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Re-Envisioning Rigor

Dr. Jessie Barrie, PhD
When you explore the definition of the word rigor, (per Merriam Webster’s dictionary) you find words such as “harsh,” “inflexible,” “unyielding,” “strict,” “severe,” and “obsolete”; these words feel diametrically opposed to the type of educational experiences that most parents would say they want for their children and the learning environments in which most students would thrive. And yet, rigor is a word that has long been synonymous with a challenging educational program and commonly used to describe independent school academic programs.

One of the most consistent ways that schools have demonstrated rigor is through the offering of Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which were first piloted in the 1950s in response to concerns that many high school graduates were not adequately prepared for college-level coursework. Over the past 60 years, AP programs have increasingly grown in their reach with over 2 million students taking AP classes in recent years. This is especially common in many independent schools, and even the number of AP classes offered is frequently seen as a “badge of honor.” As the AP program has expanded, there has been a related increase in the number of vocal opponents who have raised many concerns: the “teach to the test” focus, the required need to prioritize breadth over depth, the inauthenticity of a college-level curriculum being delivered to 15-year-olds, the increasing stress and anxiety levels of students who feel pressure to take AP courses, and issues of educational inequality perpetuated by the model. A number of colleges have restricted or rebutted AP credits and more and more independent schools have been shifting away from AP courses in light of their shortcomings.

Despite the rising popularity of the Advanced Placement program when Bosque was founded 25 years ago, the school made—and has always held firm to—an intentional decision NOT to offer AP classes. The school’s academic mission states: At Bosque School, we design learning experiences that inspire students to explore challenging concepts and ideas and to be daring in their pursuit of deep understanding. Our academic program is grounded in inquiry and prizes curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking. Decisions of content and pedagogy reflect the diverse and changing world in which we live and offer a pathway to discovering individual passions and how to live ethically in the world. This philosophy of learning at the core of Bosque’s academic program is in direct contrast to the AP model of teaching and learning.

It is imperative to communicate that our decision to eschew traditional forms of rigor does not preclude Bosque’s commitment to offering our students a challenging education, designed to best prepare them with the 21st-century skills needed to thrive in college and in a global, digital economy. Since arriving at Bosque, I have been re-envisioning a new definition of rigor, one that better expresses our very intentional approach:
  • R: Relevant and Relational
  • I: Inquiry Driven
  • G: Great Teaching & Learning
  • O: (student) Ownership (of learning and work)
  • R: Research-based & Results-focused
Most important is that this manifestation of rigor works. Our students thrive as critical thinkers, collaborators, creators, communicators, and as leaders. They consistently tell us how well Bosque prepared them for college and their careers, while also inspiring their passion for learning and their capacity for contribution. And if we can do this in a way that does not evoke words such as “harsh,” “inflexible,” “unyielding,” “strict,” “severe,” and obsolete”—then we are doing our job in serving today’s children and tomorrow’s leaders.

All the best,
Jessie Barrie, PhD
Head of School
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