A rigorous approach
During lockdown I had the pleasure of supporting my daughter in her first experiences of driving a car. Like everyone who was an experienced car passenger before they started driving for the first time, she believed that this wealth of experience might tell her exactly what to do. However, perspectives significantly change when we step into the driving seat, and it is only with time, practice and experience that a driver develops the critical judgement that they need.
I wanted to be rigorous, but I have very limited experience as a driving instructor. New drivers need detailed information, but not too much at once. They need to be told with care, so that they have support while advancing into the unknown. They must also know everything they really need before setting off: knowing how to stop safely should come before knowing how to start, for example.
A university tutor used the driving analogy with me when I was practising teaching before I qualified. Nearly everyone spends years in schools as a student, so it is tempting for us to assume that our school experience as a child will be enough once we take the metaphorical driving seat in a lesson. However, just as with learning to drive a car, it is only time, practice and experience in the driving seat which allow us to develop our critical judgement as teachers.
Blackheath High School is full of highly skilled teachers whose wealth of experience and judgement have enabled them to steer successfully through the extra challenges that have been presented during the past two years, even though we have been operating in very unfamiliar conditions.
When GCSE and A-Level exams were cancelled again this year, it was recognised that teachers, with their experience and well-practised academic judgement were in the best position to select evidence and determine the grades that students should be awarded. We read, we trained and we challenged ourselves to check for any possible unconscious bias. We took nothing for granted. We checked and double-checked each other’s judgements. We applied rigour.
If I were to ask families at open days whether they think academic rigour is important, I imagine that everyone would say yes. It probably seems obvious that rigour would be a desirable quality in the school you select for your child. However, maybe we should not take for granted that term means the same things to each of us.
“Simply put”, claims the American website collegeraptor.com, “rigor is the academic or intellectual challenge of a class”. This definition reflects the tempting assumption that many make about academic rigour: that just by increasing the challenge in a learning task, we automatically make it more rigorous. However, pursuing this type of rigour could lead to ever-increasing pressure without any care for the individuals; it could result in making tasks more difficult without checking whether they are effective or indeed in the best interest of students. I believe that this definition itself has not been subjected to enough rigour.
The Cambridge Dictionary has a more thoughtful definition of rigour: “the quality of being detailed, careful, and complete”. Yes, or course learners should face intellectual challenge, and should always be thinking about the next step they can take outside their intellectual comfort zone, but we should always apply challenge in conjunction with care. Challenge without care would constitute a lack of rigour.
On that basis, I believe you would be hard pressed to find a school with more academic rigour than ours.