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Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 7: A-4. Relevance and academic rigor of content

April 19, 2005


The final dimension in the role of the teacher in an inclusive setting is to ensure the relevance and the academic rigor of the program for each student within the class. Relevance of the program can be seen when students are able to gain personal meaning from it by making connections with prior knowledge or by working out how it "fits" into their world. Content material is relevant when:

  • we have a prior intellectual or emotional connection to it: Such connections may be identified by the student or mediated by the teacher, and serve as a "hook" into the new concepts and knowledge to be learned. • an emotional or intellectual connection is mediated for us: Students will not always come with pre-existing interests in a topic. Such relevance can be mediated by the teacher (Brooks & Brooks, 1993), as interests can be created and stipulated (Bruner, 1971).
  • it is connected to real life: Students want to know how what they are learning "fits" into the real world as well as how it fits into their own frame of reference.
  • it is appropriately timed (i.e. when we are not hungry, exhausted or distracted by some other, more important need): We have all experienced occasions when we were unable to pay attention to a lesson or lecture because of some other pressing and distracting need, or even because the time of day wasn't right.
  • it actively engages or involves us: Even if a topic or task is not immediately relevant to an individual, active engagement can act as a catalyst to develop personal interest. Among the most revealing journal entries are those written by students who have been involved in some sort of community service over an extended period of time. Frequently, students cite how they could not at first understand the relevance of a community service requirement in their high school program, but how, after some time, these same students recognized a deep connection and responsibility for others that had been generated by their service project.
  • someone else has a contagious passion or enthusiasm: It is easier to become interested in a unit of study when the teacher or another member of the group already has an enthusiasm for it and who can share that passion with others.
  • it is novel: We each tend to notice those things in our environment that are unfamiliar and unusual to our own experience. The same holds true for academic work.

Suggestions for developing academic relevance are as follows:

  • Prime Background Knowledge: Before understanding of new information can occur, necessary background knowledge must be taught or "primed." This requires finding ways to activate student prior knowledge about a subject, or teaching the necessary component steps and concepts to allow in-depth understanding of a big idea or strategy.
  • Mediated Scaffolding: Scaffolding refers to the guidance, assistance, and support that a teacher, peer, or task provides to a learner. For example, in teaching reading comprehension, the teacher's frequent, interspersed questions are a scaffold that can gradually be reduced as students become able to interact with text on their own.
  • Judicious Review: Judicious review, the practice of re-presenting a topic or concept at increasingly complex levels over a period of time, should be:
    (a) sufficient for initial learning to occur,
    (b) distributed over time,
    (c) varied to encourage generalization between topics, and
    (d) cumulative.
    An example of judicious review in math is incorporating review of addition, subtraction, multiplication.
  • Strategic Integration: Strategic integration is the process where prior learning is integrated into more complex concepts. For example, in beginning reading instruction, teachers can provide decodable text as students are learning letter-sound relationships to figure out words.
  • Cue Learning: Students can anticipate what is going to be presented in the lesson that day when advance organizers are used. In this way, global learners, who frequently need to understand the whole idea at once rather than piece together parts of an idea as they are unveiled, will not have to guess what is coming ahead when objectives and goals are clearly stated.

Teachers must also ensure that the program is intellectually rigorous, or academically challenging for each student at his or her individual level. Academic rigor does not imply harshness or severity. In a recent interview, Alfie Kohn (in O'Neill & Tell, 1999) states, "A lot of horrible practices are justified in the name of 'rigor' or 'challenge.' People talk about 'rigorous' but often what they mean is 'onerous,' with schools turned into fact factories. This doesn't help kids become critical, creative thinkers or lifelong learners (p. 20)." An academic program is rigorous when there is:

  • depth and integrity of inquiry: Many teachers have expressed concern that there is too much curricular material to "cover" and not enough time to teach it in. Academic rigor implies that sufficient time be devoted to a topic or unit of study and that students would have an opportunity to explore it in depth, developing questions as they go along.
  • sustained focus: Some students may need assistance and training to persevere on a given subject so that there would be the opportunity to study a topic in depth.
  • suspension of premature conclusions: Our nature is to find confirmation for our hunches, and this tendency often limits our possible conclusions. Academic rigor suggests that we train students in their individual work and research to continue to search for the one exception that disproves the hypothesis.
  • continuous testing of hypotheses: Even after being certain that our hypotheses are supported by evidence, we need to continue to test and re-test in different situations and under different circumstances.

In a classroom setting, teachers can assist students in sustaining focus in a number of different ways:

  • Vary the pacing, grouping and the activities of an instructional period. Moving students from small to large grouping configurations, and including activities that incorporate learning opportunities for visual, auditory, tactual and kinesthetic learners helps to keep all students involved in the lesson.
  • Develop a personal code system with your students for monitoring in-class or social behaviors. Frequently, a quiet, gentle touch on the shoulder can help to re-direct a student's focus. Please first make sure that such gestures are acceptable within the child's cultural and experiential framework.
  • Ask mediative questions at increasingly high levels to pique student interest.

Students can be trained to evaluate their own work by developing and applying rubrics. Please see Chapter 8 for a fuller discussion of "S-MAPs" (i.e. rubrics).

Successful inclusive classrooms don't just happen, but are crafted by teachers in each school. As the primary architect of the class atmosphere, the role of the teacher is key. We have found these four dimensions: that is, developing a positive class climate, gathering and understanding student-specific knowledge, developing critical thinking and ensuring relevance and rigor in the academic program, to be critical in the development of successful inclusive classrooms.

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