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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Older girl in the library reaching for a book off the shelf

You would think that it would be more prevalent than it is. But it appears only four times in the Common Core State Standards. Why has a word that is mentioned so little caused such dread, anxiety, and confusion among teachers?

I'm talking about rigor.

When We Say Rigor, What Do We Mean?

Comb through all 66 pages of the ELA standards, and you will find it hiding amid larger conversations about analyzing author's choice, evaluating sources, and writing arguments. Look in the math standards, and you will not find it at all.

Yet rigor is all the buzz:

  • "Our lesson must be more rigorous."
  • "We must increase the rigor of our assessments."
  • "Does this book possess the necessary rigor for that grade level?"

These are all things that I have heard at conferences, in faculty meetings, and through conversations with colleagues. It is a term used often, but I am still not sure if it has been clearly defined.

Some mistakenly assume that rigor means making things more difficult. Others believe it means piling on the work. A few say that they can't define rigor, but they know it when they see it.

If teachers are to achieve rigor, we must aspire to something more specific. Too bad the dictionary is of little help:

1. (a) Harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment: severity. (b) The quality of being unyielding or inflexible. (c) An act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty.
2. A tremor caused by a chill.
3. A condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable.
4. Strict precision or exactness.

It is this understanding that has led to the push-down and pile-on syndrome. College-level books are now being taught in high schools. Middle school students are tackling works and ideas once assigned to high school students. Now, 20 minutes of homework for elementary kids has become two hours of cruelty.

Rigor is not defined by the text -- it comes from what students do. It is not standard across a curriculum -- it is individual to each student's needs. It is not quantified by how much gets crammed into a school day -- it is measured in depth of understanding.

Rigor is a result, not a cause.

Rigor and David Foster Wallace

For proof, we need look no further than the great 20th-century novelist, David Foster Wallace. In 1994, he taught English 102 (Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction) at Illinois State University. His syllabus does not feature the heavyweights of literature that are recommended by the Common Core. No Hamlet. No Crime and Punishment. No Canterbury Tales.

Instead, his required texts were Mary Higgins Clark's Where Are the Children?, Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs, Stephen King's Carrie, and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, among others. Interesting that a writer known for being a little pretentious might have known a thing or two about rigor. In the syllabus, Foster-Wallace writes:

Don't let any lightweightish-looking qualities of the texts delude you into thinking this will be a blow-off-type class. These "popular" texts will end up being harder than more conventionally "literary" works to unpack and read critically.

There it is. 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.

Foster-Wallace makes a point in his syllabus to say that his course will not be what many would expect: "heavy-duty lit-crit or Literary Theory." Instead, he has the broader and more practical aim to develop students that can. . .

. . . read fiction more deeply, to come up with more interesting insights on how pieces of fiction work, to have informed intelligent reasons for liking or disliking a piece of fiction, and to write -- clearly, persuasively, and above all interestingly -- about stuff you've read.

Let us aspire to something greater than making difficult work for our students. Let's take them to that intersection of encouragement and engagement, where they confront ideas and problems that are meaningful. Let's stretch their thinking. Let's unleash their sophistication. And let's foster a love of deep knowledge.

Was this useful? (7)

Comments (39) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

John Walkup (@jwalkup)'s picture
John Walkup (@jwalkup)
Education Researcher, Consultant, and Grant Writer

Heidi, how about providing a bit more detail in your comment? None of us know to whom you are responding, or what about.

Debra R. Lamb, Ed.D.'s picture

Rigor = productive struggle, but not to the point of frustration. Through this productive struggle, students learn deeply. Teachers provide scaffolds when they observe a student moving from productive struggle towards frustration, but only those scaffolds that will support continued productive struggle.

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

YES! I love how you phrase it, Debra. The role of the teacher is to provide scaffolded learning situations to maintain productive struggle.

John Walkup (@jwalkup)'s picture
John Walkup (@jwalkup)
Education Researcher, Consultant, and Grant Writer

I love both Debra's and Brian's take on the definition of rigor and role of teaching.

Amy Materne's picture

Great article Brian! Thanks for bringing up an important topic in education to spark discussion. Debra, you nailed it on the head! I, too, believe that rigor should require a deeper thought process and understanding of the concept. I agree that the line should be drawn at the point of frustration. In addition to this, that line is different for different students. Rigor, in and of itself, varies from one student to the next, as well as, one topic to the next. For example, if I excel in math but Suzy excels in reading, then our levels of rigor will be different for those subjects. In my opinion, this is the great aspect of it. I can tailor the same lesson based on ability and require my students to dive deeper based on their understanding and depth of knowledge. Thus supporting Debra's definition - a productive struggle - depending on the child. Thanks to all for the interesting read!

Lori's picture

I found this article to be very informative. Like many other educators, I am well aware of the overuse of the word RIGOR. This article does a great job trying to define such a difficult word in education today.

MShelow's picture
1st grade teacher Queens NY

Could someone PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE send this article to the testing companies who give 5th grade reading passages and questions to 3rd graders on standardized tests then have all the politicians moan about failing schools, teachers and students? Authentic tasks, authentic critical thinking lets students experience actual rigor. Right now it's a filthy word because it's so misused and damaging to students and teachers alike.

A. Huntsman's picture

I really enjoyed this article and found it to be extremely informative. Rigor is an important topic in education and this article so clearly defines it. I agree that some teachers may think rigor means making things harder or giving more work, but rigor is different for each student. I will be sharing your definition of rigor with my colleagues. "There it is. 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." I believe the word rigor is overused and misused, but this article defines it brilliantly. Great article Brian!

B Weiss's picture

Your statements truly resonate with me. I have taught for over 25 years and have struggled to maintain true critical thinking in my classroom and to hold high expectations for all of my students. Designing a rigorous curriculum and helping students be successful in a rigorous learning environment is a challenge, not only in its development but in its acceptance by all parts of the school community.
To many school systems, creating a rigorous curriculum means adding certain courses to a student's schedule or insuring that students achieve a certain score on a standardized test. However, designing a successfully rigorous curriculum must come from insuring that teachers embrace the importance of developing critical thinking skills in their students, that schools and classrooms have the resources to encourage critical thinking activities, and that students are taught the importance of being able to think critically and are seen as able to achieve these skills. In a rigorous classroom students are engaged in their own learning. They are debating and asking questions. They are given the opportunity to explore in more depth topics and issues that interest them. They are writing and using other forms to express their ideas. They are striving to meet high expectations. In a rigorous classroom there are computers and the space to move around as a learning activity warrants. In a rigorous classroom there is freedom for both the student and the teacher to explore, to invent, to try new things, and to be wrong. In a rigorous classroom there is time, again for the student and the teacher. There is time for the student to develop the variety of skills that are needed to learn and demonstrate mastery and time for the teacher to plan, implement, and evaluate a successfully rigorous curriculum.

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