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How a Rigorous IB Education Comes to Life at SCIS

Written by Derek Luebbe, Head of School at SCIS Pudong

I often hear teachers and parents use the word rigor. We say we want students to experience more rigorous work or that a particular text, assignment, or course isn’t rigorous enough. Yet, the word rigor means very different things to different people. That’s a complex question for any school community to resolve– especially SCIS – where we value the partnership between parents and the classroom.  

The better we can share an understanding of rigor, the better we partner to help students succeed. 

There are people in education who value rigor as the “pursuit of something difficult” because we link this pursuit with a character-building experience. But, from a school perspective, we strive for something more. There are many academic tasks that are difficult but fall short of being focused on learning and growth. For example, writing an essay with your other hand is a challenging task.

However, it does not build in the student the confidence to write better. Instead, if the student is taught to continue writing with their dominant hand (strength) and taught techniques on how to improve speed and focus, then the student has grown. So, let’s spend our student’s time on something better. 

In his essay “A new definition of rigor”, Brian Sztabnik defined it well: 

“Rigor is the result of work that challenges students' thinking in new and interesting ways. It occurs when they are encouraged toward a sophisticated understanding of fundamental ideas and are driven by curiosity to discover what they don't know.” 

How does this relate to us – as an SCIS Community – in our understanding of rigor?  And, more specifically, how does the IB philosophy shape our understanding of rigor and the work that students encounter?  

First and foremost, it’s good to start with this reality. If you ask an IB student if their classes are difficult, you should settle down in your chair for a 20-minute lecture of “Oh my gosh… and here’s how…” As a father of three children who graduated from three different IB schools, I can attest to being on the receiving end of this conversation often.  The IB is certainly difficult – but let’s not celebrate that at face value. Being difficult doesn’t make it rigorous. 

What is rigorous (and difficult!) is the IB’s focus on inquiry in helping students construct their own learning. Memorizing tons of facts or writing a huge essay to summarize a book are both difficult pursuits – but there’s no student ownership there. The IB focuses on students developing and sharing their own understanding of the material through a very different (and difficult!) skill of shared inquiry and reflection. 

Constructing one’s own knowledge is a skill that many students struggle with when they first enter the IB. Teachers often will hear things like “Just tell me what you want me to write” because a student’s current understanding of school is to get the question “right”. Put another way, writing a 500-word essay might be difficult for some but writing 250 words concisely while expressing a point of view backed up by evidence is far more rigorous. 

That’s a big reason the IB is leading the globe in international education. With its powerful continuum of student-centric learning, the IB programme develops well-rounded individuals who are better prepared for higher education and life beyond. 

Globally recognized, with a presence in over 150 countries and over 5,000 IB World Schools, the IB is here to stay. Top universities across the world recognize the true “rigor” of the IB. The program provides an international education to enable young people to understand better and manage the complexities of our world, while simultaneously providing them with the skills and attitudes to take action to improve it.  

Such an education was grounded in the belief that the world could be made better through an education that focused on concepts, ideas, and issues that crossed disciplinary, cultural, national, and geographical boundaries.   

In order to achieve this, it requires us to rethink our concept of rigor.  


SCIS. Truly International. 

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