Academic rigor in high school is often touted as a selling point for families and an indicator of future success for students. But what does a rigorous curriculum really mean? Is an “academically rigorous” curriculum really the best way to help students succeed?
To help unpack this idea, we captured a conversation between Dr. Christina Swan (admissions, sciences) and Craig Doerksen (director, humanities)…
What does it mean to have a rigorous curriculum?
SWAN: Many people equate stress and rigor with a quality educational experience. In real life, people say, “work smarter, not harder.” We can apply that concept to education too.
DOERKSEN: Yes, people like to talk about rigorous education, but what’s rigorous about it? Is rigor measured in the output or the outcome? We believe you can have a rigorous outcome without requiring a ridiculous amount of time and energy. That’s why we built our model the way we did, creating a schedule that allows for more depth and productivity during the school day.
“Is rigor measured in the output or the outcome? We believe you can have a rigorous outcome without requiring a ridiculous amount of time and energy.” Craig Doerksen
SWAN: Schools have become our whole lives, with kids staying on campus until seven or eight at night. Then there are hours of homework to get everything done. And at what cost? They are sacrificing valuable time that could be used for extracurriculars or learning practical life skills.
DOERKSEN: School is an important part of academic development, but it was never meant to be the be-all-end-all of daily life. School is not their job.
What kind of kids do well at Waterloo?
DR. CHRISTINA SWAN: We recently spoke with a very motivated prospective student who said, “I could keep getting straight As, but why? I actually want to do something with what I’m learning.” That’s a perfect example of one kind of student who can truly excel at Waterloo.
CRAIG DOERKSEN: I’m surprised at how often kids realize that they are not personally growing. They know they need real-world skills for complex things beyond tests, essays, and homework. The attraction for these kids has nothing to do with whether they are bored, smart, or challenged in a traditional academic setting. These kids are looking for more meaning.
SWAN: Through project-based learning, you get that space for revision, feedback, and the whole project cycle. Students realize they can do more. They can go deeper. You don’t always have that positive pressure when you’re simply creating something for an in-house test or essay.
DOERKSEN: We have kids who are highly motivated by grades and those who aren’t, but they both find themselves responding to a different set of motivations in the project cycle. The question becomes, “is this good or not?” That’s a qualitative experience. Nobody wants to put forward something that’s not impressive; their desire to produce is authentic. You lose yourself in the thing that you’re doing.
Is project-based learning easier or harder?
DOERKSEN: In our last student showcase, one audience member asked a group if their project was harder or easier than taking a test. One student responded, “way harder!” Studying and taking a test would be much easier, but would the student really be learning? Project-based learning is like learning to ride a bike. We’re taking the training wheels off. Yes, you fall sometimes, but you get back up. You learn to excel with more freedom and fewer guard rails. Good test grades can actually be a false positive.
“Project-based learning is like learning to ride a bike. We’re taking the training wheels off. Yes, you fall sometimes, but you get back up. You learn to excel with more freedom and fewer guard rails.” Craig Doerksen
SWAN: I remember when I was a kid. After taking a test, I would say that I needed to get all that information out of my head to make room for the next subject. That’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid. With projects (even if it’s not the same subject), you are practicing that learning process every time, honing personal skills that make you a more functional adult.
How do you measure success?
DOERKSEN: The traditional school model fixates on grades, but how often are we evaluated with grades in real life? Performance reviews at work are typically qualitative. Morale and motivation suffer when we try to force that feedback into metrics and checkboxes. Those are external measures of success, but motivation needs to come from within.
At Waterloo, we look for evidence that students are producing from their learning. Are you working towards your goals? Where are you at? Are you immerging, learning, mastering? At the end of the term, report cards still have letter grades A+ through F. Parents and colleges need to understand progress and proficiency.
SWAN: Occasionally, we do have traditional tests and quizzes. We assess students and then show them the path to get better. The rest is up to them. Much of our grades evaluate their efforts to improve, and that reflects real-world feedback too. Will you improve after your first job review, or will you stay the same? Progress is the mark of a good employee and a mature adult.
DOERKSEN: We give progress reports every three weeks over a 12-week trimester. These include components of both self-reflection and grades from teachers. Ultimately, we want their final grade to reflect where they are at the end. Traditional grades aren’t a reflection of how you end up; they are average from start to finish. What if you are a slow starter, but you’ve mastered the subject matter by the end of the term? We believe that student deserves the same good grade as someone who hit the ground running.
What kind of students (and families) work well within this model?
DOERKSEN: I think you often see frustration with the whole school process. Your kid may be bright and interested in things, but school takes all their time and energy. A lot of those efforts can seem disconnected from real value.
SWAN: Right, these kids can get the As and do the grind, but it’s at the expense of everything else. We have many students who are deep into their extracurriculars, athletics, and arts. For them, success and rigor look different. They need three hours outside school to do their extracurriculars, which our model can accommodate. Some of those talents can be brought into school as well.
“Learning and understanding can happen in many different ways. It’s not all about tests. We care about their ability to learn and apply what they are doing. That can be a breath of fresh air for many families.” Dr. Christina Swan
We also serve those kids who have the ability to learn, but traditional school doesn’t work with the way they are wired. Learning and understanding can happen in many different ways. It’s not all about tests. We care about their ability to learn and apply what they are doing. That can be a breath of fresh air for many families.
Learn more about waterloo
Waterloo’s project-based learning environment offers a unique opportunity for students to dig deeper, go further, and truly excel.
Want to learn more about the unique learning environment at Waterloo? Schedule a meeting with a faculty member or sign up for an experience day or other community event.