Rigor and Relevance in the CI Classroom

Robert Harrell on Rigor and Relevance in a CI-based foreign language curriculum

This was posted on Ben Slavic’s PLC on Mar 6, 2014, in response to a teacher who was having problems getting approval for her high school Russian curriculum  from the University of California reviewers. The reviewers cited a lack of rigor, among other traditional complaints against CI.

As far as rigor and relevance are concerned, you can’t beat what the US Department of State has to say on the matter. Here’s the URL to the relevant page –

Include in your course outline the Department of State definition – and reference the source with the URL. Then if you get any resistance you can ask if the chair disagrees with the US Department of State and why.

There are four elements of rigor:
1. Sustained Focus – you ask students to do that daily by being physically and mentally present and attending to the class conversation (see jGR)
2. Depth and Integrity of Inquiry – you pursue topics in depth by remaining with a subject until students have explored it satisfactorily
3. Suspension of premature conclusions – there are many ways that TCI meets this
4. Continuous testing of hypotheses – it is here that TCI is far superior to any grammar-driven method; students are asked to test their hypotheses about the language continuously as they hear the language and formulate ideas about how it is constructed (Grammar-driven methods tell students without giving them opportunity to test their own hypotheses)

In their discussion of this, the Department of State includes asking “mediative questions”, which means we ask open-ended questions that encourage students to think about their thinking instead of just producing a single correct answer.

Relevance is addressed as well. Here are elements of relevance:
1. prior intellectual or emotional connection to content – how can they not have it if the topic is about them; we also explore topics in which students are interested (I have talked extensively about films and Harry Potter, for example) and with which I as the teacher have a connection that I can mediate to my students. (Yes, students will often get excited about something because the teacher is excited.)
2. It is connected to real life – again a “duh!” for TCI
3. It is appropriately timed – not much we can do about this one except observe, for example, that first and fifth periods are not optimal times for class
4. It actively engages or involves us – we demand that students become engaged; we can also plan activities that are both comprehensible input as well as engaging
5. Someone else has a contagious passion or enthusiasm – we should teach our passions; I’m sure that part of the reason Ben’s students engage with “Le Petit Prince” is because Ben loves it so much, and they have a prior connection to him; I once had a student tell me that she wasn’t terribly interested in the Middle Ages but enjoyed my unit because I was so obviously enthusiastic about it
6. It is novel – which brings us to the much-maligned flying blue elephants; there are, however, other ways to make something novel

After you have defined rigor and relevance, you have a solid basis for showing that your syllabus meets both criteria. Part of the problem in education is that so many people use terms like rigor and relevance as buzz words without ever defining them. Consequently they don’t really know what they mean by the term, and they don’t have a common ground for discussion because the words can mean different things to different people. By defining them in your syllabus, you take away the ambiguity and ability of the administrator/department chair to change the meaning during discussion.

Another thing you can do is go to the ACTFL Performance Guidelines for K-12 Learners as well as the World Language Standards for California Classrooms Kindergarten through Grade Twelve and ask the administrator/department chair to work with you exactly where a third or fourth-year language class ought to fall in a sequence that is designed to take 13 years to achieve Intermediate Mid proficiency. Become really familiar with what students should be able to do at Novice High because that’s where they should be at the end of three years – and not even consistently there in all topic areas. Your administrator/department chair has unrealistic expectations, even according to ACTFL (which is often overly optimistic). Also be sure to ask the administrator/department chair what he means by “lower-level college work”. You want him to think as deeply about his assumptions as you do; plus you want to be certain that he is providing you with the “rubric” by which he is judging your work.