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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.

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Michael Maxson's picture
Michael Maxson
A Life Long Learner, and a teacher.

I will never in my 20 years of Education understand why, for the love of all creation, Educators chose the word "rigor" instead of just saying "challenging" if that's what they meant for it to mean all along when it comes to the classroom and curriculum.
I think "challenging" is a much better more positive word to describe lessons and curriculum. Rigor is very negative; you can't ignore the fact that it's synonymous with "cruelty" . The best part of 21st Century Education as I see it is ending cruelty, pain, and suffering in the world. Let's let "rigor" be something we read about in history.
It's almost like, my generation suffered, and now this generation needs to suffer too.
I find it interesting that this entry talks about David Foster Wallace, perhaps, if the world wasn't so "rigorous" to him when it came to his depression then he'd still be with us and not dead for suicide at age 46.

Lisa Saunders's picture

Michael Maxson, I couldn't disagree more with the assertion that rigor conjurs up the same image for everyone. You may recoil at the use of the word but not everyone associates rigor with cruelty, pain and suffering! FYI, ballet dancers reference rigor positively as part of artistic practice. What's probably important is to remember that 21 century educators address learners who have diverse views. Therefore, it really doesn't serve well to make assumptions that everyone thinks just like us. Just sayin'....

Michael Maxson's picture
Michael Maxson
A Life Long Learner, and a teacher.

Diversity is precisely why I don't like the word. Educators assume when a parent hears how good the rigor is in a class that it's a good thing, but when the non-educator parent looks up "rigor" they're going to see "cruelty", and isn't that one of the things we should be striving to end in the world.
Challenging, more productive, more vigorous, but not "rigor".

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

Rigor is not a synonym for cruelty. In fact, I find most that object to the word tend to choose the most negative connotation available to make their point. The use of the word "rigor" is most closely associated with "intellectual rigor," which we have used in science for a long time. The word "challenging" is problematic because making students read books in Swahili is challenging, but not rigorous. Vigorous is used mostly for physical activities, and seems to have been chosen by many simply because it rhymes with rigorous, which is a bad reason to use it.

Michael Maxson's picture
Michael Maxson
A Life Long Learner, and a teacher.

Rigor is a synonym for cruelty.
Look it up
Synonyms from
1. inflexibility, stringency. 4. cruelty.

There's no denying it; and putting "intellectual" in front of it makes it worse.
No wonder there's so much hate going around these days.

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

If we are going to apply this level of reasoning to omit use of certain terms, we're not going to have any terms at all. The term "rigor" as used in education comes from "intellectual rigor." It has nothing to do with cruelty. So why are we invoking this use of the term?

Invoking the most negative definition of a word in an argument is really not good discourse.

SarahKuhn's picture

I'm so glad you are calling attention to this term. I also prefer "challenge." On my blog I have a post about the word, applicable to all fields but framed in this case in the context of computer science. I've pasted it in below but you can also see it at

Here it is:
On Rigor: Gender and Computer Science

Curriculum changes designed to attract and retain women or other under-represented groups in computer science are sometimes decried, even by supporters of diversity, as a decline in the "rigor" of the program. The implication is that an alteration in the curriculum (to accommodate women) means a "dumbing down" of courses and of a program as a whole. In fact, it is neither necessary nor desirable to dumb down the curriculum. The most important changes we can make in CS curricula will retain a program's intellectual challenge while removing unnecessary barriers to participation and success.

Computer Science curricula can be "difficult" in different ways. To paraphrase Fred Brooks in his classic essay "No Silver Bullet," there are two types of "hard" that can be present in a CS curriculum--essential difficulty and accidental difficulty. The essential difficulties of CS are those that cannot be removed--the complexity of systems, the need for clear and logical thinking, and so forth. The accidental difficulties are those that are not intrinsic to work in the field--like bad pedagogy, unnecessary requirements for courses that few practitioners will ever use, isolation and the absence of mentoring, the "chilly climate" of many CS programs, and so on. We should be working to fix the accidental difficulties so that students can creatively and energetically tackle the essential challenges. This is NOT a dumbing down of courses or curricula.

The American Heritage dictionary defines "rigor" as strictness or severity, a harsh or trying circumstance, or a harsh or cruel act. In this context, it is tempting to see any loss of rigor as an improvement.

We should be clear that we are NOT lowering standards. We are removing unnecessary barriers and enhancing the qualities that make work in CS interesting and engaging. In other words, we are aiming to level the playing field.

[Why is this relevant to Thinking With Things? I write this as I sit in a symposium on electronic tangibles in computer science education. The faculty here generally believe that using robotics and other interactive materials is an effective way to engage and teach students, but they also struggle against the perception that these are "toys" and not serious. Yet if these materials remove some of the unnecessary barriers and help focus students' minds on the essential ideas, it's all to the good.]

Lisa Saunders's picture

Let's then as educators begin our discussion from a common starting point and look to the word's etymology: after all, we are commenting on "A New Definition" in contrast to the original meaning. We know that English (like most languages), certainly has many shades of meaning and nuances otherwise why would we need to teach Usage? Let's not forget that the article asks us readers "what do we mean" when we use the word? The American Dictionary of the English Language says RIG'OR, [Latin from rigeo, to be stiff. Strictness; exactness without allowance, latitude or indulgence. A diverse and well-rounded education includes applications of strict exactness without latitude or indulgence. Rigor is part of a balanced and healthy learning education. I don't know how the word has been mis-applied to infer cruelty. Challenging (a synonym for "difficult") has indeed become more widely used and popular it does not mean "exact".

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

We have been discussing the etymology for the last decade. I don't want to see education hang around on first base forever arguing the etymology of a word. That's a good way to get nothing done. Let's move on and define its characteristics, how it will benefit students, and how we can implement in classes.

Lisa Saunders's picture

John Walkup maybe you didn't read my post entirely. Scroll to the end to see how rigor benefits students.
P.S. I don't agree with you re: etymology. Looking to history, roots and origins helps us define essential characteristics as we move forward

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