Saturday, September 17, 2011

Rhetoric of rigor

Tougher standards.

Higher standards.

Raise the bar.


For too long education systems have bought into the rhetoric that confuses harder with better. It's as if some brainiac woke up one morning and decided we can "save our schools" by ratcheting up standards for kids that educators already have a hard time coercing into learning what distant authorities believe to be important.

The underlying message here is that school is something that must be done to kids. When we see learning like this, is it any surprise that we justify the use of what Frank Smith called "the intrusive mass of unnecessary external controls in which teaching and learning have become embedded, including testing, grading, and contrived competitiveness"?

Under the tyranny of this system, the adults tend to focus mostly on what the students fail to learn, rather than on what they are learning, which likely has more influence on their lives. In other words, we are drowning in the deficiency model of Schooling (with a capital S).

Under the tyranny of this system, children come to learn that learning is a chore, or as Frank Smith puts it:
The main thing we learn when we struggle to learn is that learning is a struggle.
It's time we put rigor in the grave where it belongs and liven up our vocabulary for learning with a more preferable word: vigor.

Where rigor may demand compliance, vigor brings engagement. And where there's interest, achievement follows.


  1. I like this thought. I also feel personal frustration because the rigor compromizes my thoughts as an educator. I feel whispers of inadequacy when I contrast myself to teachers with tough reputations. I'll question my reluctance to send homework or grade. I question my preference to send a student out for recess rather than crack the whip and keep them on the task they are struggling with. I look back over all the years I worried that I might grade too easily. I could go on and those of you teaching in a classroom could elaborate and contribute to this theme.

    Learning in our current undifferentiated, crowded, over-scheduled, and uniformily assessed environments is hard enough for young people. We cope with the environmental insanity by pretending it is normal or neccessary. We define ourselves as inadequate educators because we cannot get everyone to meet the rigorous standards. Worse, like military strategists we dispassionately calculate collateral damage and acceptable casualty rates. When there is learning in our rooms we devalue vigor and measure it against rigor, "Sure it was fun, but did they learn anything?"

  2. +infinity

    I have long said I detest (pun intended) the word "rigor" and all that it actually means. Vigorous is better by far. I like challenging people to go look up the definition of "rigor" and then tell me if that is what they really mean.

    Harder is not better, more is not better, BETTER is better.

  3. I go with a different perspective--reclaiming the word for teachers. There are so many bad definitions--let's make it what it needs to be. When I talk with policy makers, etc. they are going to talk rigor, so let's make it ours. After all, rigor really is about teaching kids to learn at higher levels. It's not about harder work, more work, extra work, or something only for "honors students". It's about starting where a student is, and helping them move forward. Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels. It's not that awful dictionary definition (how many times have we told students something is so much more than the dictionary definition). I write on this all the time over at my


Follow by Email