Is Rigor Really Too Tough To Understand?

Obviously, my rhetorical question makes clear that I think it is not. I got into a conversation via Twitter with a fellow teacher about rigor. She had said that she prefers “vigor” in the classroom to “rigor.” Reasons given were that “rigor” was just an academic buzzword, that it is meaningless and and that it implies stiffness.

I disagree with this. I think rigor is quite easy to define and understand as well as identify. Here is a blog post about rigor and an AP Class that I think perfectly illustrates what rigor looks like. Having kids in an AP class read current event articles and then summarize them is not rigorous, at least not in and of itself. But, herein lies the difficulty with rigor for some people. If you have a group of students who had very low reading comprehension skills then this would be a very rigorous activity. I can think of some students for whom this would be extremely challenging. We would need to work on identifying the main point and how to put the important details in the summary without getting bogged down with less important details.

So, rigor varies by student. Here is another blog post, by the same author as previous link, which further clarifies. I think that one reason some teachers (not all, certainly) don’t like talking about rigor is because it isn’t a very concrete idea. It shifts and it requires you to think about the student and the content and it requires you to differentiate. A lot of teachers want to say, “Okay, so this activity is rigorous? Good, we’ll do this then.”

An administrator at my school recently said, “Rigor is built into the standards. If you’re teaching to the standards then you don’t need to worry about rigor.” I agree with this, generally speaking. However, I was dismayed to hear many teachers in my department say that they disagreed. There might be some standards that are less rigorous than others, but, in general, the standards that I see connected to my lessons are pretty rigorous. Example, Reading 2.6 “Critique the power, validity, and truthfulness of arguments set forth in public documents; their appeal to both friendly and hostile audiences; and the extent to which the arguments anticipate and address reader concerns and counterclaims (e.g., appeal to reason, to authority, to pathos and emotion).” This is a tough standard! I know that I will need to walk many, if not all, of my students through it many times to get them to approach it. Some will get it more quickly than others, I suppose. But, in general, I believe that if I am working to get students to critique arguements and break down the ways that the author makes that argument then it’s pretty certain I have a rigorous classroom.

Another way to look at rigor is through Bloom’s Taxonomy. In general, if you have students engaged in analysis, synthesis, or evaluation then I believe that they are working in a rigorous environment.

So, my Twitter friend said that she preferred vigor to rigor. I think that it should be vigor AND rigor. I don’t agree with setting them up as opposites or casting rigor in a negative light. She said that rigor is an academic buzzword and meaningless. It may be a buzzword, but that doesn’t make it bad. And, it is most certainly not meaningless.

One lesson I usually give to any of my English classes involves denotative and connotative meanings of words. Denotation is the literal meaning of the word. A snake is a legless reptile. Connotation is the figurative meaning of the word. A snake is someone you can’t trust, likely a thief for con artist. So, if I say, “Watch out! There’s a snake in the living room!” then some confusion is generated. Am I saying there is a dangerous reptile or a dangerous human?

In terms of rigor, it’s true that it means inflexible, harsh, stiff. That’s the denotation of the word. And, admittedly, this is not a term I want describing any of my teaching, lessons, or classroom. However, the connotation of rigor in an academic sense is different. Rigor can also mean demanding, challenging, and difficult. Navy SEALS engage in a rigorous six week training program that usually results in many people quitting or failing out of it. The path to the summit of the mountain was rigorous for everyone in the expedition and nearly killed a few of them. I submitted the candidate to a rigorous series of questions during that interview because I just had to be sure she was the right choice. In those sentences, it is the connotation of rigor as something that is challenging and tough. People are pushed to their limits by rigor, usually. Rigor will defeat you, sometimes.

For a few years, I was an avid cyclist and mountain biker. I loved mountain biking, especially. But, it is a very challenging hobby. Mountain bikers have to use much more of their body to stay upright. The core and arm muscles are used to navigate the bike over obstacles and stay balanced much more than on a road bike. In addition, you have to possess a lot of power in your legs to get uphill. Sometimes only momentum will carry you over the top of an incline. Losing momentum means you fall over or your back tire loses traction. So, you have be able to sustain climbing power for a long stretch of time and even be able to push out maximum effort over short distances. Off road trails can be unforgiving and very dangerous. The penalty for falling can be a long drop or an intimate encounter with sharp plants or rocks.

My point is that this is a rigorous activity. I had to train and exercise a lot to be able to endure some trails we went on. In my opinion, mountain biking is so rigorous that every mile on dirt equals roughly three on the road. In other words, a 10 mile mountain bike ride requires the amount of energy it takes to ride 30 miles on the road. The only people that disagree with this, I have found, are non-mountain bikers.

This does not mean that road biking is not rigorous! It is just a different kind of rigor. Biking on a flat road is not very rigorous, but it might be for a new rider. Going up one hilly street is rigorous, but for some people, it will barely get their heart rate over 100 bpm. It all depends on the ability of the rider.

So, back to the classroom. Rigor varies by student. And, I believe that another reason a few teachers dislike talking about rigor is because it requires work on the part of the teacher. You need to assess the students, determine their level, evaluate the lesson and determine if it is appropriately rigorous for the learner. I wouldn’t take a beginning mountain biker on a 10 mile dirt trail of steep single track switchbacks! So, I would have to find out how much experience the rider has, think about the trails and choose an appropriate one for us to ride. For teachers, a few of them want to have a single lesson that all students engage in that can be graded all the same way. But, it rarely would work out that way if you wanted to make sure that all students were engaged in rigorous study.

So, I think that rigor, for some people, is confusing and vague. But, it has to be since rigor changes depending on the person. But, for others, rigor is too much work. I think this applies to maybe 1 in 10 teachers, possibly 2 in 10. But, in any case, they are there. Combine these two groups, though, and I’m guessing you’re looking at anywhere from 5 to 7 in 10 teachers.

I think, further, that we all would agree that our lessons should challenge students. A good lesson makes a student think, not just recall. Reproducing dates, definitions, and so on, is not rigorous. Thinking about the dates and definitions probably is. A good lesson makes students use information to create new information. It forces them to use what they have learned and acquire a skill. I think every teacher wants their lessons to make their students grow and change. This is my definition of rigor: a lesson that challenges students to think new thoughts that cause them to acquire new skills and become better, more capable people. To evaluate a lesson for rigor, see if it does this. Will they have a new skill after the lesson? Or, at least, should they have a new skill? Will the lesson change them? Will it force them to do things they haven’t done before?

Put another way, consider video games. Some video games are very rigorous. I played a game called “Demon’s Souls” a lot last year. In one sense, it was simply difficult because, if you died, you lost any points you had accumulated. The points could be turned into new abilities. So, this was, sometimes, very frustrating. Also, all the monsters you killed came back to life and you were returned to the start of the level. Very, very frustrating. But, the rigor came in because you could avoid being killed if you played carefully. I recall that every single time I died, I thought, “Oops, yeah, I shouldn’t have done that. I deserved to die.” If I played carefully and intelligently, if I learned the moves of the enemies and remembered the layout of the level, I could get through. If I learned to use my abilities and moves well, I could dominate. However, I was playing several other games this year. They were not as rigorous. One reason was because death really didn’t matter in the game. You didn’t lose points, equipment, money, nothing. Heck, sometimes you even started basically where you died. I didn’t have to think about my strategy. I could just wade into conflict and see what happened. Die? Start again. No worries.

Rigor makes you think. Rigor makes you plan. Rigor makes you learn and grow. Is that really tough to understand?


5 thoughts on “Is Rigor Really Too Tough To Understand?”

  1. How do you feel about trigger, bigger and ditch-digger as descriptions of curriculum? Rigor is often associated with things that are stiff and unyielding, too. It's only semantics. Or–rather–rhetoric. Saying something is rigorous doesn't make it so.

    I tend to agree w/ your colleague who says the word has lost meaning through over-use, and is now a tarted-up synonym for “more difficult” or “accelerated” rather than deeper, richer, applied knowledge and skills.

    Good piece. Thanks for writing it.


  2. Hi Nancy, thank you for the compliment and for reading the blog. I think you and I agree in principle but are disagreeing over semantics. I think it matters what you name things. As a Language Arts teacher, I believe precision in language use is important. So, I don't think it is a good idea to use any old word to describe curriculum. I agree that rigor means stiff and unyielding. But it also means challenging. I also completely agree that calling something rigorous doesn't make it so and I was hoping my examples showed that.

    If people think rigor just means “more difficult” then we should correct them, not come up with some new word to throw around and over use. I don't think vigor is a better description of my curriculum or my instructional strategies. In fact, I think it could be dangerous to us because it can easily be construed to mean that teachers just need to be more vigorous, ie. louder or moving more. Or that students need to be doing more activities. Neither of those will make for better learning, automatically. I was hoping that what I wrote clearly showed that rigor is and should be understood to mean work that makes students push themselves, work that changes them and makes them more capable. It's not just harder. And, if rigor has lost meaning then I hope to reinvest it with meaning by using it correctly.

    It's possible that since I haven't attended the teaching conferences where this idea is being touted that I am misunderstaning it. You mentioned to me on Twitter that it was from a conference. If there was a link to something I could read further about this I would like to do so. As it is, I feel like rigor, used correctly, is a great thing to have in the classroom.


  3. Why would educators choose a word like rigor? Out of all the words in the English language… guys come up with that? That is the best you have to offer?

    You get an F.


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