'Academics' is a top priority in all educational institutions, for obvious reasons. However, in recent years, in educational discourse in the country, there has been a growing concern that an overemphasis on academics, particularly in the context of exams and rote learning, is distorting the growth of children and youth. We worry that educators may be losing sight of the overall development of students; we may not be producing 'well-rounded personalities'. Nevertheless, we would like to argue that rigorous academics, understood in its broadest sense, has a deep place in the life of students, particularly those in senior school. It is obviously too limiting to restrict the sense of academics to exam preparation. We must therefore appreciate the ways in which intellectual disciplines can help shape our sense of being human and potentially reach out to many vital aspects of a student's maturation.
With the understanding that academic intellectual engagement is crucial in the life of the senior school student, we have identified three broad areas that, in our view, largely define academic rigour. Thinking clearly (in ways that we will describe) is fundamental to our understanding of our world; without this, we are trapped in simplistic notions about how the world works. A rigorous engagement with academics also includes an appreciation of the richness in both methodology and content of various academic disciplines. Finally, we need to help students understand the discipline of study skills, which structure and deepen their ability to learn. We have also tried to convey a feel of the variety of challenges and potential approaches in multiple disciplines, while developing the overall framework that addresses the question of rigouras a whole.
The first step in 'thinking clearly' seems to be the ability to engage with (conceptual) abstractions. By this we mean that students not only focus on specific observations or facts but also begin to learn to see underlying patterns and structures that may be invisible in everyday experience or thought. As teachers, we illustrate this through abstractions both in science and social science. For instance, a sociology student might learn about class, an abstract Marxist structure. Or a physics student might learn about vectors as a way of graphically representing several forces and their outcomes. From this initial appreciation, the student needs to understand how these theoretical constructs may be linked with others, according to the logic of the discipline. These linkages actually impact the way the world is perceived; but on the flip side, they also demand that students observe real world contexts and check their learning against their observation. The ability to recognize this rich interplay between the abstraction and its real world implications is, to us, an important indicator of rigour.
The collection of data and evidence, the ability to research questions to some depth: these also tie in with thinking clearly. But equally important, for a young student, is looking for evidence that might run counter to existing ideas. These are the testing points of rigour: not to be caught within an accepted interpretive framework (which in some cases might be a homegrown'folk theory'), but to investigate and find ways to falsify propositions, not simply to justify them. Simple ideas of testing might have to do with, for example, the way objects fall (do heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones?); at a more complex level, they might have to do with notions of 'intelligence' (are boys smarter at maths than girls?).
A basic prerequisite for clear thought seems to be the ability to read closely and critically. Young people need to have the skill to identify core arguments from what they read and to summarize these arguments to various degrees of detail: capturing the key point in a single sentence, for instance, or expressing the gist in their own words. The paring away of supporting details and the ability to distinguish between various levels of argument are clear pointers to the depth of the student's understanding. Alongside this, students need to be able to express their understanding cogently, both in written and in spoken form, and to develop arguments using either examples or other subsidiary arguments that connect to their main point. An important issue here is the ability to logically structure written work: the development of an argument analytically and not merely descriptively.
Some students have difficulties with reading and writing. While these specific problems need to be supported, they should not necessarily cloud clear thinking skills. All students have the potential for clear thinking. This is not a facility that only 'gifted' students are blessed with or even one that must await a good college education. Indeed, all children need support structures when it comes to learning good reading and writing skills. Children with 'learning difficulties' fall, like all of us, on a spectrum of ability; they clearly need imaginative alternatives to traditional text-based approaches. Then, clear thinking can be communicated systematically, and all students can come to value the skills they learn. Obviously there will be a distribution in ability, but the essence of the process is, we feel, a human ability to which all of us can respond.
Embedded within the above processes, ideally, should be the ability to make conceptual leaps in thinking about the world. Students need to make abstract connections within a domain (and perhaps across different domains) in order to solve a problem or approach an idea in a fresh way. Simple examples might include the ability to understand and create powerful metaphors, or to see the mathematical structure of a problem in physics. What might enable such creative potential? While there is no straightforward blueprint, it seems that rich, open-ended, intellectually investigative environments that engage the student's emotions facilitate this kind of ability.
Academic rigour implies more than the ability to think clearly. It also involves a deep appreciation of richness across disciplines. We can speak of two kinds of richness: a richness in multiple ways of understanding the world, and the richness in the content of a specific discipline.
We realize that there are different theoretical perspectives on the same phenomena. Even in the so-called 'hard' sciences, different interpretations of experimental data and predictive equations lead to very different models of reality. The field of quantum physics is filled with examples. In a discipline such as psychology, different perspectives on psychological health give rise to very different insights and approaches to illness. We should encourage the student to recognize that this plurality is not a weakness; rather, it is a reflection of the true complexity of reality. When we feel we have the one true answer, we are in intellectual trouble!
Within these different perspectives, certain rigorous methods towards understanding and validation exist. Close observation and accurate, conceptually coherent descriptions form the foundation of any model of the world. Beyond this, the experimental method and the testing of hypotheses is the most powerful in the natural sciences. Axiomatic and logical thinking are at the heart of mathematical understanding. The method of comparative analysis is particularly useful in the social sciences, where experiment is virtually impossible. This sense of methodological variety is crucial to appreciating academic rigour.
Quite apart from methodological richness, students can appreciate the diverse richness and beauty within disciplines themselves. The precision and power of literature in describing the human condition and evoking empathy; the elegance of a mathematical proof; the parsimony and predictive reach of a scientific explanation: it is only within the excitement at these aesthetic qualities that the specifics of a discipline may make sense. Within this broader emotional response to the beauty of a subject comes the sense of stitching the details together into coherent pictures, and of delving deeper into the field of inquiry. And of course as we go deeper in, we make subtler discoveries: certain themes repeat unexpectedly, the facts and theories hang together insurprising ways, disparate observations fit into an overall framework.
The final thread in our rendering of academic rigour involves study skills. Study skills are important for mastery, and mastery may be required in different contexts, for different aims: writing a paper, making a presentation, or writing an exam. It is important for the student to keep in mind that study is limited and finite, for a specific purpose, unlike the process of learning, whichis potentially deep and extensive.
The points below indicate important skills for all students.
- Learning and using the terminology of a subject with confidence
- Taking notes and summarizing arguments from both live discussions or lectures and static text
- Using visual representations such as topic maps, webs, diagrams, trees
- Explaining concepts to others
- Knowing how much more study is needed
- Knowing what precisely one has not understood, and when to ask for help
- Re-doing work, incorporating the feedback of the teacher
- Coming up with creative techniques for memorizing: index cards, flip books, putting notes up on walls, quizzing others, repetition and drill
- Developing a style of regular work
There need be nothing dry and dispassionate about academic study. Rather, it may be nourished by deep emotions of wonder, excitement and creativity. We repeatedly discover that we engage the emotions when we learn: we experience excitement, the thrill of discovery, and a love for a subject when learning (and teaching) something. The energy of discussion is palpable; there are also pauses and rumination during discussion, when students challenge others' views as well as their own, and share their learningwith others.
For us as educators, it is vital that our own perceptions are born of a deep engagement with the subject matter of our various disciplines, as well as out of dialogue with each other, and that these perceptions permeate our understanding of academic rigour in all its manifestations.