Two Rivers Blog

Rigor Redefined
Posted by Chloe
January 21, 2012
By: Elaine Hou, Instructional Guide

What is rigorous teaching and learning, and what does it look like across the grades?

As students, educators, and parents, we have all come across varied definitions of rigor in past and present schooling experiences. When one wants to understand a school’s framework for rigor, a great place to start is the school’s mission. The mission statement articulates what type of student the school strives to develop through its curriculum, programming and structures, teacher professional development, parent involvement structures, and overall culture. The mission provides the school community with a vision for the type of future that is important for all its students.

Before trying to understand different frameworks and examples of rigor, it is important to first assess rigor in the cohesion between a school’s mission and how it is lived out daily within, across, and outside of classroom life. A truly mission-driven school is first and foremost rigorous in its integrity, found in a true mission-reality match. To understand rigor, it is also important to assess how a school’s mission and work prepare students for the future world beyond its walls-a future that is rapidly changing in the 21st century. Finally, rigor must be examined in the learning opportunities that a school provides its students across the years, as well as for all its students in their diverse learning affinities and academic and social needs.

The Importance of Mission

First, a school tells its story of rigor and shows its heart through its mission. A review of a myriad of school missions across D.C. and in the nation brings up the common words of “future”, “citizenship”, “society” and even the word “rigor” itself. In our current national trend, most urban schools that serve predominantly disadvantaged students are driven by the commitment to give students access to college. The means to this future is primarily through working hard toward achieving proficient standardized test scores as a gateway to high school and college admissions. As a contrast, most private, ‘progressive’ schools that serve predominantly advantaged students in background and academic level are driven by a commitment to rigor through cultivating creativity, innovation, and global citizenry. Since their students are chosen and admitted based on their incoming proficiency, and they are often not held accountable through standardized testing, these schools focus their attention on cultivating what is both valuable and does not need to be so easily measured in high-stakes tests. Beyond trying to reach out to underrepresented minority students in the ‘gifted and talented’ category, most progressive schools usually do not find themselves taking part in the dialogue about closing the national achievement gap.

Bridging the 21st Century Rigor Gap

As we examine these polar opposites of schooling trends, one must wonder about progressive models for diverse, integrated student populations that have a vast range of background and learning needs. Expeditionary Learning schools like Two Rivers take a compelling position in between the polarities of rigor, through both focusing on high-stakes test performance and rigor through projects and performance tasks outside of standardized testing. Expeditionary schools use a project and inquiry-based approach to give all students access to rigorous learning experiences, while also making sure their students have strong performance on basic skills tests. In this context, rigor is defined by teaching to transferable and sophisticated skills and understandings while also ensuring all students develop a strong fund of knowledge and skills. Here, the mission is not solely defined by standardized testing, nor does it sit completely outside of its accountability. Instead of this either-or paradigm, this type of mission acknowledges the value of testing in making sure we are serving all our students, while also acknowledging that everything a student needs in the 21st century is not captured by traditional testing itself.

Progressive schools like Two Rivers, who strive to give their diverse student body access to rich and varied options for their futures, understand that there cannot be two separate definitions of rigor for those behind in basic skills and those with proficient or advanced basic skills. In closing the achievement gap, a school’s definition of rigor must include a mission to give all students, no matter what skill level they come in with, opportunities to develop creative thinking, higher-level questioning, meta-cognitive habits of mind, and opportunities to solve different types of problems instead of the same set of problems found on a high-stakes test. This definition of rigor acknowledges that proficiency as solely defined by current standardized testing is no longer enough to prepare our students for college admissions, as well as success through the demands of college and work life in the 21st century. To not have one cohesive standard for rigor for all students is not just a debate about different models of education-it is essentially an equity issue.

The Role of Common Core

The transition to the Common Core standards provides an interesting and timely window into the evolving story of rigor across our nation’s schools. Schools like Two Rivers find themselves well positioned for the change, since they have always organized the standards around deeper conceptual understandings and assessing higher levels of thinking, questioning, and problem-solving. The mission of these schools has driven this type of rigorous instruction long before the Common Core came into the picture. With the Common Core, teachers in schools like Two Rivers now find that standardized testing is changing to more accurately capture how they have always planned and organized teaching and learning in the classroom. Schools who from the beginning were driven by a commitment to the same type of rigor for all students, do not need to suddenly undergo an adaptive change in their curriculum, instructional structures, and assessment practices to be ready for the Common Core. Instead, these core pieces are already in place to support proficiency in new standards and tests that have finally caught up to the type of rigorous learning that should be high stakes for everyone.

Rigor Across the Grades 

In Teaching What Matters Most, Strong, Silver, and Perini argue for a definition of rigor that extends beyond the level of work itself. They define rigor as “what students are able to do as a result of the work they are engaged in.” A school that is driven by a mission for rigor is committed to providing the same rigorous opportunities across its grades for all ages and all students. It articulates an intentional curricular framework and implements instructional strategies that weave a strong continuum of learning and teaching from its earliest grade to its graduating grade. The core learning that takes place in each grade is always building toward what students should be able to do and understand in the next grades and beyond the walls of the school. Rigorous curricular and instructional design is defined by a thoughtful and skillful balance of developmental appropriateness and scaffolding toward higher and deeper levels of understanding and proficiency. In fact, a commitment to developmental appropriateness and student relevance should work in service of cultivating students as expert thinkers and complex communicators through the years, so they are fully equipped to be successful in the 21st century.


As a preschool through 8th grade Expeditionary Learning school, Two Rivers has designed a strong curricular framework that ensures every student experiences both depth and breadth of learning throughout his or her school career. Every grade delivers its social studies and science curriculum with authentic literacy integration through two expeditions per year. Every expedition is situated in either a discipline of science or social studies, and is driven by a compelling topic and expert role that brings standards to life with relevant local and global issues. A strong continuum of rigor is woven through the the transferable types of thinking and understanding that underlie and tie together expeditions across the grades. In addition to the mastery of important content knowledge and basic skills each year, students also have the opportunity to build on transferable conceptual understanding and an increasingly sophisticated thinking repertoire for solving complex problems.

A Rigor Continuum Snapshot 

Two Rivers just finished a semester of rich expeditions, culminating in showcases of learning for families and the larger community. These expeditions offer a compelling snapshot of how the school offers a continuum of rigor to its students throughout the years. For example, students in preschool begin to learn how people communicate their ideas and stories through music, dance, rhythm, expression, and organization in their fall storytelling expedition. As expert storytellers, they learn how they each have a story to share, and how they can use a combination of strategies and mediums to best share that story with an audience. When these preschoolers reach first grade, they build on their understanding of storytelling to become expert journalists in their fall culture expedition. The first grade journalists learn to research and tell the stories of diverse immigrant groups in a local D.C. market that is in danger of being closed. Developmentally, they are ready to move their storytelling expertise from a story centered around self to their expanding world of community and diversity.

When these first graders move into fourth grade, they again build on their understanding of culture and storytelling to move into a more complex role of historian and archaeologist. In their expedition on Jamestown, the fourth grade archaeologists work to reconstruct a more complete story of the Jamestown settlement by examining the artifacts and narratives of three distinct cultures that encountered one another and created history together. They learn to analyze primary and secondary sources, thoughtfully discern the perspective and bias found in the telling of history, and learn to equally seek what is told and what is left out when trying reconstruct history as a story. Through the Jamestown expedition, the students uncover and discover the past as an ever-evolving story that needs continuous investigation and examination. From preschool to fourth grade, their understanding and work as storytellers has blossomed in complexity from understanding self to understanding community, and now telling stories that tie past, present, and future together through multiple perspectives.

This continuum of storytelling as expert thinking culminates in seventh grade, when students are able to transfer their conceptual understandings about storytelling and perspective in the social studies disciplines to a science-based expedition on disease and outbreak. As expert epidemiologists, students engage in scientific inquiry using research, data, and experimentation to understand the inner workings of cell biology and disease. This work is enriched by language arts research of historical, fictional and dystopian storytelling about disease, plague, and outbreak. The weaving of these multiple strands of science, history, and language arts allow the seventh graders to apply their previous understandings of storytelling in this rich, interdisciplinary middle school expedition. In the context of disease and outbreak, they are now able to create stories that show the interplay of scientific discovery and social consequence on a personal, societal, and historical level.

Building on the increasingly complex and transferable cognitive and social skills of storytelling, these seventh graders will again be able to transfer their understanding and thinking to a new context beyond the walls of Two Rivers. The continuum of rigorous thinking and performance they have traversed since preschool has equipped them to be effective global citizens when they enter the work force and a rapidly changing society. They will be able to use storytelling as a means to understanding and solving the most pressing 21 century problems for which there are no solutions yet.

Similar continua of expert thinking are found in other developmental strands across the grades at Two Rivers. Throughout prekindergarten, kindergarten, and eighth grade, expeditions situated in construction, simple machines, and the nature of progress build on conceptual understandings and increasingly sophisticated skills of hypothesizing, planning, testing, and revising theories. Across second grade, third grade, fifth grade, and sixth grade, students engage in expert thinking in law, geology, chemistry, and food economics through learning how to solve problems that demand close examination and synthesis of increasingly complex factors and sometimes contradictory data points. In all of these continua of rigor across the grades, schools like Two Rivers provide the fertile soil of meaningful and enduring learning from which students can grow 21st century strong!

Rigor for All Students 

A school can have a rigorous mission, curricular framework, and instructional model that works for some or even most students, but if it does give all students equal access to the same type of rigor, then it is not a truly rigorous school. Many schools define and provide their rigor predominantly through the tracking of students, but the students in lower tracks are often not given the opportunity to develop creativity, innovative thinking, and problem-solving skills in authentic contexts. While schools with tracking tend to have a more diverse student body, they continue to perpetuate the 21st century rigor gap. It takes not only intentional curriculum design but also a broad, more multi-faceted, and skillful model of differentiation within and across classrooms to give rigor to all students.

If groupings were only defined by proficiency on assessments of basic skills and knowledge, and determined only after teaching and learning has already occurred, then that is all a school would have–static, unchanging groups that defeat the purpose of differentiating to specific student strengths, interests, and needs across learning experiences over time. A school that is truly committed to rigor for all its students makes sure to ask the two essential questions: 1) What are we differentiating toward? and 2) How will we get all students ultimately to that same outcome through different pathways? If the mission of the school is to help students cultivate basic skills in service of expert thinking, then it will make sure to assess students in factual, procedural, and conceptual understanding. With more broad data that is regularly collected and used while learning is still happening, teachers will make groups that are more flexible within and across learning units. Students in different flexible groups will be working within their present knowledge, skill, and understanding level, all tied back to the larger conceptual understandings at the heart of the learning. A model of differentiation based on continuous assessments for learning around content, process, and concept will also be flexible in how students learn and represent their understanding. Finally, differentiation with rigor for all in mind involves a teaching model in which all staff in their various roles (general education teacher, special education teacher, assistant teacher, etc.) work hard to collaborate and use a variety of teaching structures such as co-teaching, parallel teaching, guided instruction, centers, and conferencing with fluid groups of students to meet their changing needs and accelerate growth for everyone.

For example, in our fifth grade chemistry of cooking expedition, the teachers begin each investigation with a robust pre-assessment to determine where students are in their knowledge of states of matter, specific skills in the scientific method, and understanding of chemical change. They then use the data to determine flexible groups to meet students’ specific content, skill, and concept needs within a focused period of learning. Differentiation is driven by the intent of moving students to the next level of skill and understanding, as students move through the on-going cycles of teaching, collecting and analyzing data, regrouping, re-teaching and extending. All the teachers in that grade-level collaborate in creating assessments, analyzing the data, creating flexible group plans, examining new data to shape next steps in teaching, and share in the teaching responsibilities for different flexible groups of students. Unlike the traditional model of differentiation, students will often work with different peers across learning periods because of the intentional, on-going use of data to create new groups and move students forward in thinking and understanding. For students’ final products of learning, their work often represents the growth they made in an area of focus, demonstrating both a differentiated and connected aspect of conceptual understanding. In this past chemistry of cooking expedition, students were able to present the chemistry of food preservation at lab stations and in their individual persuasive guide writing pieces. Both final performance tasks allowed students to demonstrate the specific level of expertise they mastered in the expedition, while tying that focused area of knowledge, skill, and understanding to transferable expert thinking work. This model of differentiation in both process and product shows how differentiation and rigor truly go hand in hand.


In 21 Century Skills: Learning For Life in Our Times, Trilling and Fadel state: “The crux of success or failure is to know which core values to hold on to, and which to discard and replace when times change.” The work of a single educator, a school, and nation-wide education reform should always be rooted in equity for every student that participates in the American school experience. What needs to change is the fragmentation of that American school experience when it comes to how rigor is defined and provided for students of different backgrounds and needs. We need to redefine rigor through connecting education reform to the thinking dispositions and cognitive and social skills needed in 21st century college and workforce demands, learn more about innovative models like expeditionary learning, and collaborate across disciplines and areas of expertise. Our own learning will ensure that learning is not merely informational for some students and formational for others, but transformational for all.