Theme Two - Academic Rigour
Dear Members of the De La Salle Community:
"What sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to the soul." (Joseph Addison)
Education is not itself so much an idea or a subject matter as it is a theme to which ideas and subjects are relevant. It is a theme, if you wish, we cannot discuss without engaging in the most profound speculation. It is an idea which carries discussion into and across a great many subject matters, such as the liberal arts, logic, ethics, theology, metaphysics, psychology and economics. As well, almost any discussion on the theme draws into focus the great ideas of truth, virtue, knowledge, opinion, nature, and progress.
At our recent Open House, I shared with you Plato's simple but succinct definition which is, in my view, one of the fullest one can find. He wrote, "If you ask me what is the good of education, the answer is easy. Education makes men good, and that good men act nobly..." Of course, we could search and find a myriad of suitable and similar definitions. It is fairly safe to state though that even today the common opinion of most would be that education should seek to develop the characteristic excellences of which human beings are capable and that the ultimate ends of education are the welfare of society and human happiness. In the Catholic sense, if human happiness cannot be fully achieved on earth, then whatever temporal ends education serves must therefore be ordered to eternal salvation. In St. Augustine's "Confessions" we are reminded that the whole process of the development of the human person must be a direction of the soul to God. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Blessed John Henry Newman, and others, offer a good perspective of a Catholic perspective on education. For a more detailed overview of the end of purpose of education from a healthy secular perspective I recommend to educators a careful and reflective reading of Neil Postman's "The End of Education".
In the first theme I presented I shared my ideas on mission and the concerns I see with respect to the dangers related to oversights and transgressions connected to our maintaining our specific Catholic and Lasallian mission. Here, I wish to present a few ideas on the topic of "academic rigour". I have chosen not to dress up or, for that matter, dress down the term. Let us keep "academic rigour" and see where we go with it.
Robert Talbert, a professor of mathematics at Franklin University has put it best when describing "rigour": Rigour is to academic work what careful practice and nuanced performance is to musical performance and what intense and committed play is to athletic performance. When we talk about a rigorous course in something it's a course that examines details, insists on diligent and scrupulous study and performance, and doesn't settle for a mild or informal contact with key ideas. Saying that a programme is rigorous doesn't make it so. Naturally, curriculum design is very important but the delivery of the curriculum in the classroom is critical. Too many educators equate rigour with rigid thinking, harshness and unreasonable expectations or standards. Instead we need to be clearer on what and why we do things in the classroom to foster and measure determination, perseverance, creative thinking, and inquisitiveness. And, while it sounds trite – a commitment to life-long learning. The College, like all our Lasallian schools, is meant to offer a human and Christian education of excellence. In this sense, it could be said that the school offers a programme of rigour. It is also said that the College has a more traditional approach to education. De La Salle was the first Catholic high school for boys who aspired to fill the ranks of the emerging professions at the turn of the 20th Century. This necessitated the adoption of a solid core curriculum. Over our history though it is equally important to note that we were among the first schools in the Province to offer commercial courses (typing was offered as course to boys at the secondary level despite the objection of the Ministry of Education!) and in 1974 the school was the first Catholic school to offer "computer studies". I submit that this mix of tradition and innovation or diversification is ultimately a strength of our programming.
It has always been my view that in life and, therefore, in education if you don't know where you are going, you end up someplace else. This is seldom a good thing. When examining if a curriculum is good and rigorous we must assume that teachers must be competent in their subject material, especially at the secondary school level. At the intermediate and primary levels, competence is also important but here the building blocks of instilling discipline, enthusiasm and curiosity must be the overriding and principal objectives. It is hardly a mystery that the most productive classrooms are those where teachers have a strong command of their subject combined with high-quality instruction using sound questioning and meaningful assessment. So, the journey to academic excellence or rigour really begins with a committed and competent teacher. Similarly, its destination are committed and competent students.
Again referring to my address at Open House, I spoke about the studies done by the Bill Gates Foundation some years ago to determine the kind of school model this foundation would support. In addition to size, physical look, and vision these schools would engender, they were to build on the foundation of a prescribed, and what might first appear to be a fairly restricted core curriculum. Students would have few electives and students would be held accountable for their academic progress. Sound familiar? These schools, like any successful school, has to be judged over time and no snapshot of what happens is fair or helpful. It is clear that the approach can be summarised by stating that students are encouraged to push themselves beyond what is easy and the combined efforts to address curricular needs takes into due account intelligence and character, knowledge and thinking. Other more recent studies in the United Kingdom reveal that a more traditional approach to the classroom is effective in instilling the survival skills needed by today's students. I point you to an interesting overview of this position in Daisy Christodoulou's book entitled: Seven Myths of Education.
Increasingly so, I hear from teachers everywhere that students don't know anything. What is meant by such a desperate, general, but common statement? I think this is often a reference to the abysmal state of any sense of history in contemporary society. Facts should not be confused with trivia. Leaving aside the attempts to re-write history, schools and teachers are failing to communicate, some even deny, the importance of history and historical context as such relate to all curriculum. More than ever, I would submit knowing what has been the past is necessary to move forward. All students need a sense of history in order to comprehend more fully the "bigger picture", as it were. Catholic schools, in particular, must communicate a sense of history in order to strengthen the human person's identity to be fully human. Christian history is part of a continuum and not limited to any particular time in history. Recently, I discovered that senior students had no idea at this point in the year who St. Thomas More was or had ever heard of A Man for All Seasons. Too often, the study of things of value have been tossed aside in favour of more contemporary options solely on the basis of their proximity to the present and not for a deeper more intrinsic value. This leads to a curriculum which is ultimately less substantive or rigorous.
The debate among educators about the relative merits of teaching content over critical thinking and vice versa, are, usually unproductive unless we recognise that both are required. Trying to build a sturdy wall requires both bricks and mortar. On some other occasion, I should like to stretch out the bricks and mortar analogy further since it underscores the importance of the relationship between the master and the apprentice in laying bricks and building walls. Although it is probably true that great minds produce ideas and average ones simply recall events, the reality is more complicated especially given that in most jurisdictions – Ontario, other Provinces, the USA, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand real tests scores in numeracy and literacy continue to decline relative to other countries where more traditional methods are usually employed. This unfortunate situation has many causes too complex to unravel here.
So, let's now bring this to a more practical level. No doubt, over the long history of the College there have been many students who have met much success and have accomplished themselves in significant ways. As I am writing today, I received this morning a letter from a former student in the early 1950's who kindly attributes his success to the education he received here. Over the last twenty or more years as Head of school, I can attest to the many successful and accomplished students the College has helped produce. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence bear this out. Of course, some will suggest that our students are selected and therefore do not represent the norm. This is probably true in the main. Yet, we have never been satisfied by accepting that our students measure up well against the average. Rather, we have emphasised how our students go beyond the best. This is one reason many years ago now, I insisted that the curriculum for each grade level be advanced more or less by one full year. I do not regret this in any way, particularly because the elimination of OAC, caused major gaps across the curriculum notwithstanding promises from the Ministry to the contrary. It is, therefore, a clear expectation that our curriculum is advanced and continues to cover, or at least it should, what students require at the post-secondary level. The school continues to take seriously the marks it assigns to measure student progress from a merit based vantage and from the view point of what is expected by the best post-secondary institutions and not simply the average. This is no easy task. To those who think this unfair, I submit that to act different underestimates the ability of our students when pushed in the right direction and asked to give more.
In any school that makes the claim of being an academic institution, clear parameters must be established. Opportunities to encourage students to acquire real skills in problem solving, initiative, adaptability, sound oral and written competencies, the ability to collaborate, and the capacities of assessing and analysing, and the willingness to nurture curiosity and imagination must permeate all that is done. As to how progress is to be assessed and measured, it seems to me that a well-balanced variety of methods are advisable and be done on a rather frequent and consistent basis. A balance of formative and summative assessment intermittently executed is the best recipe for student success.
Finally, I think it is extremely important for us as Lasallians to renew our appreciation for "ensuring that the school runs well". Intellectual pursuits should never be separated from creating a disciplined environment and disciplined student. Regrettably, the term discipline too has a perjorative meaning now. In fact, it is a beautiful term as it relates to the word disciple. The word disciple describes the relationship between the teacher and learner who see in one another's pupils (eyes) a shared image or vision. It is in truth this indispensable relationship between teacher and student, in a selfless act of real love and mutual respect which call forth the best from one another that renders education useful, meaningful and therefore rigorous.
Brother Domenic Viggiani, FSC