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How Hard Is It?

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The definition of rigor, according to the dictionary, is “strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people.” Over the past decade, this word has crept into eduspeak more and more, often to argue that students are earning high grades for work that is too easy and does not lead to learning. Do we really mean to make classrooms inflexible places? Probably not.

Search for the words “rigor” and “education” together and you will mostly find a wide range of new “definitions” for this word. More than definitions, many of these are circumlocutions: rambling explanations about challenging students without really getting at how to challenge students and how to ascertain the aforementioned rigor. There are no tools or scales for measuring rigor and no advice on how to identify it.

The buzz about rigor is not new. A post at the Hechinger Report from 2010 states that students are leaving high school unprepared for college-level work or the workplace. The post mentions designing a curriculum that prepares students for college, but gives no specifics. The post also mentions an expert who tells us there is a difference between rigorous teaching, rigorous questioning, and rigorous assessment, but the differences are not actually expressed. I have some rigorous questions of my own about “rigor” to help me think through this word that seems to be more of a political construct with suspect motives.

What is the point of rigor in schools? If the goal is to ensure students are working hard, is the hard work a means to an end or an end in itself?

Challenge is necessary for learning. Doing what is already known is easy, but does not lead to further acquisitions of skills or knowledge. Learning happens at the edge of what has already been learned and what can be learned next. It happens at the edge of what is easy and what starts to pose a challenge. Vygotsky used this expansion metaphor to describe learning when he wrote about the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). If rigor ensures students are challenged so they are constantly learning, there must be a way to figure out if students are challenged, and how much so. Too much of a challenge (a leap too far into the ZPD) leads to frustration. Not enough challenge leads to boredom and a lack of learning. However, hard or easy varies with each individual, and teachers and students judge the ease or difficulty of any situation very differently and they do so for different reasons.

The Glossary of Education Reform defines “rigor” as an element of “…lessons that encourage students to question their assumptions and think deeply, rather than […] lessons that merely demand memorization and information recall.” This is not very different from the goal of Deeper Learning, which is defined by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Hewlett Foundation as academic activities that lead to students acquiring the following six competencies.

  1. Mastery of core content
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Problem solving
  4. Collaboration
  5. Communication
  6. Self-directed learning

If learning activities are designed to challenge students while promoting the development of these competencies, rigor does not need to be quantified and assessed as a separate element. So why is it?

We ask students to learn things that are definitely hard, but have little or no connection to what will be required of them after graduation, and we do it in the name of rigor. As the Glossary of Education Reform notes, “While some educators may equate rigor with difficultly, many educators would argue that academically rigorous learning experiences should be sufficiently and appropriately challenging for individual students or groups of students, not simply difficult” (emphasis added). Until there is a consensus on what rigor means and how it can be observed and measured for individual students, we should ask ourselves questions that help us ensure students are challenged for a clear purpose and that learning outcomes are genuinely productive. Continue reading