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Professional Learning

Powerful Teaching with the Rigor and Relevance Framework

9 Min Read
Rigor Relevance Framework Hero2

When I became managing partner of the Center for Model Schools, some of my colleagues in the public education world asked me, “What’s that?” I shared with them that we’re part of HMH, and they might be familiar with our annual Model Schools Conference. But when I said, “You know, rigor, relevance, relationships,” many of them responded with, “Oh yeah, that’s been around for a while.”

That response tells me two things: one, our legacy and current work means something to many educators. They need frameworks and entry points to understand how to help more children engage in deep learning that prepares them for college and careers. And two, as we move forward at the Center for Model Schools, we need to rethink what the three R’s mean in these increasingly complex times for public education and our society.

The Need for the Rigor/Relevance Framework

The Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships framework was designed at a time when the challenge of public education was reasonably clear. Since the advent of the standards movement, educators have faced enormous pressure for students to pass state standardized tests. The federal government, state departments of education, local politicians, media, local business and civic communities, realtors, and of course, parents, all look at these scores as indicators of school success.

While standardized tests as an end-all-be-all metric has waned as schools have recognized the value of social and emotional learning and the need to address the whole child, tests still have outsized importance in the daily rhythm of schools and systems.

Many districts have gone beyond such standards and embraced Career Technical Education (CTE), Advanced Placement (AP), dual credit, and other measures to show how they’re preparing students for college and career. Educators are hungrier than ever to show that standardized test scores may be a necessary measure of student achievement, but they’re not a sufficient goal to organize around.

The Rigor, Relevance, Relationships framework provides a great recipe for schools to follow in order to increase student learning and achievement. And, as most good cooks know, a recipe is just a starting point that should be modified according to local ingredients, the time of year, and taste preferences. At The Center for Model Schools, we’re going to start an experimental kitchen to update and revise the three R’s framework, and who knows, maybe at Model Schools we’ll even have a Top Chef™️ contest.

Breaking Down the Rigor/Relevance Framework

The Rigor/Relevance framework is a tool developed by the Center to examine and improve curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and is based on the two dimensions of higher standards and student achievement. Those two dimensions are the Knowledge Taxonomy and the Application Model.

In essence, our framework helps teachers understand how to engage students in deeper learning. It’s not enough to just know facts; students need to be able to apply information to solve complex problems. After all, what’s the value of school if a student can just use Google?

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The quadrants pull together the rigor and relevance dimensions:

  • Quadrant A represents simple recall and basic application of knowledge.
  • Quadrant B represents applying the knowledge across a variety of situations.
  • Quadrant C represents more complex thinking but without a broader context and in one discipline.
  • Quadrant D embraces higher levels of knowledge and their application to real-world, unpredictable situations that involve more than one discipline.

Rigor and Relevance Examples

It’s important that educators think of the quadrants as entry points for different students. Not all students can engage in quadrant D work immediately, but should be able to get there eventually.

Let’s take an example from fourth-grade math. The standard is: Draw angles (right, acute, obtuse) and identify in two-dimensional figures. A teacher then might construct a lesson with the following components, depending on students' grasp of the concept:

  • Quadrant A: Use marshmallows and toothpicks to create a variety of angles.
  • Quadrant B: On a school scavenger hunt for real-world examples of angles, use iPads to take photos and describe each angle with your learning partner.
  • Quadrant C: Analyze shapes with incorrect angle measurements. Explain how the measurements are incorrect and provide recommendations for ensuring accuracy.
  • Quadrant D: The community has determined the slide on the local playground is too dangerous due to the number of injuries reported. Based on your understanding of angles, design a solution for a slide that would reduce or eliminate injuries.

It’s clear that quadrant A is the easiest and will take the least amount of time, both for the students and the teacher. The quadrant D example requires multiple skills that not all fourth graders will have, including analysis, communication, and the ability to develop a new solution. The challenge for educators is not to jump right to quadrant-D work or to stop after quadrants A or B, but to scaffold their instruction so that all students eventually engage in higher-level, rigorous, and relevant learning.

One of the key challenges for educators then becomes measuring student progress towards rigorous standards. As state standardized tests are still the public measure of school performance, educators have to make sure they’re using other kinds of data to determine whether students are making progress towards standards.

Grade-level assessments designed by teachers and district leaders are one great source of data. Regular industry-developed benchmark assessments of growth are another. Two more that I used extensively when I was in schools were collaborative review of student work in professional learning communities and walk-throughs where you observe lessons and talk to students about their learning.

All of these data-based decision-making strategies should be used at different times throughout the year to understand whether students are learning what teachers are teaching, and whether teachers are teaching what students should be learning.

Why Is Rigor Important in the Classroom?

At its core, the three R’s framework and accompanying rigor, relevance, engagement, and relationships rubrics give educators a starting place to design instruction and assess student progress. The starting point is rigor, one of those terms that sparks debate in the K–12 world. In too many schools, rigor in the classroom is just more stuff: more homework, more worksheets, more exams. Yet, in today’s increasingly complex world, we know that our young people need to make sense of tons of information that’s coming at them through multiple mediums. The three components of rigor—thoughtful work, high-level questioning and academic discussion—don’t ask teachers to add more to a student’s plate. Rather, they push educators to make intentional decisions about the content students are learning, how they integrate that content, and how they engage with others to show their mastery.

As I mentioned above, when I was a superintendent, I used to ask teachers, “If kids can Google it, why teach it?” Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe that students need to learn basic facts and figures. My question wasn’t meant to suggest that something shouldn’t be taught. Rather, I was pushing teachers to consider why they would spend valuable time on something. Recalling something from rote memory may be a necessary step for learning, but it’s not sufficient for mastery.

How Does Relevance Fit into the Framework?

Relevance in the classroom is all about meaningful work, authentic resources, and learning connections. To my mind, this may be the most important aspect of the three R’s framework, given the need to ensure culturally responsive practices that engage students from all different backgrounds. Relevance asks teachers to understand who their students are in the world and design lessons that students can see themselves in.

When my older son was in high school, he took a media studies class. We watched various news channels at night to see how the issues of the day were being covered. He was forced to look at things from different sides and then had to figure out which perspective was more credible than the other and why. This kind of authentic engagement enabled him to make connections among multiple resources and make decisions about how he should move through the world as he was about to enter college. He learned the value of understanding issues from different perspectives, which is an essential life skill. This kind of intentional learning has helped him embrace his future on his own terms, which is exactly the purpose of education, in my view.

What Makes Relationships So Important?

Relationships are the heart of teaching and learning. As Mary Helen Immordino Yang describes, how students feel when they’re in class, interacting with peers and teachers, can make all the difference in their learning and achievement. Relationships are all about making connections, having compassion, and showing vulnerability. And this goes for adults as well as students!

When I was superintendent of schools in Stamford, Connecticut, one of my favorite leaders was Mary Jo Pittoni, a former Teacher of the Year who worked for me as the director of professional development. She once told me about how she would stop a lesson midstream if she knew it wasn’t working. Students know when things aren’t going well in class, and for them to show their own vulnerability and be actively engaged, they need models.

I’ve also seen how some high-performing students in advanced classes are afraid to ask for help. They’ve always been told that they’re smarter than others and things often come easy to them. So when they struggle, it doesn’t jive with what they think others expect from them, and they’ll hide it rather than open up and ask for help.

Teachers who build strong relationships with students help them make connections to the content and to other students and adults. They show compassion for students’ lived experiences while also having high expectations for their learning. Today, the need is more important than ever for adults and students to connect with each other in an increasingly diverse and divisive world. Teachers can make all the difference in a child’s life when they show students that they matter.

The Future of Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships

The Rigor and Relevance framework has evolved over time and will continue to evolve as we absorb new ideas about how children learn best and how educators improve their practice. Just as I had to learn how to cook vegetarian meals when my oldest child decided to no longer eat meat at the age of seven, at The Center for Model Schools we’re constantly figuring out how we can grow with the times. Yet, no matter what dish you’re making, which students you’re teaching, or whatever standards you’re designing your lesson to achieve, there are foundational elements.

The concept of rigor, relevance, and relationships in the classroom has changed and will continue to change in the future. But there’s no doubt that engaging all students in high-level instruction that's fun and relates to their own lives will stand the test of time.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Join more than 5,000 educators in 100+ sessions at the 31st Annual Model Schools Conference in Orlando, Florida, from June 25–28, 2023, to gain greater insight on how to positively impact student outcomes.

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