Urgency, high expectations and rigour: Critical components of teaching and learning in New Zealand schools

Conversations and visits to classrooms around New Zealand over the past year have made me increasingly concerned about some of the teaching and learning occurring in schools. A student leaving intermediate school saying that all he learnt was how to make friends (note: I’m not denigrating the importance of social skills or the role that schools play in developing them – both are critically important – and I’m also certain there is a degree of hyperbole in this statement). The class where the content knowledge students were expected to learn over the term could realistically have been taught in a couple of lessons. The classroom where children are off-task or engaged in very low-level tasks, with seemingly little engagement or interest in the learning, or the expectation to be actively engaged in the activity.

These anecdotes raise questions about the sense of urgency, and the state of rigour, and teacher expectations in New Zealand classrooms.

I first came across the notion of urgency in education reading about the teaching practices promoted by US-based organisations such as Teach for America and so-called “no-excuses” charter schools. Urgency here refers to making the most of every moment that children are in school, to ensure that a maximum amount of time is dedicated to learning. While many of the US accounts led to a level of intensity in classrooms that seems to go a bit far, there is something to be said for building a class and school culture around a common commitment to high standards and the deepening of knowledge. Such a commitment makes the activities that occur in classrooms, be they explicit instruction, the incorporation of play-based learning, or problem-based, inquiry learning, highly intentional. It ensures that teachers have a clear sense of purpose and clearly defined expectations for each lesson, and that these are communicated to students, so that everyone is pulling together in the same direction.

Connected to this notion of intentionality, is that of teacher expectations. The Education Hub has previously discussed how teachers’ beliefs about their students and what they can achieve have a substantial impact on students’ learning and progress. Teachers who hold high expectations for all their students tend to employ more effective instructional practices, providing opportunities for all students to engage in tasks that promote higher order thinking. This requires that we are not only addressing teachers’ beliefs about their students but also equipping teachers with an understanding of what rigorous instruction and high standards look like, including the knowledge of how to design deep learning opportunities that are centred on rich content and cognitively demanding tasks.

Harvard Professor Richard Elmore in his work on the instructional core, suggests that the real accountability system in schools lies in the tasks that students are asked to do, and that too frequently, tasks lack rigour. Elmore uses the phrase ‘task predicts performance’. This means, that the work that students are being asked to do on a day-to-day basis is what ultimately will predict their achievement. When thinking about the rigour of teaching and learning taking place in schools, it is important to ask the following questions:

  • What is the level of cognitive demand in the tasks students are being asked to do each day?
  • What is the level of content that sits behind a particular task?
  • What is the level of student engagement and the level of thinking being asked of students?
  • Are the tasks that students are doing enabling them to operate at a high level of cognitive complexity?
  • How do teachers know what students are capable of doing and achieving, or what high-level complex tasks look like in any given subject at any given year level?
  • How are students being supported and scaffolded to engage in tasks in cognitively demanding ways?
  • Does the classroom environment and the actions of the teacher promote this?

It is essential that teachers and leaders are looking closely at the instructional practice, that is, the teaching and learning taking place in schools and asking tough questions about teachers’ expectations of their students and the level of urgency and rigour present in classrooms. One question that can help stimulate these critical reflections and discussions is: If you were a student in your classroom, and you did exactly what the teacher expected you to do, what would you know how to do?


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.