Many years ago, Simon Brooks received his greatest lesson as a teacher during a class when students were learning ‘Hamlet’. He was teaching his students an English lesson on the Shakespearean play, and thought it was a pretty excellent example of educational rigour.
He had prepped very hard for the lesson, wrote a lot of notes on the ‘To be or not to be’ speech, learnt it by heart and performed it enthusiastically, as if he was Hamlet. The students went through the well-prepared notes and copied them into their books, guided by their teacher. “I left that class thinking to myself, with more than a big dose of arrogance, ‘’Wow! That was a good lesson.’ Then, I gave them a practice essay to write, and the results were just tremendously disappointing.”
To his horror, he found that what the students wrote contained none of the details, rigour or nuance that he had communicated to them. At this moment, Mr Brooks had an epiphany that has lived with him ever since. “I came to a big realisation that during that lesson I had done an amazing job of teaching myself the speech, and the students were in the room while I was learning. I’m not sure what learning they did, but I’m pretty sure it was limited. They weren’t doing anything cognitively. They were just passive recipients of my thinking.”
What is academic rigour?
Now Brooks, the new Principal of the Australian International School Malaysia (AISM), has very strong ideas about academic rigour and what this actually means for children’s education and excellent schools.
True rigour, he said in an interview with makchic, comes when we pass the responsibility of doing the learning, thinking and understanding over to the learners instead.
Formerly an English high school teacher by training, Mr Brooks has also been Head of the English Department at a British comprehensive school, Director of Teaching and Learning at Sydney’s Masada College and Regional Principal for one of the world’s largest global schools. After many years’ of experience he understands that academic excellence has long been viewed as the yardstick for success, especially in our results-oriented Asian society.
“Traditionally, rigour has been connected to concepts like coverage, compliance and exclusive focus on test scores. Obviously, all those things are important, and it is essential for schools to prepare children to do really well in tests. My definition of what makes for a rigorous school, however, includes those things, but goes beyond them.”
Here are the 5 hallmarks of true academic rigour he believes students of today need, drawing on research from Dr Ron Ritchhart at the Harvard Graduate School of Education:
1. Learning, over work
Brooks is not just a teacher, he is also a father of two teenage daughters with his wife Sally, who is a counsellor and psychotherapist. He understands that a lot of parents might view doing very well in public examinations and getting great scores as one of the fundamental purposes of coming to school. This is based on knowledge being defined as ‘how much information I know and how quickly I can recall it under pressure’, or what Ritchhart calls ‘the game show view of intelligence’.
“If I am on ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’, it’s useful for me to have a lot of knowledge,” he says. A person who could recall a lot of general knowledge under pressure would probably win that million, so a broad general knowledge is undoubtedly very helpful in that context. “And of course,” he continues, “a knowledge-rich curriculum for students in school is still very important, and one that we absolutely provide at AISM. Children need to know things to thrive, and if they’re going to be thinking, they have to have something to think about! But the world is changing and assessments are changing, and knowledge alone is no longer enough.”
“If we teach just for the test, which we intuitively think might get us the best results for children, there is a danger there that we might do harm to our students’ intrinsic curiosity and love for learning. It’s when we are curious that learning comes alive for us, which creates the desire to learn more and dig deeper. Teaching for understanding, engagement and curiosity is actually the best way to have them do well in tests, and there’s lots of research to support that.”
2. Understanding, over knowledge
Mr Brooks likens knowledge to a box – something quite fixed, contained and constrained. Knowledge by itself isn’t enough. What students truly need is understanding – learning how to do things with the knowledge they have acquired.
“Educators from Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education now define understanding as the increasing ability to perform a variety of mental moves with knowledge. What I mean by that is that I go beyond knowledge if I am able to ask questions about the content I am learning about, or if I make connections between it and what I learned yesterday. Or if I can summarise it in a nutshell. Or if I can explain it to someone else, or interpret it in a variety of different ways.”
Positively, Mr Brooks notes, the educational world (and certainly, the New South Wales education system) is getting a hold of this.
“If we don’t start preparing students for this, then what we are doing is providing a less rigorous education than we should be providing. With knowledge alone, It’s possible that they might still do very well in some tests, though not those that push for application and thinking over recall. But it also means that they may not become such thriving global citizens who can think in a variety of different ways when they enter the world around them.”
3. Deep, over surface learning
Hearkening back to his formative experience teaching ‘Hamlet’, Mr Brooks considers how things might have played out differently.
“As educators, of course we need to share our own ideas and insights, but unless we cast them in the role of doing the thinking, their learning will only ever be at the surface rather than digging for complexities below the surface.”
He cautions against the temptation of excessive explanation, which can often lead to ‘explaining away the curiosity, giving it to students so easily and in a ready package’. Instead, he aims to encourage the educators that he works with to ‘think of themselves more as provocateurs’, learning to create the conditions for curiosity and in doing so, crafting truly powerful and meaningful learning experiences for children.
4. Independence, rather than dependence
AISM’s own culture of cultivating curiosity is a matter of pride for Mr Brooks, where children are enabled to take control of their own learning.
For example, at AISM teachers already craft project-based learning opportunities, enabling their students to work things out for themselves and apply their learning to the world around them. There are ‘intriguing, interesting and independent learning experiences’ that train children to move beyond being passive recipients of information.
“That’s part of what makes AISM unique. We ask ourselves, how might we help our learners become independent rather than dependent learners?”
5. Growth, rather than a fixed mindset
“At its core, a growth mindset is the belief that I can get better at anything I put my mind to with hard work and application. A fixed mindset is the belief that my intelligence levels are static, predetermined and however hard I try, I am limited in how far I can go,” Mr Brooks explains.
A child might say, for example, that they’re not good at Maths, or that they’re not a Maths person, based on certain negative experiences they’ve had, ‘a story they’ve told themselves’. Mr Brooks believes otherwise.
“Every single young mind is capable of growing as a mathematician. Or as a story writer. Or as a musician. Or as an athlete. Because with hard work and application, we can get better.”
“At AISM, we can disrupt that type of storytelling, to ensure that children know that fixed mindset is the result of that type of fixed thinking. We provide opportunities for them to grow and to see for themselves that they have the potential to improve. What we have to do as educators is to show this to our children every day, on a moment-by-moment basis, so that they believe for themselves that they can grow and improve, and celebrate that.”
The most important question
Mr Brooks shared a little of his plans for encouraging a continuing culture of academic rigour at AISM. He boils this down to what he believes to be the single most important question about education.
“What do we want our children to be like when they are adults?”
This is also the first question he asked of his staff at AISM on the first day of school in 2022.
“It was so interesting to see what colleagues came up with in response to that question – happy young people, good listeners, curious, open-minded, healthily skeptical, creative and critical thinkers, empathic, considerate, striving to be objective, a disposition to explore and celebrate complexity, the disposition to be globally minded, etc.”
“Once we identify these qualities, these habits of mind, these dispositions – then we can craft an education in service of helping them grow into these ways of being and learning, whilst securing outstanding examination results at the same time. That’s what I mean by a broader definition of rigour.”
By Kimberly Lee
*The contents of this interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.
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AISM offers Australian education taught by highly qualified international teachers, predominantly Australian trained and experienced. The Australian curriculum offers seamless transition into education pathways and an international qualification recognised by top universities around the world. Growing steadily over the years since its inception in 2000, the school caters for children from age 3 (Pre-school) to age 18 (Pre-University). To know more about how AISM creates future-ready individuals, through varied activities and unique learning methodology, join their Open Week from 14th to 18th February 2022 and enjoy 100% application fee rebate, 100% admissions fee waiver for Early Learning Centre and 80% admissions fee waiver for Junior, Middle and Senior School. Contact the admissions team to find out more and register.