Intellectual rigour for students and teachers

2017 Lindsay Thompson Award Winner for Excellence in Education, Steven Cook, discusses how teachers can help students to think carefully and deeply when they're challenged with new knowledge and arguments.

As the principal of Albert Park College, Steven Cook led the re-establishment of the school following its closure in 2006 due to unviable student enrolments.

Charged with the challenge of regaining community confidence, Steven saw a unique opportunity to relaunch Albert Park College with some bold moves to re-engage the local community and deliver on his promise of education excellence.

Below he discusses some of the approaches that have helped Albert Park College deliver on its promise to create and foster intellectual rigour as part of the school culture.

His aim is for his teachers and students to be critical and creative thinkers who are able to drive their own learning in a highly challenging environment.

Driving intellectual rigour through a curriculum that challenges students

"Often the biggest point of difference in the quality and consistency of instruction is between teachers and classes, so we've really tried to eliminate and minimise this difference."

"We did this by making sure that our teachers had a clear understanding of our education philosophy; so they know this is what we stand for, this is what we believe in with our teaching and learning.

"One of the ways we've been able to challenge students is in our use of technology, which allows us in school leadership and our teachers to make sure that our education is differentiated to support students of all abilities. Part of this partnership with our teachers and students also meant that we also had to clearly document our curriculum and developing a teaching and learning model that people could really believe in."

The Victorian Curriculum F-10 provides opportunities for teachers, including through the capabilities of Personal and Social Learning, Ethical Learning, Intercultural Learning and Critical and Creative Thinking, to ensure intellectual rigour is present in their teaching and learning.

Making sure that we know where students need to grow

"Our challenge to each of our teachers through their professional learning plan is that our students should be showing a minimum 12 months of growth. It doesn't have to be in specific areas of the curriculum. It is it's just as important to see that this is a growth in capacity, in social skills and other skills they might be developing."

"But there's not much point in challenging students without knowledge of the way forward.

"So since we reopened, we started developing an online curriculum for our whole education community. Beginning with Year 7 in 2011 and continuing on, we've now finished that work and we revise it year on year to make sure that our curriculum continues to challenge our students and live up to our core values.

"We take time when students join us to identify the kids' strengths so that we can intervene ​and target their learning needs from day one. Partner this with a clear map of the curriculum for the full six years our students are with us – and we have the ability to make sure that there is a high challenge for each and every individual."

Central to building intellectual rigour is understanding the developmental needs of students. Formative and summative assessment of student knowledge and skill development enables teachers to gain this understanding and allows​ appropriate scaffolding to take place.

Teaching students to evaluate sources in the internet age

"We try and create work that is much more challenging and complex for students and to do that we've embraced technology in our teaching, but we also need to be clear with our students about what's best from technology and advocate for its best use."

"Today you can't operate without technology as an adult and we wouldn't be delivering for the futures of our students if we didn't prepare them for the jobs they might have in 2030 and beyond.

"We actively talk about the power of the internet, the value of the content within it, its credibility and plagiarism and we expose our students to a range of sources so that when we create the work for them – it's a lesson where students have to read and create their own individual content so that the work itself tests the veracity of what's online.

"You've got to actively teach students to identify what content is accurate and that there is a range of views and opinions and breed a healthy scepticism about what they're going to be reading online."

Students live in an information age in which technologies allow constant access to information. Building intellectual rigour in how students access, evaluate and use sources of information is critical for children and young people.

Learning doesn't have to take part in the classroom

 "Viewing the school as part of the community around us is fundamental to our beliefs."

"We have a strong focus on creativity and the arts and to drive our students further we've been able to partner with organisations like the National Gallery of Victoria, the Arts Centre and Gasworks Arts Centre. Through these partnerships we try to drive creativity and innovation.

"For example, we've created a unique Year 9 setting, which we call our Da Vinci project. This is a huge inquiry-based model that invites our kids to think on a global scale about issues that are fundamental to the planet.

"We ask them to take action within their communities and work towards developing local, sustainable and environmental solutions which could be implemented in the real world.

"The great thing about these kinds of partnerships is also that students who might not otherwise shine at a school setting really get the opportunity to break out of their shell. They shine with other adults and community members that may not be their teachers and this sort of opportunity might create and open up new pathways or challenges for them."

Investing in our teachers' development is key to success

"Professional learning is our biggest single investment in terms of our commitment to our teachers and our students."

"When people join our school we also take the time, month by month, week by week, to induct staff into our education model and we invest in their professional growth. We make sure that teachers have a path forward and that we're challenging them as much as we are the students.

"I feel you can't be a successful educator unless you invest in your own development."​

Developing best practice approaches to challenge students

Echoing the way Albert Park College have been able to challenge their students to build deep knowledge of their curriculum, and develop an understanding of how to evaluate a range of views and opinions using metacognitive skills, the Department has developed a professional practice note to support teachers with intellectual rigour.​

For more information about incorporating this best-practice approach​ into your teaching, see: Teacher Tip – Intellectual rigour for all students