Head of School Blog – Academic Excellence in Progressive Education

Walk into a Sheridan School classroom at any moment and you will see children hard at work. What that may look like varies every day. In fifth grade, you may see students reading about Columbus Day and analyzing the multiple points of view, in middle school science you might see students making their own alloys, and in third grade language arts students might be hard at work in their writing journals, analyzing the characters in the books they’ve chosen to read. Everywhere you look you will find students who are actively engaged in their own learning, collaborating with teachers and peers, and making connections to new ideas.

In an educational climate that is just starting to recognize that testing and overloading students with homework has no correlation to, and can in fact be contrary to student achievement, Sheridan leads by example. At Sheridan, we define academic rigor by how engaged our students are in a lesson or activity, whether the students’ understanding is internalized in a way that they can generalize it to other situations, and if the students’ understanding endures beyond the lesson. We don’t define academic rigor by overloading students with endless busywork or hours of homework. Recently, a parent asked me, “If they don’t have hours of homework in the middle school, how will they handle it in high school?” The best answer I can give is that homework is not like aerobic exercise. There are no studies showing that a build-up to hours of homework makes those hours easier to endure. When we talk with our graduates, their families, and the admissions officers at the high schools where our students matriculate, we know that the education our children receive at Sheridan arms them with the skills and habits of mind they need to be successful, however they choose to define success. In fact, recently the Upper School Head at Sidwell told us that Sheridan students tend to be better prepared for math than their peers because Sheridan students are taught to think about math rather than to memorize algorithms.

In California, I worked with an organization at Stanford University’s School of Education called Challenge Success. This organization was born in part out of one teacher’s observation that high school students’ stress level was leading to disinterest, depression, and academic dishonesty. After much research, the organization now works with schools to help them understand that meaningful work, a focus on enduring understandings, and a balanced workload actually contributes to more successful and happier students. They are fighting an uphill battle at many schools, but the tenets of their work is embedded in all we do. As I watch first graders write about what makes them special, it is clear that they are so engaged in the meaning of the work, that the skill of handwriting and sounding out words becomes important to them. As I watch eighth graders debate immigration I see the skills of research, articulation of ideas, public speaking, and organizing a persuasive argument takes on new import for them. In fact, the students were so engaged they were still debating immigration at lunch and recess!

For many educators, the word “rigor” is a dirty word; it means inflexible, harsh or stern. I say, let’s redefine rigor! Real rigor gets students engaged and excited about their work. Real rigor is harder to teach because it asks teachers to look at the individuals in the class and design curriculum that will help them to learn not for a test, but for a lifetime. Real rigor is what our children are engaging in here at Sheridan every day: meaningful, important, work that will help them to be collaborative, creative, and empathetic critical thinkers.

-Jessica Lee