Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Is it Rigor? Or is it Something Else?

There’s a lot of talk in education circles today about rigor. Educators all over America are frantically waving copies of Thomas Friedman’s, The World is Flat, as they attempt to awaken their colleagues to the impending doom our nation faces if we do not deliver a rigorous and relevant education to every American child. Politicians talk about the need to return rigor to the classroom. Parents demand rigorous programs for their children. School administrators performing classroom walk-throughs look for signs of it, and teachers are resolutely attempting to prove their lessons are full of the stuff.

But what is rigor?

Let’s start with what it is not. Rigor is not fifty math problems for homework when fewer will achieve mastery. Rigor is not more worksheets for the student who finished the assignment early. Rigor is not using a seventh grade text book with your high performing sixth grade students. Rigor is not covering more material in a shorter period of time. Rigor is not cold or impersonal. And most of all, rigor is not just for a select group of students.

So, what is rigor? The most concise definition of rigor I’ve encountered is taken from Teaching What Matters Most: Standards and Strategies for Raising Student Achievement by Richard W. Strong, Harvey F. Silver and Matthew J. Perini, ASCD, 2001. According to Strong, Silver, and Perini, “Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.”

Isn’t it ironic that this definition of rigor presents the possibility that even an advanced placement course may not be full of rigor? While the curriculum may be complex, time may not be given to allow the content to reveal its ambiguous, provocative, or personally and emotionally challenging nature. And because of this, students are simply memorizing huge chunks of facts, regurgitating them onto an AP exam, and then forgetting them forever. How discouraging it must be for both the teacher and the student to expend so much time and energy and have so little to show for their efforts.

But do we really need all this rigor? Can we just set it aside for our gifted and high achieving students or as we say in Florida, our Level 4’s and 5’s? Strong, Silver, and Perini make clear that a rigorous learning environment is for every student. Their findings show “the decision to withhold rigor from some students is one of the most important reasons why schools fail.” (Strong, Silver, Perini, 2001)

What is the mind set that would consciously design a system where some students receive a rigorous education and others do not? I don’t want to think about the history of class distinction, prejudice, tradition, and countless other factors that might have lead us to such a system. But I do want to think about what it will take to ensure that every American classroom provides the kind of rigorous learning environment that will guarantee all our students’ ability to successfully compete in the flat world in which they live.

Think about what kind of teaching methods will allow teachers to deliver their curriculum in ways which meet the requirements of rigor set out by Strong and company. Then factor in the skills we must help our students acquire so they may successfully encounter curriculum on this level.

We’re talking about instructional delivery methods like project based instruction which use an inquiry model to empower students to seek their own answers to important issues, create models that represent their findings, and explore ways their discoveries can make a positive difference in the world. We’re talking about classrooms that find ways to be connected to the world, whether or not they use the latest technologies, to help create those personal and emotional synapses that motivate students to embrace challenging curriculum. We’re talking about classrooms where students are taught the strategies they need to attack challenging text, detect bias, gather relevant information, and decide how to put what they’ve learned to work in a useful way.

But we’d better do more than talk. It’s time, really past time, that we make the changes that create these wonderful classrooms. If you’ve got ideas on ensuring rigor for every student, I want to hear them. Our combined efforts can have a powerful positive influence on the future of American schools.


Suzi said...


I'm thinking...gotta have differentiation.

Here is a quote I use A LOT in the classroom: "Fair is everyone gets what they need, not everyone gets the same."

Rigor, like time, is relative. Like a computer, it depends on what else is being processed by that amazingly resilient human brain. For example, even as an adult, what is rigorous when I am well rested and feeling competent is measurably different than when I am overwhelmed and overtired.

My goodness, keeping track of all of that would surely baffle even the most brilliant FCAT statisticians. But then, measurement of rigor is an entirely different blog entry.

Thank you for reminding me to think about this important topic tonight. Just wait to see what the kids are going to do tomorrow!!!

Jess Timmons said...

I am in agreeance with you, Debbie. I find it ridiculous that so many people believe that teaching gifted students equates to teaching a year above their grade level in school. We both know that doesn't necessarily imply that teaching above level will involve enrichment, excitement or even rigor. I thought we had moved beyond that way of thinking; it reminds me of how teachers taught identified gifted children when I was a middle school youngster.

Polly said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I found this blog while searching for definition of rigor. Thank you for leading me to Dr. Silver, I am a big fan of his work. Your thoughts will be used to encourage teachers of students with significant cognitive disabilities to raise the bar. ALL students deserve rigor! AMEN!