powerful if that person has an interest that aligns with your child's interest or is going through something that's sort of similar to something they're struggling with. And if you have questions about that, you can always talk to your kids' teachers, or school librarians are a great resource for this as well.

Jij (26:53):
The last bit of homework I would encourage parents and caregivers to consider is really staying focused on their goals for their kids. And, you know, I often ask parents that I work with, "What are the words you want to use to describe your child in 10 or 15 years?" And the words they often come up with are things like kind, resilient, empathetic, creative, thoughtful. You know, they don't use words like really good speller or memorized their multiplication facts. And so, you know, again, this idea that all of the academic learning that we're doing in early childhood and elementary, these are vehicles to help great students become great people. And I think that's the goal that all of us have as parents and caregivers, and as educators, for our students and our children. So I think it's easy to get distracted when a student comes home with an assignment or a grade or a quiz, and forget about that long view that, again, these are vehicles to help kids gain the skills and competencies that they'll need to be successful beyond school and in lots of different sorts of settings.

And then, you know, ultimately we want parents and caregivers to continually ask themselves, "What do you most care about for your child? What are the outcomes about which you really, really care?" And if parents and caregivers are thinking about those things for themselves and for their children, then kids will benefit and kids will get the kind of support for their learning that they need at this point in their academic lives.

Conor (28:44):
So, just to recap our homework, things you can do. Number one is...

Emma (28:49):
Focus on learning rather than performance.

Jij (28:53):
Model learning and struggle.

Emma (28:55):
And stay focused on your truest goals for your kids.

Conor (28:59):
Well, those are some great items for everyone to apply and think about. If you want more resources, they'll be on the website, and you can download the podcast at rowlandhall.org/podcast or you can also find it on Stitcher, but I think that's the bell and so that means it's time for recess. And so that's the end of this princiPALS podcast.

Jij (29:21):
I'm Jij de Jesus.

Emma (29:22):
I'm Emma Wellman.

Conor (29:23):
And they're the princiPALS.


About Jij de Jesus
Jij de Jesus is the Lower School principal at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to Rowland Hall, Jij worked at Town School for Boys in San Francisco, where he held a number of leadership positions, most notably as director of the Exploration of New Ideas program, and was a fourth-grade teacher. He began his career in experiential education by leading wilderness trips. Jij holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Northwestern University and a master’s of education in private school leadership from the University of Hawaii.

About Emma Wellman
Emma Wellman is the Beginning School principal at Rowland Hall. Emma joined Rowland Hall in July 2018 after working as a teacher and administrator at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Emma has also been an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago and the owner of a childcare business, Banana Mashers. She holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Michigan and a master’s in child development from the Erikson Institute.

About Conor Bentley ’01
Conor Bentley is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2001. He holds a master’s degree in education, works in higher education, and has produced several podcasts, including the public-radio parody
Consider Our Knowledge.

Parent Education

PrinciPALS Podcast Transcript: 1.02: Academic Rigor

By Jij de Jesus, Emma Wellman, and Conor Bentley

Listen above or on Apple Podcasts.


The princiPALS are back in the studio to discuss academic rigor during the early childhood and elementary school years. While traditional education focused on the memorization and regurgitation of facts to display knowledge, Jij and Emma show how today’s students succeed when they know how to seek, evaluate, and use knowledge. They also provide practical tips to help parents and caregivers inspire lifelong learning and collaboration in children.

The transcript of this episode appears below.


Conor Bentley (00:02):
From Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah...

Jij de Jesus (00:04):
I'm Jij de Jesus.

Emma Wellman (00:06):
And I'm Emma Wellman.

Conor (00:07):
And they're the princiPALS.

I'm Conor Bentley, and on today's episode of princiPALS, we'll be talking about academic rigor.

Emma (00:24):
On The PrinciPALS Podcast, we tackle big questions and share big ideas about how to raise excellent humans.

Conor (00:30):
Emma, Jij, thank you for letting me join you in the princiPALS' office again today. Today, we are going to be talking about academic rigor, and the big driving question for this episode is: how do we understand academic rigor in the context of early childhood and elementary school? So, do you want to define that for us and talk about that a little bit?

Jij (00:53):
Actually, Conor, this is a thing that Emma and I talk about often: academic rigor, the learning that our students do every day. I'm actually interested to hear how you think about this idea of academic rigor. What comes to mind when you hear those words?

Conor (01:10):
Well, I think of it in a context of kind of a selling point, in a way, and a degree of difficulty. So the word rigor, to me, means difficulty, hard. And I think, you know, when I was teaching, that was sort of a buzzword that got thrown around a lot for challenging and difficult programs and classes. And so if it was academically rigorous, that meant it was more difficult, it was more challenging, you were going to have to work harder. You know, you were going to have to push yourself. Maybe you were leveling up into a program that was maybe above your level. So if you were, you know, in a third-grade math class, maybe you would be doing math at a fifth-grade level or something like that. So, to me, that's what academic rigor means, but I'm sure that it's definitely more than that.

Jij (01:58):
I'd agree. It's definitely more than that. And I think it's interesting, you know, when you talk about difficulty and challenge, that's like a narrow little bit of how we think about academic rigor.

Conor (02:10):
Right. Well, that's good. I'm glad that we have something to talk about on this episode because if that had been it, it would've been a really poor second episode.

Emma (02:18):
It would be boring.

Conor (02:18):
Yeah.

Emma (02:18):
Yeah, I think there are, we have a set of sort of values that help orient us as we're thinking about how to provide academic rigor in a way that's useful for our students. And so some of those are valuing depth over breadth, quality over quantity, mastery over mere achievement—or over-performance, perhaps—and we value authenticity over something being contrived. These are all helpful frames as we consider what counts as academic rigor for younger students.

Another thing that I think is interesting to consider is that academic rigor for younger children is valuable in and of itself not only in terms of preparing children for the rigors of middle or upper school, for example, but also because it's good for them to be challenged and learning in complicated and interesting ways right now.

Conor (03:11):
And that's kind of what I was talking about, too, is, I remember it in the context of being a high school student and thinking about going off to college. I know that was when I heard the term academic rigor was, you know, eighth, ninth grade when you're getting ready to go off to college. And so I love the idea of thinking about it in a context for younger learners because that wouldn't have even entered my mind. To me, academic rigor was something that was meant for older students or people getting ready to go off to college.

Jij (03:39):
Yeah. And our hope is that academic rigor gives kids a sense of loving learning and experiencing real joy in engaging in the process of learning.

Emma (03:49):
So let's talk a little more about reframing this notion of academic rigor. And Jij and I want to share a bit of information about what we've learned in recent years about how this applies for younger learners. So, for example, access to knowledge and information has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. The worldwide web, which we usually just call the internet, was only just invented in 1990. That wasn't really very long ago. Wikipedia is about 10 years younger than that. So this really changes the value of having many facts in your head and being able to call them up on purpose, which is how we used to think about what it was to be an expert, right? And so that was a major outcome of really excellent education was knowing a lot of stuff in your head and being able to talk about it at various impressive times. But this seems sort of moot at this point because we all carry all of the world's knowledge and facts in our pockets all the time. So instead, what we need now is to know when we need information, how to get it, how to evaluate that information for credibility and reliability, how to analyze it and synthesize it in order to use it, to deploy it on purpose, often collaboratively. So this is a lot of what we mean when you hear people say that we want to teach students how to think and not what to think. It's really about this shift.

Conor (05:14):
So we don't want any more Ken Jennings who can win Jeopardy! tournaments, is what you're saying.

Emma (05:19):
Well, we already have that one Ken Jennings.

Conor (05:21):
Right, so we're good then, we don't need any more.

Jij (05:24):
So this notion of a shift, I really see it as a shift around the importance of academic content knowledge. Back in the day, academic content knowledge was sort of the ultimate outcome of school, right? And hearken back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse—and I did just say the word hearken. So, you know, knowledge was fixed, it was relatively static because the knowledge that was accessible in that one-room schoolhouse was in the book. And that was the most up-to-date representation of the stuff that people knew. And if you knew that stuff in that book, you were the best student or, you know, you knew the most stuff, and that was the most important thing. And so at that point, rigor was about knowing stuff, a whole bunch of stuff, and that stuff was typically coming from a book. Right? That's not the case anymore. Knowledge is readily available via the worldwide web. And so, since content knowledge is no longer primary, it can't be the only thing. So it's not enough to just be a Ken Jennings who wins Jeopardy!; now we need students who know their academic content, but also can apply it in new and novel ways.

Conor (06:32):
So, applied learning.

Jij (06:34):
Mm-hmm. This is the thing. So the shift is really from academic content as the primary thing to now academic content as a vehicle to practice and solidify the competencies and skills that will be applicable, you know, in the classroom and beyond.

Conor (06:50):
So we're thinking about long-term things here. We're not just: it's to get you through this grade level or to get you through, you know, your high school or your college. It's: we want everybody to be able to take whatever skills they learn over a lifetime and utilize them.

Jij (07:08):
Right, yeah. And so, you know, I really think about the idea that rigor is not just what you know, rigor is what you can do with what you know. You know, I do struggle with the word itself: rigor. And, you know, rigor, I think, can imply challenge, like you talked about at the beginning of our little podcast. It can imply a certain level of thoroughness or comprehensiveness. But, literally, it can also imply inflexibility and stiffness. Right? Rigor mortis. And if I think about that aspect of rigor and think about our kids learning—I don't want kids to learn, you know, and have a word that implies stiffness and inflexibility, define their learning experience.

Conor (07:56):
Or difficulty for difficulty's sake. And I think that's, again, that's what comes to mind when I think about it. So I'm glad we're talking about this because you're right, that's not what anybody wants for their student.

Jij (08:09):
You're right, we don't want inflexibility and stiffness. We don't want difficulty for difficult sake. We want engagement. We want depth of thought. We want dynamic and flexible thinking. And, you know, when I think about rigor, I don't think about stiffness, I think about stretch and growth and novelty and innovation. And this old notion of rigor almost sounds like something that is done to or imposed on a student. I'm imagining, you know, a student at a desk and this outdated understanding of rigor—like, that student is under a pile of books and has worksheets and papers. And that's not how I see kids learning and doing their best learning, right? I'd like to imagine that true rigor, and true rigorous learning, is something to be experienced and, dare I say, enjoyed.

Emma (09:04):
I think the other thing to keep track of is that the world is changing rapidly, and I alluded to this a few minutes ago, talking about the beginning stages of the internet and Wikipedia, but, you know, at Rowland Hall, the youngest students that we have could be our high school graduating class of 2034, which sounds like sort of a made-up Jetson year. When I think ahead in my mind, I feel really curious about what that will look like. What will jobs look like? What will higher education look like when they're ready for it? What will transportation or communication or money look like? We've been promised flying cars for quite some time now; I'm hopeful that our Beginning School students will get to have some of those.

Conor (09:46):
Underwater bubble cities.

Emma (09:47):
Exactly. All of this. But luckily, we don't have to know for sure what's going to happen. But I do feel charged with equipping students with the skills that they'll need when they graduate, when they enter that world. And our best futurist suggests that the jobs of the future will likely be comprised of non-routine tasks that require social and emotional intelligence, that require complex, critical thinking and creative problem solving, especially in collaboration with other people. And so at school, one of the ways that we provide rigor is to introduce students to a manageable amount of muddlement, because it's in line with where they're eventually headed. And I think muddlement is sort of a defining characteristic of the world today, and I think will continue to be so. We provide students with desirable difficulty on purpose because we want to prepare them for what is sometimes called the VUCA world; VUCA is an acronym for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. It actually comes from the military, but I think it's really a useful extension as we think about how to prepare students for their future lives as adults.

Conor (10:56):
Right, because it could be Star Trek or it could be, you know, Road Warrior. But either way, you're going to need to be collaborative and adaptable.

Jij (11:06):
Well, and Conor, I love that you're talking about movies because, you know, Emma likes to talk about acronyms and the future, I like to talk about movies. And there's one movie in particular that I think is relevant to our conversation. Have you seen Apollo 13?

Conor (11:20):
Absolutely. It's a classic.

Jij (11:21):
The 1995 blockbuster starring Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon.

Conor (11:25):
And let's not forget Bill Paxton, I mean, it's a great—go and watch it. Go out and watch it.

Jij (11:28):
So there's this scene in Apollo 13, and hopefully you recall this scene, where, you know, they're kind of in trouble and Houston, they have a problem, and they have to fit a square peg in a round hole. I don't remember exactly what the round thing was. It was like a filter.

Conor (11:44):
It's like an air filter so they don't, because, yeah, they're going to have too much CO2 in the cabin when they're coming back.

Jij (11:49):
Yeah.

Conor (11:49):
And so they have to jerry rig this thing.

Jij (11:52):
Yeah, the line is, you know, we have to fit a square peg in a round hole, and we have to fit this into this using nothing but this, and the last this is, they spill all the gear they have on the spaceship onto the table and, you know, it's like the astronaut helmet and, you know, a toolbox, and they have to figure out how to address this dilemma. Right? And I think that clip, that moment in Apollo 13, perfectly illustrates the essence of what we're trying to accomplish in education right now. Right? These were NASA engineers because this is a true story. Right?

Conor (12:32):
Yeah.

Jij (12:32):
So in real life, not just in the movie, NASA engineers were faced with this real problem. And there was no worksheet, no manual, no step-by-step algorithm or answer to regurgitate from memory that told them how to solve this problem. Right? Instead, they were faced with a challenge. They had to apply their knowledge, their diverse areas of expertise, their varied levels of understanding, and they had to work together as a team to find a solution to fit a square peg into a round hole. You know, essentially we want our students to know stuff, that's the content part, but more so, we want our students to know what to do with the stuff they know, and that's the skills and the practices. And if, you know, I think about our school, Rowland Hall, and our mission statement, we talk about being a college-preparatory school, and I want to make sure that, yes, we're preparing our students for that part of college that happens in the classroom, the academic part, which is about 10 percent of the college experience. But we're also preparing them for the 90 percent of the college experience that happens out of the classroom, when they'll have to make good decisions, when they'll have to navigate challenging dilemmas and moments, when they'll have to build strong friendships and relationships with people around them, when, you know, they'll have to do laundry. These are all important life skills that go beyond just the academic content.

Emma (13:59):
So we've just talked a lot about what we believe about academic rigor and our convictions, so now we'd like to share a bit about how we got there and some of the research that's informed our opinion.

So, something I learned just this last summer as I was doing some reading is that recent research on many kinds of early childhood programs has shown that the positive effects of the earliest years of school fade out, that they go away by third grade. This is problematic for people who are in my line of work, right? So, what are we doing here? But, in fact, upon digging deeper, researchers have found that this happens in programs where the focus is on teaching so-called closed skills. Closed skills are those that can be acquired quickly with repetition of procedures, they take place in a static and structured environment, and most everyone will pick these up eventually anyway. These same researchers have also found that lasting, positive impacts come when, instead, the focus is on developing open skills. Open skills require more complex decision-making. They require adaptation, accounting for context and knowledge of self. These take longer to learn—of course, they're more complicated. The tricky thing is that this is really different from how lots of us, including myself, were educated, and so it's harder to see progress in open skills because they're messier. The learning doesn't look linear. They take longer. And so a big takeaway for me from this research is that a head start might be fast, but deep learning is slow.

Jij (15:31):
Yeah. And I often think about, when we're talking about these kinds of things, Tony Wagner, who's an education expert. So Tony Wagner often talks about the skills all students need for careers, college, and citizenship in the 21st century. And he has this list of seven that he, again, often talks about. So, the first is critical thinking and problem solving, and that's really sort of asking great questions. Also, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, and really that emotional and social intelligence. Agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism (that word's hard to say), effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity and imagination. And his thought is, if we develop intentionally these skills in our students, then they'll be prepared for anything that comes their way and they'll be the innovators that drive change in our society.

Emma (16:35):
Yeah, and I can't help but mention—forgive me for being a giant nerd—but although we're citing recent research and talking a lot about the future, a lot of what we're saying is actually not at all newfangled. This is stuff that we've known in the field of education for more than a hundred years, actually. Famed educational philosopher John Dewey rejected the idea that learning is about passively perceiving and observing and, thereby, knowing the world. Like, you cannot just be a sponge; that's not good learning, according to John Dewey. Instead, he asserted that learners have to actively manipulate both objects and ideas in their environment, ideally with help from a more skilled guide, and that's what great teachers do. So I think, although there is this futuristic lens, and I think we're very right to be thinking about it in that way, it's also, I think, I hope, comforting to know that this is a set of ideas that we've been thinking about and testing and chewing on for a really long time in education.

Conor (17:38):
And we don't need to throw out—just because something is old doesn't necessarily mean that it's bad. But at the same time, thinking about what's also to come, and, to me, again, thinking about the future and thinking about also holding onto the good things from the past, it reminds me of Star Trek, like we were talking about. And they still read books, actual hardbound books, in Star Trek.

Emma (18:05):
On the fleet?

Conor (18:06):
Yeah. I'm just saying. But there's still a place for some of the old things, even though it's this futuristic, technologically advanced society, right? So there is a place for both in the world.

Emma (18:19):
Mm-hmm.

Jij (18:20):
Agreed.

Conor (18:21):
So what are some things that you both have observed? I mean, we've talked about the research, we've talked about your personal views on this and kind of defined it, but what's going on on the ground right now with what's happening in the school and the things that you guys see every day?

Jij (18:38):
Yeah, I think a great place to see this sort of shift is in math. And if we think about sort of the old definition of a strong mathematician and, back to movies, if we think about mathematicians in movies, what do you picture?

Conor (18:52):
They're at the board, like with a ton of equations. It's like, you know, Good Will Hunting—he's just scribbling away and there's just, the whole board is full of numbers and, you know, decimals and things.

Jij (19:04):
And they're often working alone at the board, right? And they're working furiously and quickly, and it's about speed and about things that no one else can understand. And that's actually not what strong mathematicians do. Right? Strong mathematicians often create meaning and figure things out in teams. They're accurate, yes, and speed can be important, but depth of thinking is important. They're flexible problem solvers. Strong mathematicians are creative. They can construct viable arguments. So, you know, it doesn't work if you understand what you're doing, but no one else does. You have to get people to understand your thinking, and support and explain your thinking and reasoning by using models, or by drawing, or by using different ways to express your thinking and make it visible. So that's a great way to understand the shift from perhaps an outdated understanding of rigor to: this is what it looks like now.

Conor (20:03):
Right. And I know, too, we're talking about young children when we talk about this, because you two obviously are focused on the youngest learners in the Rowland Hall community. So what else is going on with young learners and, you know, thinking about the context of students who are at the beginning of their academic careers?

Emma (20:24):
So a big one, of course, for lots of kids, and lots of families, is learning to read. You know, this is a big sort of rite of passage culturally. And it's a really special task for young children because it requires bringing together a set of innate skills, those that every human who's typically developing will acquire, which is understanding and using language, with the skills necessary to use a relatively recent piece of technology, which is writing. Humans would not innately be writers. We acquire the ability to read and write because we have access to this particular technology that, you know, in our culture we've standardized around a particular set of symbols that are representative of sounds, mostly, in English. And that's a really interesting task for children, and it's complicated. In fact, the mechanics of reading can be taught pretty early on, especially if you focus on developing those closed skills that I talked about earlier, so: identifying and writing letters, memorizing particular sight words that are short ones. And this is why some systems of schooling push intensive literacy instruction as early as three or four years old. And you can see some gains if you do that, but guess what? You can teach a child to read a little bit early, but it doesn't give them a lasting advantage because most everybody's going to catch up with those closed skills anyway. Instead, teaching them how to hunt for and connect contextual clues to understand and think about what they're reading, that can be an advantage. And this is what great literacy instruction looks like for young children: teaching children to deeply engage with reading and writing, to become people who learn, who escape, who connect, think, express themselves, who make arguments and use evidence through reading and writing from the earliest times that they're trying those skills out. This is the good stuff. So again, a head start comes fast, but the deep learning is slow.

Conor (22:32):
So now let's talk about how we can actually apply what we've learned, because it wouldn't be a princiPALS podcast if we didn't give out a little homework. So what are some things that our listeners can do to help our young friends with this idea of academic rigor?

Jij (22:49):
The first thing I would suggest for homework is to really focus on the learning versus performance. And the way we talk about this often at school is focusing on process over product. And parents can do that by, you know, you often talk with your children, and providing positive reinforcement for strong effort and persistence is a great strategy to reinforce that learning is challenging, and challenge can be good.

We also encourage parents and caregivers to be specific with praise. And oftentimes I think grown-ups fall into the trap of saying a blanket statement like, "Oh, you're so smart." And instead of making that sort of general statement that doesn't really give a kid any sort of sense of why they're smart or what they're doing that is related to that, being specific by saying something like, "You know, I noticed how you figured out that really tricky problem in a very new way this time around. That was really cool."

I think focusing on and framing mistakes and failures as opportunities can be a real gift for kids to understand that learning can happen at any time and there are always opportunities to learn and grow. You know, assuming that those mistakes and failures are a result of strong effort. If kids are not putting in that strong effort, then, you know, then that can be some constructive feedback.

Conor (24:21):
Well, and that could also be detrimental, too, if they're not putting in a strong effort but still getting high achievement marks. And I think that's the thing is, rewarding a child for getting a good grade on something that was very easy for them isn't really helping them either. It's giving them, like, a false sense of where they really are.

Emma (24:42):
It can be hard, I know. So that was the first homework: focusing on the learning rather than the performance. And this last note about framing mistakes as opportunities for growth, I think it can be hard, sometimes, for families to know: "OK, well, how do I do that? What does that actually look like?" So that's our second piece of homework, is to model learning and struggle in a productive way. And so, just some really practical suggestions that Jij and I came up with is, you could pick one night a week when, at the dinner table, you as a family discuss your failures, flubs, mistakes, and the learning that comes from them. And maybe you haven't even figured that learning out yet, right? But you're at the point where you can say, "Man, I really messed this up at work today and I don't feel so great about it, but I feel committed to figuring out how I can fix it and how to avoid it happening again next time." And that's so valuable because our kids, you know, they think that grown-ups are superheroes. And so, while we sometimes benefit from and enjoy that false belief, we want to show them that part of being a superhero is figuring out how to make things right when they've gone wrong.

Another great strategy is to play games as a family that promote deep and creative thinking, which will inevitably involve mistakes, losing, practicing not being the winner and the best all the time. And so, you know, lots of families play this game. Set block is another one. Apples to Apples. You know, I think any kind of game where you're having to use some strategy and be creative and where the outcome is not totally clear is a really good family practice.

And then the other one is, I think, to talk about folks in history, especially if you've got a history buff kid, who've learned through mistakes and struggled through challenges. And this is most powerful if that person has an interest that aligns with your child's interest or is going through something that's sort of similar to something they're struggling with. And if you have questions about that, you can always talk to your kids' teachers, or school librarians are a great resource for this as well.

Jij (26:53):
The last bit of homework I would encourage parents and caregivers to consider is really staying focused on their goals for their kids. And, you know, I often ask parents that I work with, "What are the words you want to use to describe your child in 10 or 15 years?" And the words they often come up with are things like kind, resilient, empathetic, creative, thoughtful. You know, they don't use words like really good speller or memorized their multiplication facts. And so, you know, again, this idea that all of the academic learning that we're doing in early childhood and elementary, these are vehicles to help great students become great people. And I think that's the goal that all of us have as parents and caregivers, and as educators, for our students and our children. So I think it's easy to get distracted when a student comes home with an assignment or a grade or a quiz, and forget about that long view that, again, these are vehicles to help kids gain the skills and competencies that they'll need to be successful beyond school and in lots of different sorts of settings.

And then, you know, ultimately we want parents and caregivers to continually ask themselves, "What do you most care about for your child? What are the outcomes about which you really, really care?" And if parents and caregivers are thinking about those things for themselves and for their children, then kids will benefit and kids will get the kind of support for their learning that they need at this point in their academic lives.

Conor (28:44):
So, just to recap our homework, things you can do. Number one is...

Emma (28:49):
Focus on learning rather than performance.

Jij (28:53):
Model learning and struggle.

Emma (28:55):
And stay focused on your truest goals for your kids.

Conor (28:59):
Well, those are some great items for everyone to apply and think about. If you want more resources, they'll be on the website, and you can download the podcast at rowlandhall.org/podcast or you can also find it on Stitcher, but I think that's the bell and so that means it's time for recess. And so that's the end of this princiPALS podcast.

Jij (29:21):
I'm Jij de Jesus.

Emma (29:22):
I'm Emma Wellman.

Conor (29:23):
And they're the princiPALS.


About Jij de Jesus
Jij de Jesus is the Lower School principal at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to Rowland Hall, Jij worked at Town School for Boys in San Francisco, where he held a number of leadership positions, most notably as director of the Exploration of New Ideas program, and was a fourth-grade teacher. He began his career in experiential education by leading wilderness trips. Jij holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Northwestern University and a master’s of education in private school leadership from the University of Hawaii.

About Emma Wellman
Emma Wellman is the Beginning School principal at Rowland Hall. Emma joined Rowland Hall in July 2018 after working as a teacher and administrator at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Emma has also been an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago and the owner of a childcare business, Banana Mashers. She holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Michigan and a master’s in child development from the Erikson Institute.

About Conor Bentley ’01
Conor Bentley is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2001. He holds a master’s degree in education, works in higher education, and has produced several podcasts, including the public-radio parody
Consider Our Knowledge.

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