There is a place for rigor in our teaching and learning

Michael Strickland

We spend a lot of time teaching children to read, but not enough time teaching them to learn to love to read. This often quoted mantra comes to mind when I think about rigor. While rigor is often spoken of in education, it is hard to find a scientific definition that applies to curriculum and instruction. Rigor sometimes gets reduced to “making things more difficult” or to simply increasing workloads. I have heard teachers say that they can’t define rigor, but they know it when they see it. When reading  ELA standards, you will find it sparsely mentioned within broader discussions about analyzing author’s choice, evaluating sources, and writing arguments. Can you find rigor mentioned at all in the math standards?

Take a look at this excerpt from a dictionary definition of rigor by Merriam Webster:

  1. harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment
  2. the quality of being unyielding or inflexible
  3. severity of life
  4. an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty
  5. a tremor caused by a chill
  6. a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable

Such an approach leaves little room for arts and imagination. Courses that promote these areas are being systematically removed from schools because there is no profit in them. Corporations lobby and effectively create our education policies. These mega publishers are the ones who make standardized tests. Teachers like me spend inordinate amounts of time dealing with testing constraints. This impairs, sometime stifles, effective instruction. Educators are then labeled as “underperforming” while schools are called “failing.” Why? Because they “lack rigor and accountability.” It is a vicious cycle. To illustrate one end result of this dilemma, consider this question: Why are there thousands of highly skilled jobs that are currently vacant? Today, we have unparalleled opportunities to innovate and develop small businesses. Why aren’t more students able to take advantage of this?  “Rigor” is a buzzword that gets thrown around and has replaced the word “relevant”.

Nonetheless, there is a place for rigor in our teaching and learning. But it does not simply mean giving students more work or making it harder. Instead, it’s the outcome of engagement that challenges students’ thinking in new and interesting ways. Rigor is not defined by a text or merely by teaching to a test. It comes from what students immerse themselves in, experiment with, and explore. It is not standard across a curriculum but specific to each student’s needs. I do not measure it by how much we can jam into a school day, month or year. It is demonstrated by depth of understanding. Rigor is a result, not a cause.

To achieve rigor teachers must take a balanced approach between challenging and frustrating a student. How do we challenge students to think, perform, and grow at consistently higher levels? It means that students must work, like an apprentice sculpture, to build their learning, understanding, and thinking power. This needs to be done without breaking down young learners’ confidence.

Relevance is key. If taught with best practices, popular texts will end up being harder to unpack and read critically than more conventional “literary” readings. Rigor is the result of standards in a course designed to encourage sophisticated understandings of fundamental ideas. It ignites curiosity and drives a students’ passion to discover what they don’t know. This is a broader and more practical aim. Learners can read fiction more deeply and come up with more interesting insights into how stories work. They can write clearly, persuasively, and with a greater sense of transaction with the work, as Louise Rosenblatt examined.

My approach involves deliberate practice. After tasks, ideas, and content are repeated, I help them analyze, reflect, apply, evaluate and take part in other higher-order types of thinking. And there is another vital step to achieve valid and reliable assessment of academic rigor within the classroom. I provide students with a wide variety of opportunities to demonstrate their degree of achievement in relation to given standards, not just one high stakes test.

For example, I often use See Think Wonder. This strategy helps encourage students to make careful observations and thoughtful interpretations. It stimulates curiosity and sets the stage for inquiry. My students ponder why a novel, poem, or play looks the way it does or sounds the way it sounds. I use a routine at the beginning of a lesson to motivate student interest. I also use the routine with an interesting piece of literature near the end of a lesson to encourage students to further apply their new knowledge and ideas. I ask students to make an observation about the work. It could be a literary device, image, artifact or topic. They will follow up with what they think might be going on, elaborating on this observation. I encourage them to back-up their interpretation with reasons.  I then ask students to think about what this makes them wonder about the literary device, image, artifact or topic.

In my classroom, students are shown how knowledge connects to life, to various circumstances, and to daily problems. They learn how to live, using brainpower as the driving force, fostering a love of lifelong learning.

Written by Michael Strickland. He teaches at Boise State University.

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