Rigor is real. It's a real thing. I'm sure you've seen it in your classroom and in others. You've probably seen the potential for it in other activities or lessons you've looked at. But we keep coming down to the question of what rigor IS, and there's a reason for that: rigor is the kind of thing that tries to slide out of easy definitions. What activities and styles are rigorous for 4th-grade English are not necessarily the same as for 4th-grade Math. Or 7th-grade English. Or any-grade Science. Whatever rigor is, whatever it prepares the student for, is wider and weirder than any grade level or content area can do on its own. All the same, we as educators need to provide an environment for rigorous learning in each of our classrooms. While there's a whole lot of difference between what's rigorous and what's not and in which occasion, there are some things that remain the same. Those same things? They have to be our focus.
But before we get to what's the same, we need to keep fleshing out what's different. Google the word "rigor" if you want to know what I mean. You get a whole bunch of definitions, and they like to disagree with each other. The common root for the English word "rigor" is from Latin, meaning "stiff with harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, and judgement." That definition flies in the face of modern educational wisdom, and it should. We want a more challenging and supportive environment for our students. I'm reminded of a quote from Phil Schlechty, who said that "what we need are schools organized in ways that put the joy back into teaching and that do not confuse rigor with rigor mortis."
Barbara Blackburn (2012) provides us with a three-pronged definition of rigor. It's not terribly easy to apply, but it's easy to say, and sometimes just being able to say it is enough to help us form trackable goals based on shared understanding. Here it is: each student is expected to learn at high levels, is supported in learning at high levels, and has opportunities to demonstrate learning at high levels. Like with rigor, "high levels" doesn't mean the same thing to everyone, but you can support your students best if you can build some kind of common framework for conversation in order to set goals and evaluate practices.
Start a discussion with your teams and administrators about what rigor is and what is isn’t. You might want to download the chart we’ve started. You will certainly have ideas of your own to contribute, and you may want to tweak or even eliminate things that are on the chart we’ve created. It’s not a “there’s one right answer, gotcha” kind of thing. It’s a “let’s talk about this and come to a common understanding” kind of thing. What DOES rigor mean? What does it mean for all students to learn at high levels?
Over the next several weeks, we'll be publishing additional parts of this Learning Series. I hope our thoughts and experience can benefit each other. Please feel free to comment or write back privately. I promise a response. Thanks for reading.
Blackburn, B. (2012). Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Riordan, R. (2015). Rigor Reconsidered. Retrieved December 15, 2015, from http://www.hightechhigh.org/unboxed/issue13/rigor_reconsidered/
Tanner, J. (2013, September 9). An Educational Contrarian. Retrieved December 15, 2015, from http://edcontrarian.blogspot.com/2013/09/pictures-of-rigor.html