Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships

"No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship." - James Comer

Differentiation: Rigor, Relevance, & Relationships

The foundation of good teaching and reaching every child is differentiation. This is founded in the principles of rigor, relevance, and relationships. Rigor doesn't mean more work, but a great depth of work. It means pushing a student to their level of work capacity in terms of the difficulty, thought, and level of work. Relevance is especially important to this generation of students that want to know "why" they need to do this or "how" this topic has anything to do with them. They want to know the work is relevant prior to putting effort into the task. We know that no significant learning takes place without first a relationship. A great educator and principal once said "you have to touch a heart before a child will let you touch their mind."


Rigor isn’t a new concept and has been around since John Dewey called for an education that included rigorous content in 1938. Pfeiffer (2003) reported that increased academic-content rigor is one focus of current research in gifted education, so much so that Wagner (2006) referred to rigor as “the new reform de jour” (p. 28). Even student realized there was a need for a more rigorous level of content and instruction. According to a survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates in August of 2005, almost 90% of high school students stated that they would work harder if more was expected of them and less than 33% said their school set high academic expectations.

There are several questions administrators and/or teachers can ask when they are assessing the rigor of instruction including:

1. In what ways does this lesson or unit have qualitatively different academic environments?

2. In what ways does this lesson or unit focus on more in-depth, complex concepts and ideas?

3. In what ways does this lesson or unit build upon students’ interests, strengths, and personal goals?

4. In what ways does this lesson or unit engage students consistently in sophisticated investigations?

5. In what ways does this lesson or unit employ advanced critical processes? (Critical processes include finding, inventing and sharing solutions to real-world problems as well as identifying problems [problem finding], determining accuracy, analyzing alternate solutions, making decisions, etc.)

6. In what ways does this lesson or unit employ advanced creative processes? (Creative processes include purposeful analysis, imaginative idea generation, and critical evaluation.)

7. In what ways does this lesson or unit employ investigative and open-ended learning processes? (These include exploration, experimentation, etc.)

8. In what ways does this lesson or unit encourage students to be risk takers?

9. In what ways does this lesson or unit utilize existing knowledge and require students to create new knowledge?

10. In what ways does this lesson or unit utilize and apply significant concepts and essential questions to problem finding and problem solving?

11. In what ways does this lesson or unit set no predetermined limits?

12. In what ways does this lesson or unit foster lifelong learning?

13. In what ways does this lesson or unit foster thinkers capable of independent reflection?

14. In what ways does this lesson or unit foster student self-evaluation?

The North Carolina State Board of Education (NCSBoE) adopted the Mission Statement goal that every student be provided with rigorous and relevant core curriculum reflecting what students need to know and demonstrate in a global 21st-century environment. The Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG) Program at the North Carolina Department for Public Instruction (NCDPI) set out to create a rigor rubric. They included the recommendations about academic rigor in schools: (1) Academic rigor and relevance are based on established expectations that ensure that all students develop the capacity to master content that is complex and challenging and (2) in every subject, at every grade level, instruction and learning must include commitment to a knowledge core and application of that knowledge core to solve complex and real-world problems.

"Rigor is ensuring that each student you teach is provided the opportunity to grow in ways they cannot imagine." - Barbara Blackburn


In education, the term relevance typically refers to learning experiences that are either directly applicable to the interests or cultural experiences of students or connections to real-world issues, problems, and contexts. One of the keys to learning is making connections, connecting something you don’t know to something you do know or understand. This is one of the reasons that building on prior knowledge is so important to teaching and learning. Relevance is a way of making connections with both content and the teacher.

Culturally relevant teaching builds on students culture as a vehicle for accelerating learning. How the brain wires itself to process information and handles relationships is often related to cultural values and learning practices transmitted from parents and community. Neural pathways are over-developed and stimulated around one's cultural ways of learning. Culturally responsive teachers know this and piggyback on these well-developed neural pathways, which can enhance learning. A couple of key components and scientific foundations in culturally relevant teaching include:

  1. Culturally responsive teaching isn't the same as multicultural education or social justice education. Many times these are incorrectly used interchangeably when they are really different things. This isn’t about diversity training, but instead about helping students achieve deeper levels of understanding.

  2. Culturally responsive teaching builds students' brain power by Improving information processing skills using cultural learning tools. One way that the achievement gap manifests itself is by creating dependent learners who find it hard to do critical thinking or independent learning. When we focus on using culture as a cognitive scaffold, then we're able to leverage students' established neural pathways to make learning easier.

  3. Culturally responsive teaching is grounded in social and cognitive neuroscience. Social neuroscience reminds us that relationships are the on-ramp to learning, meaning if a student doesn't feel heard or seen, then it leads to increased stress. We know that stress hormones such as cortisol inhibit or impair executive functioning. One of the best ways to lower stress hormones is through building relationships.

  4. Culturally responsive teaching requires teachers to recognize the cultural orientation we call "collectivism." This refers to shared beliefs or customs recognized and accepted by the group. Teachers can use these to help utilize these to draw connections to prior knowledge and to build on established neural pathways.

15 Strategies and Examples of Relevance

1. Learn About Your Students

2. Interview Students

3. Integrate Relevant Word Problems

4. Present New Concepts by Using Student Vocabulary

5. Bring in Guest Speakers

6. Deliver Different Forms of Content through Learning Stations

7. Gamify Lessons

8. Call on Each Student

9. Use Media that Positively Depict a Range of Cultures

10. Offer Different Types of Student-Choice Learning Time

11. Encourage Students to Propose Ideas for Projects

12. Experiment with Peer Teaching

13. Establish Cooperative Base Groups

14. Run Problem-Based Learning Scenarios

15. Involve Parents

"Culturally relevant teachers utlize students' culture as a vehicle for learning." - Gloria Ladson-Billings


Relationships are the foundation of learning. Any new instructional strategy or approach is destined for less than optimal results without the foundation of building positive and appropriate relationship prior to learning. In highly successful schools, relationships among students and staff are deliberately nurtured and a key reason for student success. Students firmly believe the staff genuinely cares about them and encourages them to achieve at high levels. Without a high level of positive relationships, students will not respond to higher expectations. In schools with challenges of poverty, mobility, and diversity that have high rates of student success, the common building block of success is relationships.

School improvement efforts in implementing a new instructional strategy or curriculum is much more complex than researching and implementing a strategy. The foundation for success starts in building the right culture to grow the minds of students that are founded in trust of their teachers and staff to ensure an intellectually and emotionally safe environment. This type of environment encourages students to take more chances and put forth more effort. Reaching out to one student at a time is an underlying principle. Research from the business world demonstrates employees are looking for something beyond financial stability in their jobs. When the culture is right and relationship are established, employees are generally more encouraged to be innovative and feel more connected to the goals, mission, visions, and values of the organization. These are extremely important factors to consider as we work to close the achievement gap.

"The strength of our student relationships makes the difference in translating our passion for teaching into their passion for learning." - Beth Morrow