We all want great learning, great schools, and great success in the future. For the past several years the narrow focus has been on test scores. Schools compete with other schools, states and provinces compete with other states and provinces, and PISA scores seem to be the only assessment measure that is taken seriously. NK

For years many experts have used the expression: Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor. However, many governments and businesses continue to focus only on the big “R,” rigor, through narrowly designed measurement. Measurement is important, if you are dealing with widgets. Outputs per unit of time is an absolutely appropriate way to measure productivity. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work very well when applied to learning.

There is a long list of researchers dating back 40 years who know that learning is a human system, not mass producing a finite product. Frederick Herzberg, from the business side, has written about motivation for over 40 years which has influenced some of the best places to work. Other researchers, Richard Ryan, Edward Deci, Theresa Amabile, and Daniel Pink, to name few have found that extrinsic motivation (test scores) will not produce the large gains we want for knowledge acquisition and application of that knowledge.

Tony Wagner in his last two books, Global Achievement Gap (2008) and Creating Innovators (2012) outline specific skill sets our children need for the 22nd century. Yes, I said the 22nd century. The kids in schools today will be living in the 22nd century, not the only the 21st.

Tony Wagner also wrote an article a few years ago called “Rigor Redefined.” Those skills include collaboration, creativity, courage to take responsible risks, and entrepreneurship in addition to reading, writing, and oral communication. Many of these skills were identified by Art Costa and Bena Kallick in their work on “Habits of Mind” years ago.

So, let’s reorder the learning process to maximize results. The starting point is Relationships.

Relationships. I learned in 1970, when I began teaching physics at South High School in Minneapolis, MN I learned that if I didn’t have relationship not much else mattered. I came on strong when a student asked me, “why do we need to know this stuff?” I responded, “I am the physics major, sit down and be quiet. I will tell you what you need to know.” How do you think that worked in 1970? Yup, and it isn’t going to work now either.

As the old adage goes “Children don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” But it is more than that. They need to know you are in their corner, will support them, and confront them when they do dumb things. I have seen some of the toughest teachers, have the greatest support from students and parents.  It isn’t just caring, it is caring enough to expect and get the best from kids.  They can smell a phony.  Authentic relationship will always win.

The French have a proverb I really like: “Children Need Models More Than Critics.” Going to court as a character witness for my students was not fun. It was important. It is not only important for that student. Every student is watching us to see if we are the real deal.

At Oregon’s Mt. Tabor Middle School, average test scores are 15 points higher than the state average for middle schools. The 630-student east Portland campus divided itself into three smaller schools to create close ties between teachers and students, to keep students on track and guide them through the ups and downs of adolescence.

Relevance. And to answer the students’ question about “why,” I took them to the corner of Lake and Cedar to watch cars at a stop light. Some cars made it through the yellow light, based on their speed and some didn’t. I asked the students, “What will keep you from getting a ticket?” That got their attention! Now we can talk about speed, velocity, acceleration, etc.

As a principal, 25 years later, a business teacher brought me a student while I was supervising the lunch room. Harold said he couldn’t get this student to understand why he needed to know the difference between fractions and percentages. I asked the student what he was interested in. He said, “music.” I said, “I own a music store and I will give you 1/3 off or 25%, which will you take?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “that is why you need to know, or you are going to get taken advantage of.”

We can make the case for relevance. Sometimes we need to do that first before we can teach the content.

Rigor. Let me start with what I considered to be a definition of Rigor.  Rigor (a definition to move beyond narrow measurement) – learning experiences and expectations that are academically, intellectually and personally challenging. Ref: The Glossary of Educational Reform.

As mentioned before, once we have the students engaged, we can expand their knowledge base and help them become better thinkers and more creative than before. Our influence is huge, but we need to have the right relationship or we have no influence. No relationship usually means we default to control. Control will ultimately undermine relationships and negatively affect rigor.

Let me close with an African Proverb. “Not learning is bad, not wanting to learn is worse.”

Educators have multiple strategies to help a student who is not learning. What is your strategy for a student who does not want to learn? In my experience it is relationships and relevance. Then, we get to real rigor.


Amabile, Teresa, & Kramer, Steven. (2011). The Progress Principle. Boston: Harvard        Business Review Press.

Deci. Edward L. (1995). Why We Do What We Do. New York: Grosset Putnam, Inc.

“Oregon school finds close relationships key to success,” The Oregonian (Portland) (5/7)

Wagner, Tony.“ Rigor Redefined.” Educational Leadership. October 2008, Volume 66, No. 2

Wagner, Tony. (2012). Creating Innovators. New York: Scribner