By Dr. Steven Lorch

Parents crave it. Teachers strive for it. Boards demand it.

We can all agree that our children’s schools should promote academic rigor. But what is it, exactly? That’s where opinions diverge.

When we were growing up, it was relatively easy to define academic rigor. It meant mastering the 3 R’s – reading fluently, writing correctly, and computing accurately. It meant having a broad store of knowledge in all of the academic and Jewish disciplines. It meant performing well on tests.

But then the world began to change. Knowledge no longer mattered as much because whatever you don’t know, you can google. Writing correctly no longer mattered as much because we now rely on autocorrect and spell check. Computing accurately mattered less because of the ubiquity of calculators, even on standardized tests, and there’s always Wolfram Alpha for more challenging computations. Even test taking was no longer as important as it had been, with top-tier colleges like Brandeis, Bryn Mawr, and Bowdoin requiring no standardized test scores at all.

Parents now wonder, in this changed reality, how they can ensure that their children will learn what they need to become successful adults.

As traditional standards of academic rigor have lost their currency, what, if anything, has replaced them? EdLeader21, a network of school leaders, has proposed the 4 C’s as an alternative: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Networks of schools animated by a similar vision have sprung up across the country: High Tech High schools, Big Picture Learning schools, and EdVisions schools, to mention a few.

These networks, these schools, and these educators design learning activities and forge relationships between teachers and students that promote the outcomes that business leaders at companies like Cisco, McKinsey, and Dell told Harvard education professor Tony Wagner they consider “survival skills” for the 21st-century workplace:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information, and
  • Curiosity and imagination

Examples of the learning activities these schools have devised to reliably achieve these aims include self-directed projects, presentations in which students have to defend their work publicly in order to demonstrate mastery of the subject, collaborative projects aimed at solving dilemmas in their communities, and the integration of technology into a hands-on, inquiry-driven learning process.

Most of the schools in these networks are high schools, but it is easy to see how similar approaches can be adapted to promote rigorous learning in elementary schools. For example:

  • Instead of asking students in Kitah Aleph (first grade) to perform long lists of simple computations, they can be asked how many combinations of numbers they can list that total 8. Some children might list a few simple answers, such as 5 + 3 and 1 + 7. Others may find all the combinations of two numbers that add up to 8. Yet others may find answers using three numbers, such as 4 + 2 + 2. Some may decide to use subtraction or even multiplication, such as 11 – 3 or two 4’s.
  • Or, in Kitah Gimel (third grade), students can be asked not only to read and understand Rashi’s commentary, but also to infer the question, the textual difficulty that Rashi noticed, that triggered the comment.
  • Or, in Kitah Dalet (fourth grade), students can try their hands at mirror writing (tracing a shape while looking at its reflection in a mirror), and then be asked to predict factors that will affect the speed and accuracy of the mirror writing, and then test their hypotheses, gather data, and draw conclusions.
  • Or, in Kitah Heh (fifth grade), students can be asked not only to read about the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy and answer questions that elicit factual knowledge about it, but also to develop a point of view, marshal relevant evidence in support of their claims, and write a persuasive essay defending their position and rebutting the opposite position.

I know that this is possible because I observe activities like these every day in the classrooms of Ben Porat Yosef.

I am not arguing that the 3 R’s are worthless in this day and age. Far from it! How could students learn to communicate effectively, solve problems, and analyze information without them? But the bar has been raised: our students need to learn to read insightfully and not just fluently, write with clarity and voice and not just without errors, and reason mathematically and not merely compute accurately.

Schools can choose to educate students using methods that their parents remember fondly, and in that way prepare them well for the 20th century. Or they can choose to educate them to take their places in the dynamic, multifaceted, and complex world that awaits them as adults. Schools, and parents, would be well advised to choose with care.

Dr. Steven Lorch is the Interim Head of School of Ben Porat Yosef.