Ted Talks: Reimagining Rigor, Part I, February 2020

Ted Graf, Head of School
When I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher assigned us what would turn out to be the most rigorous assignment I had ever faced in school. I was to find a complete stranger, interview that person in depth, play the tape of the entire interview for my classmates, and then write a feature article on that person as if I were writing for the New York Times magazine. What made this particular assignment rigorous for me is that I had to identify and then introduce myself to a person I didn't know. I then had to research that person, so that I could ask thoughtful and insightful questions. Then I had to actually follow through on that and present it to an audience who mattered to me (my friends and classmates). My first attempt was a spectacular failure. I didn't prepare enough questions so the interview was completed in less than fifteen minutes; I became flustered during the interview and didn't ask any follow-up questions; I wasn't interested in the subject; I didn't check my tape recorder in advance, and I failed to capture anyone's voice--lots of white noise. And then my teacher expected me to present this string of failures to the class. Talk about adolescent humility.

  1. There was a real and tangible product expected of me: a full taped interview and a feature article that explored a real person I didn't know. No interviews of cousins, uncles, or grandparents were accepted.
  2. I presented my work to an authentic audience and there were no "work-arounds." We all presented to each other. So the work was public, and it mattered to me.
  3. The assignment itself was simple but neither simplistic nor a step-by-step recipe. I, alone, was responsible for giving it shape and purpose
  4. It was based on my own interests, curiosity, or questions. This was, perhaps, the most rigorous part of the assignment because I was expected to be active and determine the focus of the work. 

One of the most common questions I hear from prospective (and, on occasion, current) parents is whether our school, our programs, and our curricula are rigorous. After I ask a few questions like, "What do you mean by rigorous?" Or, "If by rigorous, do you mean quantity of work or do you mean complexity of work?" And, if I'm lucky and the conversation continues, I ask, "Tell me about one of your most rigorous experiences in school." 

Frequently, they describe an open-ended project, usually one that required research and choice. Sometimes people tell me about their experience defending a thesis or an experiment. That's when I say, "That's what we want for our students." 

During March and April, and with the help of the Headwaters community, I will be exploring and reimagining rigor. What does rigor mean to us at Headwaters? How can our 3Ps (Purpose, Promise, and PACT) serve as a platform for a new definition of rigor? Based on what we're learning about the brain and the power of mindsets, how could rigor look in the 21st century? 

Before closing, some final thoughts about rigor and great teaching. My English teacher held me accountable AND he required me to move forward. After presenting my failed interview to the class, he, in essence, said, "Try again." This time I found a lawyer who served as a public defender, and I interviewed her about why she took a less lucrative job in order to defend people who could not afford a lawyer. During the interview, I had to flip the tape because I was so engrossed, and I was proud to play the interview for my classmates.

If you have a story to share with me about rigor, either at Headwaters or in your own life, please write to me at headofschool@headwaters.org. I'd love to hear it!

Next editions:
  • Reimagining Rigor, Part II--Conversations With Guides
  • Reimagining Rigor, Part III--What Do The Students Think?
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