On Rigor

I started this blog post after abandoning Monday night’s #sschat (for those not on Twitter, the hashtag chats are set times when people join on twitter to discuss various topics, turning twitter into an open chat room, of sorts.  #sschat is a highly useful weekly chat at 7 pm EST for social studies teachers).  The topic for Monday’s chat was bringing rigor into the social studies classroom, but after 30 minutes of back and forth over the definition, both literal and applied, of the term “rigor,” I decided to bow out and write this post instead.

This post very much represents a work-in-progress when it comes to thinking deeply about this topic.  I would ask that all conclusions, no matter how strongly they are expressed below, be taken as tentative.  I’m sure in my attempts to think rigorously about rigor, I’ve fallen short in some logical areas.

Rigor: The Definition

From Merriam-Webster:

1 (a) : harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment : severity (b) : the quality of being unyielding or inflexible : strictness (c) : severity of life : austerity
b: an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty
2: a tremor caused by a chill
3: a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; especially : extremity of cold
4: strict precision : exactness <logical rigor>
5: a obsolete : rigidity, stiffness
b : rigidness or torpor of organs or tissue that prevents response to stimuli
c : rigor mortis

I think it’s safe to say that no one would be using the first, second, or fifth definitions related to education.  I believe if you asked most people for their definition of rigor, they would mention something about “challenge,” which points to the third definition.  However, the connotation of challenging in this situation is one of undesirability and unpleasantness, in the way one might refer to military or marathon training as rigorous.  Now, I could imagine that there is an argument for that level of training in education.  However, when using the word rigorous, I do not believe that anyone wants this negative connotation, which is inherent in this definition of the word.  To use rigor as a synonym for “challenging” then, is a poor choice or words.

Therefore, the only meaningful and accurate (and dare I say, rigorous) definition of the word rigor, as applied to education and curriculum, is the fourth: “strict precision.”  This is the exactly how the word is used in any college or university setting, be it applied to philosophical argument or statistical measure.  It is a positive thing that should be expected of students.  Therefore, we would best use the term to describe what is expected of students (that their work provides rigorous thought and argument), rather than applied to what is expected of teachers (that their curriculum is rigorous; we would be much more accurate to say we want their curriculum to be challenging).

However, the reality is that despite the poor choice of words, rigor is often used these days as a synonym for “challenge” as opposed to its traditional academic use.  If this was the worst crime against language presented by the word, there would be little problem.  Unfortunately, our Secretary of Education has taken it upon himself to further misuse the English language.

Arne Duncan’s Not Very Rigorous Use of Rigor

Arne Duncan has managed to regularly use rigor in such away to strip the word of any real meaning.  Let’s take Duncan’s April 19 speech, “Rigor, Relevance, and the Future of Career and Technical Education” on Career and Technical education, as an example.

In the speech, Duncan uses the word rigor or rigorous eight times:

  1. “CTE programs need to strengthen their rigor and relevance”
  2. “more attention on CTE also means committing to increased innovation, rigor and results”
  3. “The cause of strengthening CTE programs should never be an excuse for reducing rigor and tracking students”
  4. “ all career and technical programs would serve as viable and rigorous pathways”
  5. “Career pathways now spelled out in the rigorous Programs of Study initiative”
  6. “a school where students are studying a rigorous curriculum that includes four years each of math, science, and technology.
  7. These courses combine the academic rigor of a college-prep curriculum with real-life experiences in Web development, entrepreneurship, and criminal forensics.”
  8. “They provide rigor and relevance.”

In examples 1, 2, 7, and 8 Duncan uses rigor in a non-specific way, so they do not give us any indication of what he means by the term.

In example number 3, Duncan clearly uses the term as a replacement for challenging.  He refers to the common use of CTE programs to get challenging students out of “normal” classrooms.  He is making the assertion that CTE should not be the easy way out. He seems to use the term in the same way in example 4.

However, in examples 6 and 7, he uses the term very differently.  Here, he is using rigor only to refer to the requirements for graduation.  In example 6, when Duncan refers to a rigorous curriculum as one that includes math, science, and technology, he is now referencing the content as the basis for “rigor,” without reference to how that content is taught or what students are doing with it.  Here, the word is stripped of even the connotation of “challenge” that it has elsewhere.

It is example 7, however, that shows the word to be ultimately void of meaning for Duncan.   Here, he contrasts the “rigor” of college prep curriculum (by which, he seems to mean the academic subjects of English, Social Studies, Science, and Math) with the “real-life” experiences in various job skills.  Duncan seems to suggest that real like skills are not rigorous, thus totally contradicting his use of the term elsewhere to suggest that rigor is equivalent to “challenge.”  Here, Duncan’s use of language collapses against itself, to revel the term “rigor” to be an empty signifier for him not corresponding to anything in reality.

Because of these collapses and internal contradictions, the word “rigor” becomes void of any meaningful meaning in Duncan’s speech.  Unfortunately, despite being voided of any real meaning by Duncan, his frequent use of the term has caused it to spread throughout the educational discourse.

How Rigor Was Misused in Monday’s Chat

I believe it is the frequent misuse of rigor, one where its very use is contracted within a single speech, that confuses educators when they are asked to increase rigor in their classroom.  (Lest anyone believes this has not made its way into schools, the following line was in an email I received this week about visitors to my classroom next week: “The lens for these visits will be looking for opportunities to increase rigor/higher order thinking across content areas and grades” – note we have yet another misuse of rigor here, as equivalent to higher order thinking). Let us take a look at some of the uses of rigor in Monday’s chat that demonstrate this confusion:

Grammatically Incorrect Usage: Whether we use rigor to mean “challenge” or “strict precision,” neither makes any grammatical sense in the following statements

  • “Rigor exposes those valuable mistakes that are required for new learning”
  • “Rigor is focusing on understanding more than coverage”

It Really Depends: Each of the following utterances refers to specific pedagogical practices.  For each of these, regardless of definition, it would be possible for the practice to lead to rigorous or non-rigorous work.  For example, essential questions can lead students towards rigorous thought if worded well: “How Democratic is the United States, really?”  They also can be worded in a way that leads to broad generalizations and which aren’t likely to be challenging: “What is the best form of government?”

  • “One way to address that is through the creation of essential questions for different units…”
  • “twitter in the classroom can be very rigorous…20+ students all responding at once in short, quick summary statement”
  • “Rigor must include student discovery.”
  • “rigor for me also means out of one’s comfort zone to problem solve”
  • “critical thinking vs coverage . Which is rigorous?”
  • “I agree that PBL is one of the best models for rigor… They need to learn by being involved!”
  • “Rigor is getting students to think…to make connections beyond those found in the textbook.”
  • “Does rigor have some connection to moving from teacher driven / directed to student driven”
  • “Spending 5 minutes thinking about how to add something to a conversation is rigorous, even if its only 140 characters”

Just Wrong: Just cause someone doesn’t do it, doesn’t mean it’s rigorous:

  • “For my 8 year old son, rigor is trying to keep his room clean.”

So What Is Rigor?

Rigor, in the end, isn’t one type of thing we do in the classroom.  Rather, any activity students are asked to do can be done across the spectrum of rigorousness.  Let us take two other utterances from the chat to illustrate how students can be asked to do just about any level of task in a rigorous or non-rigorous way.

  • “Signs of rigor: Are students identifying, listing, and defining or are they creating and critiquing?”
  • “prove it, defend it, critique it, analyze it, create it.”
Skill Rigorous Not Rigorous
Identifying The period before the Civil War in US History is commonly referred to as the Antebellum Period, which simply means “before war.”  What is a better name for this period of US History?  Justify your answer. What is the commonly used name of the period before the Civil War?
Listening Listen to this speech for the rhetorical devices the speaker uses. Listen to this speech for the words the speaker repeats.
Defining In a multiple paragraph essay, define the term “democracy” as it’s being used by Occupy Wall St. What is the dictionary definition of “democracy?”
Creating Create a series of five human tableaus to show what happened at the Battle of Gettysburg.  Create another series to show how someone could have made a different decision, and how things might have gone differently from there. Create a diorama depicting a battle from the Civil War.
Critiquing Critique Arne Duncan’s use of the word rigor, paying special attention to what exactly is meant by each utterance of the word. Give one piece of warm feedback and one piece of cool feedback to Arne Duncan based on his speech.
Proving In a social studies classroom, I’m not sure there is such a thing as rigorous “proof.”  We don’t deal with provable truths. Prove you are right on a controversial issue
Defending What is the strongest argument against your stance on a controversial issue?  Why are you still right? Give three reasons to support your stance on a controversial issue?
Analyzing After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, what could have been done to prevent war? What are the four root causes of World War I?



8 thoughts on “On Rigor

  1. Stephen. This post made me think a lot about my own language and how important it is to be precise when defining a word that essentially means “strict precision.” I plan to share this with my department for conversation around the lunchroom table. I particularly like your examples at the bottom of the post (especially “defending”!).

    My one concern is that by using quotes from the chat new #sschatters might be hesitant to share their thoughts on future Monday nights for fear of being “blog fodder.” I understand this is always a risk in engaging in on-line conversations of any sort. While you make an incredibly salient point, I hope that others continue to take the risk of tweeting their thoughts to allow for such debates to continue.

    Thanks for being so thoughtful and, well, precise.


    1. I, too, hope that others will continue to take risks. I also hope more of us will take the risk of being good, critical friends.


  2. This is something I struggle with myself. As you might imagine, rigor is a central concept in the independent school world, for all of our children are expected to go to college and be prepared for that. (After all, what else are their parents’ paying us for, right? Don’t get me started there.) Anyway, I think some degree of rigor in the classroom is essential–otherwise, students are never pushed beyond the boundaries of their “comfort zone”–but if we hope to inspire our students to love learning, too much rigor can lead us down the path of inflexibility, severity, and cruelty. I fear that my classroom is sometimes too rigorous, although Duncan (and others) seem to suggest that there is no such thing. Another example of what happens when you try to “fix education” in the abstract.


    1. I agree completely. My original outline for this piece had a section on “When Rigor Isn’t a Good Thing,” but it was getting too long. I might still write that.


  3. Stephen,

    I think you’re right that “rigor” is used as a synonym for “challenging” (then why not just say “challenging”? It’s an interesting question), and then there’s no problem with that, per se. The problem is that that doesn’t really help. It is challenging to memorize a list of 100 random words and phrases. It is also challenging to write a well-constructed and well-supported argument, bu it is challenging in a completely different way. They could arguably both be “rigorous” (i.e., “challenging”) but that doesn’t mean we want both in our classrooms.

    The headmaster at my last school drew a distinction between “academic rigor” and “intellectual rigor.” The former meant, in essence, lots of work, while the latter meant requiring students to think deeply, use evidence, and exhibit the other habits of mind we wanted to encourage. His point was that there was no necessary connection between them. At the school where I was a graduate student, the philosophy professors would famously assign one philosophy article per week in their graduate seminars (this while we, slaving away in political science, had two or three books per week for each class). But it was still one of the top philosophy programs in the country, because they required deep thinking and exceptional insight. I’ve always found the distinction useful, in part because I think our educational system tends to focus too much on academic rigor, because the college entrance tests we take emphasize that, too.


  4. Interesting contrast, David. I’ve never really thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense. At my school, I think we almost force ourselves into the “lots of work” paradigm because of the importance our culture places on grades. If I were to give fewer assignments in a grading period, students would scream. They hate the workload, but whether they realize it or not, they’re afraid to have less work because that might “raise the stakes” on each assignment. Another reason why I’d like to abolish grades (at least the way that they’re traditionally done). They serve a purpose, I know, but too often, they get in the way of real learning.


  5. You raise a good point. I’m in the “less is more” camp with assigning work, so almost all assignment carry a lot of weight (just like college). With that said, I allow my students to revise any major assignment, so it takes off some of that pressure.


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