Redefining ‘rigor’

Tedd Wakeman said:

We’ve always defined, as an educational community, rigor as being a lot of hard drudgery, what we consider really hard work, taking engagement and interests completely out of the equation and saying, ‘If we see kids who are sitting at their desks and they’re just writing a ton or they’re doing a bunch of research, if they just look kind of upset, if they look like they are not enjoying themselves, then there is rigorous things going on in that classroom.’ That’s a real problem.

We need to stop defining rigor as busywork, as kids knuckling down to the pressure and the drudgery of school. At the end of the year, there is this huge binder of notes and diagrams from PowerPoint exhibits, stuff that kids worked all year on. I’ve talked to kids here who have produced an artifact like that. To the outside community, even in many ways to the inside community, that looks rigorous because, look at what you produced.

But when we talk to those kids, when we ask, ‘What are your retaining from this? What do you feel, what are some of the big concepts that you came away with, and how are you applying those in your life in your lives every day,’ they can’t tell you. They know that they did this thing and they got a good grade on it but they can’t tell you what they are going to do with that. And yet to the more traditional educational community, that’s viewed as rigor.

We would much rather define rigor as the pursuit of solving a really difficult task that you care about solving. And that persistence can be taught in that way as opposed to, ‘Yeah, let’s teach kids persistence by having them do this thing that they couldn’t care less about, but it’s really hard and just if you can survive it, that’s persistence.’


15 Responses to “Redefining ‘rigor’”

  1. Robert Pondiscio Reply July 17, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    <<<We need to stop defining rigor as busywork, as kids knuckling down to the pressure and the drudgery of school.

    OK, teachers. Raise your hand if your definition of rigor is "busywork." Anyone? How about "knuckling down to the pressure and the drudgery of school?"


    OK, would anyone like to offer a definition of "strawman?"

  2. I don’t think this is a straw man argument, Robert. I could point you to lots of folks – educators, policymakers, parents, etc. – who think that intellectual ‘rigor’ consists of doing lots of meaningless, low-level, often irrelevant thinking work. I believe you probably could too.

    You and I often disagree but I think we’re both strong advocates of intellectually-rich, challenging thinking work done by students, no? (as opposed, say, to the meaningless worksheets / textbook questions / practice problems / passive listening drudgery that my own kids get all too often)

    I want my kids’ brains s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d, not stupefied. I know many teachers do too. Yet our educational systems don’t seem to foster that kind of thinking work nearly as often as they should.

    • You haven’t been paying attention Scott. According to Common Core, PARC, and Arne Duncan “Rigor” means anything that will cause 60-90% of the students to fail. “Rigor” means ambiguous questions with no, or multiple correct answers, material which is beyond the scope of the course offerings, or developmentally inappropriate. This of course applies only to Public schools, as Charters, Cyber, and Private Schools will not be held to the same standards.

  3. Robert Pondiscio Reply July 17, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    I have a standing invitation — a desperate plea, really — to Alfie Kohn to take me to ONE of the huge number of schools he describes where he has seen kids sit in rows mechanically reciting what he derides as a “bunch o’ facts.” I suspect I will be waiting a long time before he deigns to take me up on it (either that or he knows those things exist only in movies about British boys schools circa 1936).

    So, yes, Scott please. If you can point me to “lots of folks” who think intellectual rigor consists of “doing lots of meaningless, low-level, often irrelevant thinking work” kindly do so.

    How many in “lots of folks” by the way? I’d say 20, but I’ll make it easier. If there are lots of folks who define rigor as busywork it should be easy to name, say, five.


    • Sorry, I’m not willing to call out educators personally by name. But if we ever get the chance, I’d love to walk through classrooms with you. Almost any school, anywhere. I think we’d have some really fun chats about what we see and how we think about it. Because almost everywhere I go – with a few exceptions here and there, either at the school level or at the individual teacher level – I still see a lot of mind-numbingly boring classrooms and apathetic kids. Am actually amazed you don’t. You must have the inside scoop that I don’t have!

  4. Robert Pondiscio Reply July 17, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    I see bad and boring teaching all the time. But I never — not even once — see INTENTIONALLY bad teaching practiced and defined as rigor.

    And that’s what rankles, Scott. Your Mr. Wakeman is presenting the idea that we bore kids on purpose. He implies that we do so and congratulate ourselves for practicing “rigor.” That’s nonsense, and I suspect you know it.

    • But we DO bore kids on purpose, Robert. We – educators, policymakers, parents – intentionally and deliberately decide to do the things that I mention above (such as meaningless worksheets / textbook questions / practice problems / passive listening drudgery) and then we call it ‘rigorous’ intellectual work. Those so-called ‘learning’ activities don’t happen by accident. They happen by design.

      As Richard Elmore has noted time and time again, we can’t even distinguish between intellectually-rigorous (i.e., challenging, interesting, meaningful, deep) learning work and that which pervades most classrooms most days. The intentionality lies in both the assignment of the work and the labeling…

      Let’s walk some classrooms together!

  5. Robert Pondiscio Reply July 17, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    I’m always up for classroom visits, Scott. But this has been a disappointing exchange. You are choosing to define rigor (or pass on approvingly someone else’s words defining it) as “drudgery” and “busywork” and insist that we do this on purpose and congratulate ourselves for it. All we have learned here is that there are certain methods of teaching of which you approve and everything else you define as drudgery. And it’s flat out insulting to suggest teachers bore their students intentionally, knowingly and congratulate themselves that they’re actually practicing rigor. Very haughty, my friend. And entirely unproductive.

    • Robert, weren’t you the one that just said on Twitter that ‘sunshine is the best disinfectant?’ As Collins & Porras remind us, in order to face a problem, we first have to be able/willing to identify the problem. But we can do that without shaming/blaming individuals. It’s a systems problem first and foremost.

      I don’t see teachers patting themselves on the back for drudgery and busywork (and I don’t think that’s what Wakeman is saying either). I see it as the daily norm, unrecognizable as such by the purveyors. I think Wakeman and many others – e.g., Elmore – concur on this point. Most educators CAN’T TELL THE DIFFERENCE between intellectually rigorous work and whatever it is that their students are doing most of the time. That’s the problem, not self-congratulatory but mistaken behaviors by educators.

      It’s not meant to be insulting. It’s meant to recognize the problem. What label(s) would you like to use instead? Maybe those will be better!

  6. The type of rigor that has been mentioned is all over YouTube. Search Nashville Prep and look at the video of 5th graders doing “rigor” to see an example of the stuff being mislabeled as rigor. Also, look at almost any student uploaded video of their boring class and you will see what many refer to as rigor with students bored out of their mind doing worksheets and textbook lessons.

  7. This is an interesting suggestion, and an even more interesting exchange of comments. contrasts the traditional meaning of rigor with the recent educational construct.
    Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics. In which case, yes we could use more clarity with the definition. Like other educators, Angela Lee Duckworth’s Ted Talk about grit & perseverance got me thinking more about rigor and the value of hard work. While I agree conceptually with the merits of overcoming challenges, I think this needs to be established in parallel with “mindset” training. Because the definition and application of rigor is debatable and inconsistent, I prefer the term vigor. Learners of any age will work tirelessly and vigorously on questions and projects that hold deeper personal meaning. in my simple way of thinking, rigor without meaning is not much different than breaking big rocks into little rocks with a hammer. Let’s keep this discussion going – it’s obviously necessary.

  8. I have to agree with both Scott and Robert. First off, the definition of rigor as defined in the dictionary has no place in education! I want my kids to vigorously attack problems that are relavent in the world today and have the perseverance and fortitude to succeed. As a substitute teacher this past semester, worksheets and direct instruction was the norm in MOST classrooms. Standardized testing and CCSS are not the answer to what I want to see my kids doing. Keep rigor with the medical examiner and the dead. Give my kids real world challenges any day!

  9. Anyone mentioned that “rigor” reminds us of “rigor mortis,” or is it just me?

  10. I’ve never defined “rigor” as drudge work. Rather, especially when I’m designing assignments, I think of it as rewarding work that allows creativity and requires a high level of thinking and focus for students. With a well-designed project, students can create an artifact they can be proud of and learn the area of curriculum that project is designed to teach with real retention. Why would teachers strive toward anything less?

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