By Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach
One 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.
, cited by Chris] appears to be making up her own definition. I hate the word rigor as applied to learning. http://i.word.com/idictionary/rigor
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.
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:
- They underwent the rigors of military training.
- the rigors of life in the wilderness
- They conducted the experiments with scientific rigor.
- 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?