As a researcher whose work leverages organizational theory to better understand education policy implementation and reform, the question of rigor and relevance is always front of mind. Yet, for much of my career, I thought of this balance mainly as a standard for my research. I realized belatedly, how much this same standard applies to my teaching. As a consequence, I would argue that my teaching has only been half as good as it has needed to be. For me, rigor is a particular kind of push to answer a question or solve a problem in ways that require one to confront prior expectations, consider alternative explanations, and provide systematic evidence for answers or solutions one ultimately believes are correct. Relevance is a call to make sure those questions and answers or problems and solutions can be the basis for actionable improvements in real-world issues facing schools. In my classroom, I’ve always aimed to push students to think more deeply and critically and to leverage appropriate conceptual and analytical tools to do so. I’ve wanted students to leave my class not simply knowing more facts but being able to think differently — to be smarter. I think this aim speaks mainly to ‘rigor’. Speaking to relevance would mean helping students see more clearly how to leverage ‘being smarter’ in service of the problems they care most about. This does not just mean by way of application to a case. It also means helping students make ongoing connections to specific problems of practice, educational initiatives or entrepreneurial ventures they view as core to their professional work. This, I have discovered, is one of the most challenging aspects of the work I do to improve my own teaching and to improve learning experiences for students. This also is an aim, I hate to admit, I may fall short of more often than I would like. Still, this is a challenge with the continual refinement of my craft that I must rise to meet so that not only my students are changed for the better in my classroom, but I am as well.

Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell is Associate Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Each morning of Teaching and Learning Week at HGSE, we’re sharing a short personal essay from an Ed School faculty member. For complete details, visit the Teaching and Learning Week homepage online

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