We all have heard about the Three R’s in schools. Whether when we were students or now as educators, the Three R’s seems as foundational as apple pie is to America. The Three R’s describe the foundations of a basic skills-orientated education program. The Three R’s, of course, stand for Reading, Riting, and (a)Rithmetic. A problem with this concept…is quite obvious…they call them the Three R’s, yet only Reading starts with the letter R. So maybe instead of calling it the Three R’s, maybe it should have been R.W.A. or maybe more memorable, Writing, Arithmetic, and Reading…W.A.R., because it some times feels that way, doesn’t it?!?!? 🙂 So we gotten the ‘R’s’ wrong from the beginning.
However, in schools today the original R’s seem to have been replaced by another R’s saying. The good news is this new ‘R’s concept’ is actually grammatically correct because both terms at least start with R – Rigor and Relevance. According to the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), academic Rigor refers to learning in which students demonstrate a thorough in-depth mastery of challenging tasks to develop cognitive skills through reflective thought, anaylsis, problems solving, evaluation or creativity. Relevance refers to learning in which students apply core knowledge, concepts, or skills to solve real-world problems; learning that is interdisciplinary and contextual. (Source: http://goo.gl/zzg0dG)
The bad news about the new R’s concept however, is I believe we have got it wrong again. While I don’t think rigor or relevance are wrong or are concepts/values we shouldn’t have in schools. My issue with this concept is two-fold. First of all, the order and emphasis that comes with the model. These concepts are always listed in the same order – Rigor and Relevance – which emphasizes Rigor first and then Relevance. Don’t get me wrong, I believe emphasizing academic rigor and challenge is important – after all I am former Advanced Placement (AP) teacher. I get it. However the reality is Rigor alone, cannot be the lead, it needs other elements to make it…well…Relevant. So obviously Relevance is an important and complimentary concept to Rigor. Rigor needs to be grounded in Relevance so that Rigor makes connections to the learner, their experiences, their world, and their future.
The problem, my second issue with the Rigor and Relevance concept, is you cannot create Relevance without truly knowing and connecting with the learner. Essentially you cannot have Rigor without Relevance – however you cannot have Relevance without…the third R…the R we are leaving out – RELATIONSHIPS. How can a teacher create Relevant Rigorous learning without having a strong and effective Relationship with and understanding of their learners? The answer is…you can’t. As Teddy Roosevelt believed, students need to know and connect with their teacher and vice versa for them to truly engage and care about their own learning. Furthermore, when an effective relationship is established between a teacher and a learner, the teacher can then, and only then, truly make the learning Relevant for the learner and then by being able to make it Relevant, Rigor can truly be achieved. A teacher with a relationship established can understand what interests their learners, how they learn most effectively, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what their background has been, where they need to go next, what will challenge their learners, and what will engage them. Make no mistakes this is not a ‘soft approach’ to learning, it is merely a smart and real approach. If you try to determine what is Rigorous without an established Relationship to make the learning Relevant then the determination of Rigor is solely based in the mind and perspective of the teacher – NOT the learner.
ANALOGY – Imagine that you are a physical trainer and you are setting up a treadmill workout. Would you define a run for 30 minutes continuously at a fast pace, a Rigorous workout?
The answer to the question is…it depends on who is running on the treadmill. Right?!?!? If the person on the treadmill is overweight and is extremely out of shape, then a 30 minute continuos, fast paced run is absolutely Rigorous. However if the person on the treadmill is a marathon runner, then the run would be easy, more of a warm up run. So if you are a trainer (teacher) and you are going to be establishing the workout routine (learning), is it important that you understand your client (student), their current physical condition (what they know), exercise history (what they have learned in the past), reasons for working out (motivations) and goal (future learning path)? Additionally if you are the trainer and your client is the out of shape runner, then what is going to motivate them to stick to your workout program, especially when it is difficult? The answer is of course, if they feel a connection to you, they know that you have their best interests in mind, you are knowledgable about physical health, and the program you have planned for them is challenging, yet something they can accomplish – i.e. A RELATIONSHIP has been established.
Why should our learning priorities in school be any different? If we truly want to challenge and grow our students, to provide them with Rigor; we have to be able to make the learning Relevant; and the ONLY way to do that is to ensure there is a RELATIONSHIP. So I challenge all of you to consider and embrace the concept of the New Three R’s (in this order) – Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor.