By Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

RigorOne thing I have come to appreciate about the Voices from the Learning Revolution bloggers is they know how to stir the pot. Chris Preston’s latest post, Can Learning Be Engaging AND Rigorous? not only stirred up the stew but raised some steam.

It all began with a Tweet. I tweeted Chris’ post out, and then my buddy and fellow PLP leader Dean Shareski sent me a reply (left).

Dean’s Tweet to Me

I came back with something like, “Don’t tell me — go leave a comment.” And Dean did.

Barbara [Blackburn, cited by Chris] appears to be making up her own definition. I hate the word rigor as applied to learning. There’s nothing there I want when it comes to a classroom.



Dean Didn’t Stop There
He took it one step further and posted both text and a podcast over on his own blog. Chris’s reflection apparently struck a Shareski trigger point. We might say that my friend Dean is very rigorous in his definition and interpretation of rigor:)

In Defense of Rigor

So I began to think about Dean’s reaction and decide to do a little digging around the word rigor. Dictionary definitions are a wonderful place to start when trying to understand a concept, but then one has to look a little deeper. Right off the bat I found that Dean was in good company with his view on rigor in education. Read this piece by Alfie Kohn who likens rigor to Feel Bad Education. Kohn describes rigor as a cult and links it to the loss of joy in education.

Seriously? Rigor a cult? As I read Kohn’s article, I sensed more than ever the need for collegial conversation among educators to develop a common understanding about some of our most common phrases. Too often when we  use words and phrases like engage, on task, professional development, assessment and yes, rigor, we assume everyone has assigned the same meaning to the word. But that just isn’t true.
To me, rigor means depth. It means that the assignment, book, class or task will be cognitively challenging. That I will be stretched. That consideration has been given on the part of the instructor to make sure that this work is going to produce deep interaction with the content — the kind that causes me to think hard and make learning stick. When I think “wow, this is rigorous,” I’m convinced I will be a better person because of the experience.
Now rigor can be done poorly — just like differentiation, PBL, homework, accountability and 21st Century teaching and learning can be done poorly. I think too often in education we judge a concept by our perception of the failed examples we find — maybe because excellence occurs less often than mediocrity. Or maybe it’s because some of us gravitate toward the negative and some toward the positive — the glass half empty or full syndrome. But rigor can also be done well and often rigor occurs when it is tied to passion, social learning, and collaboration. The very kind of learning that occurs when technology is used well in instruction.

Common Understanding

So if the problem is that we’re lacking much common understanding in our educatorese, then conversations like Chris and Dean are having are healthy and exactly the reason we need to be blogging more and tweeting less. Blogging can be an example, in my mind anyway, of rigor among educators. Twitter has its place. I talk about its many uses as part of an intentional network in my new book,  The Connected Educator. But Twitter rarely meets the rigor test. Blogging, on the other hand, holds the potential for deep thinking and cognitive stretching on the part of the author and the reader.
Nancy Lundsgaard highlights the problem of common understanding in this article.
Rigor is another one of those words we use all the time in education. But what exactly does it mean? Recently, a couple of board members challenged me to come up with a definition. It’s easier to start with what rigor is not, at least when we’re talking about learning. My dictionary uses words like “severity, rigidity, hardship” which, in education, might look like endless repetition, or long hours of filling out worksheets. 
Rigorous learning is not a measure of the quantity of material covered or the number of times it’s covered. Rigor isn’t increased graduation requirements, either, although they may be needed to prepare more students to enter college. Adding more courses, important as that may be, won’t necessarily increase rigorous learning in our classrooms.
So what is rigor? Think about chocolate or a moment. (Have I made your day?) You can read a dictionary definition of chocolate, but to really know what it is, you have to taste it. To really understand rigorous learning, you have to experience it. (And now we all must stop thinking about chocolate, please.) Fortunately, all of us have experienced rigorous learning at some point in our lives, at school, at home, at work.

Whipping Out My Thesaurus

If you use an unabridged dictionary or good thesaurus, you’ll find that when used in relation to education, rigor is most often connected to scholarship and the sort of exactness used in science. For instance —
Examples of RIGOR:
  1. They underwent the rigors of military training.
  2. the rigors of life in the wilderness
  3. They conducted the experiments with scientific rigor.
  4. a scholar known for her intellectual rigor

These synonyms for rigor show the wide shadings in meaning:

accuracy, affliction, asperity, austerity, conscientiousness, conventionalism, difficulty, exactitude, tenacity, thoroughness, traditionalism, trial, tribulation, vicissitude, visitation


Some of these are desirable traits or conditions – others not. The meaning of rigor is far from clear-cut, actually, when you look at the synonyms. But certainly it’s not a word reserved exclusively for cult chat.

Rigor – The Truth Told

In my rigorous search for truth I found a qualitative study  of one’s school’s definition of rigor, and a video on Edutopia about how to include rigor in project learning, integrated studies, and as a means to high academic standards. There’s also a report helping journalists understand the dynamics of academic rigor. As I immersed myself in the topic, I found myself puzzled by something that progressive education leader Deborah Meier said in a Hechinger report.
Educationese grows more and more Orwellian. “Reform” now means anything that unions and teachers find offensive, and “academic rigor” means anything that kids do. All the dictionary definitions of rigor – inflexible, harsh, stern – seem exactly the wrong habits for educating for 21st century work skills or in the habits of mind of a democratic citizenry. Getting to the bottom of things, healthy skepticism, intellectual patience, empathy, and respect for knowledge and expertise are more to the point. The best way to start tackling such a daunting task? I’d start by fostering them around children’s natural interests – uncovering, unpeeling their naïve notions about the world – until it becomes an unforgettable habit in the lifetime of learning that schooling introduces us to.
Is this and other pushbacks on the use of rigor because of the Newspeak way in which the definition is being stripped of all shades of meaning, leaving a simple dichotomy that divides supporters and opponents of the ed-tech revolution? In some way, isn’t that what we’re doing when we reduce rigor to a single dictionary definition? In Orwell’s 1984, (Meier’s reference above), Newspeak meant any attempt to restrict disapproved language by a government or other powerful entity. I hope that isn’t the direction we are going by calling for the disavowal of certain words — e.g., Stop Saying “Rigor” — rather than exploring their meanings and origins and how they apply to our profession.
I love the way Deborah Meier describes thinking and learning- the necessary “habits of mind”  for a democratic society to thrive. In my opinion, that is exactly the direction we need to be going to produce thinkers on par with those of Socrates, DaVinci, Emerson or Dewey. In an effort to accomplish this, shouldn’t educators be crying out to stop the lack of rigor rather than to restrict even the use of the word?
I am grieved at what I see in some classrooms where, in the name of technology and 21st Century pedagogy, teachers are producing kids who can use Web 2.0 tools to create a Glogster or reply in 140 characters to teacher-created queries but can’t construct a decent argument, solve a complex problem, or collaborate in virtual teams with individuals very different than themselves. If that’s not a dangerous lack of rigor — help me find the right word for it.

Rigor? Yeah, I am a fan.

So rather than closing the door on a conversation by making the use of a word like rigor a “thought-crime” –  how about if we shoot for cognitive dissonance, where the two beliefs cause conflict in one’s mind and as a result we have collegial discussions that “get to the bottom of things.” I mean, after all, isn’t that what rigor is about anyway?

11 Responses to “In Defense of Rigor”

  1. Dean Shareski October 28, 2011 at 6:40 pm #

    I’m all for cognitive dissonance but my issue with this word and others is that people latch onto it and end up using a variety of meanings so the word itself becomes useless. In the same way many avoid using 21st century learning because its either meaningless or means too many different things. If someone uses the word rigor I dont know what they mean. I still think there are better words and ways to attach to large frameworks like curriculum and learning. But that’s just me

  2. Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach October 28, 2011 at 6:56 pm #

    @Dean But isn’t that true of most buzz words in education? I think developing a common language needs to be priority #1 when folks start talking.

    Thanks for getting me thinking deeply about this though.

  3. Alfonso Gonzalez October 29, 2011 at 4:36 am #

    This is a great conversation! Ever since I started reading teacher blogs I’ve seen this happen a few times. Where the meaning of an educationese term gets so convoluted that people start to question it and question the way different people are using it. At first I have to admit that it drove me crazy.

    But it’s the questioning and these conversations that bring us all back on track. As I read this post it made me think that rigor as described here sounds a lot like wanting our students to br critical thinkers. Having these conversations is beneficial for all of us.

  4. Tami Shelley October 29, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    I believe we are all heading to the same point: academic strides of any depth much be couched in deeper discussion exactly like the ones on this blog concerning words like “rigor”! Academia at its best resulting in positive gains in educating students in the most excellent way possible (which is our common goal). A point I would like to make is the importance of educating our teachers in the classroom about these words so they use them to head in the right direction for children (and themselves). Unfortunately, teachers have very little time to research and discuss the meaning of these terms prior to being asked to used them in the classroom to bring about change in their instruction.
    Thank you for sharing and helping all of us grow.

  5. Elisa Waingort October 29, 2011 at 11:40 pm #

    I much prefer the use of the word vigor as opposed to rigor. Rigor has too many negative connotations and its variable use makes it problematic. Here’s a definition of vigor: 1. Physical or mental strength, energy, or force. 2. The capacity for natural growth and survival, as of plants or animals. 3. Strong feeling; enthusiasm or intensity. 4. Legal effectiveness or validity.
    Synonyms: vigor, dash1, punch2, verve, vim, vitality
    These nouns denote a quality of spirited force or energy: intellectual vigor; played the piano with dash; an editorial with real punch; painted with verve; arguing with his usual vim; a decreased mental vitality.
    What do you think? And the beat goes on…

  6. Becky Bair October 30, 2011 at 9:18 pm #

    I also jumped on the word rigor in my VFLR post:

    “In August I will be starting my fourteenth year of teaching, but the last few years have been no fun. There is very little creativity in teaching any more. We hear words like “rigorous” and “research-based,” not “student selected” or “engaging.””

    My disdain for the word comes because my experiences have been shaped by people who think the word rigor is synonymous with scripted lessons and standardized tests.

    Very few of the people who continue to use and reuse rigor present it the way you do, Sheryl. Far too many people believe that rigor is what I mentioned above rather than a manner of teaching that requires deep and higher levels of thinking that can’t be measured with bubbles on a scantron.

    Thanks for continuing this conversation. It’s one that needs to be shared with many, many people.

  7. Teacher April 1, 2012 at 12:39 am #

    Why would anyone choose a word that you can’t even define? Out of all the words in the human language….education chooses rigor. Simple solution: pick another word.

  8. Steven Stein June 27, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    When it comes to the idea of rigor I have noticed that my administration seems to want us to increase it, whatever that means. My take on the topic is similar to yours. It is all about depth not breadth. It’s not about assigning more work. It is about assigning work that causes the students to use the skills they have acquired to dive deeper into the task at hand. It should force them to become independent problem solvers. I have tried on many occasions to increase the rigor of my classes. In my experience this has become problematic on a few levels. Yes this is all good, and what we all as educators should be doing. But, if you do change your methods, be ready for some flak from parents, especially if you are in a district that is located in an affluent area where most parents have some sort of post-high school education. The big problem is the high stakes that grades have on a student’s future. Many parents hold these letters we assign students as the end all tell all about their child’s worth. If they do not get all A’s and get into “that college,” life will be over. New pedagogy and an increase of the rigor can mean new things and new experiences. This means that some students will not respond in a way that had been expected of them in the past, and where they might have gotten an A, they may get a B. When this happens, be sure that the kids and the parents will talk, and your class will be avoided, or you might even have your intent questioned. (Can you believe that a parent actually though I was out to ruin their child’s future because I was giving them the B they earned?) People don’t like change. All it takes is a few parent complaints to squash new challenges you present to the students. In my experience, without the support of your administration, counselors, and colleagues, the parents get what they want. Unfortunately, the A is more important to them than the depth of learning. Rigor is a great idea and increased rigor in our classrooms is something we all should strive for. Just be ready for the complaints and make sure before you change everything that you have full support of your administration, colleagues, and the counselors at your school. You may not have had this problem, or you may have found a solution. Either way, do not let it sway you from doing the right thing by your students.


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