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Rigor Redefined

     For years now in education, one of the biggest buzzwords has been “Rigor.” It was universally agreed, or at least seemingly so, that all students need to be challenged. Students need hard work and need to be worked hard. In theory, this sounds good and probably is good.

     However, it seems that educators and lay people alike might have interpreted “rigor” as just more of the same. If a test has 50 questions, then 100 are more rigorous. If a student might normally write a five-page essay, then a 10-page one is more rigorous. If a student might have two hours of homework, then four hours is more rigorous.

     Some of this classic definition of rigor was also related to the bell curve. In other words, only a handful of students could actually reach the top, be academic or be working at rigorous levels. Indeed, there was a built-in elitism here in that most people were not supposed to make it.

     The 21st century workplace and educational system cannot afford to have people who don’t make it. The bell curve is archaic, outdated and counterproductive.
     The flaw with this traditional definition of rigor here is that more is not necessarily better. What could be better is something really better, something different or maybe even something deeper. Yes, it’s time to redefine rigor in the contemporary sense as it really relates to higher-level learning and 21st century skills.

     The dominant paradigm and experience in most educational settings has been that learning was memorizing vast amounts of information. For example, if one memorized a list of sophisticated vocabulary words and could define and spell them correctly, then that was seen as rigorous. Indeed, even at advanced levels of secondary learning for important milestones like SAT, AP, etc., we focused on some low level definitions of “rigor.”

     As we prepare students now for truly higher level learning that requires the successful mastery and demonstration of the Four C’s (Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Communication), it seems we can do better in defining rigor.

     What is more rigorous - writing an essay about business or starting the actual business? What is more rigorous - writing a research report or presenting your findings in a formal presentation to a group of experts in the real world?

    What is more rigorous - answering 100 math questions on a handout or quiz, or applying a math principle to a real world problem-solution scenario and then testing it?

     Naturally, I could create hundreds of these examples. The theme here is that learning, especially rigorous learning at a higher level, is not a passive experience where one performs some mundane low-level task repetitively, bur rather where one demonstrates the application of learning in a real-world, professional manner that is public and relevant.
     This will challenge many of our academic conventions. Current systems such as AP classes, the A-G requirements and even college entrance tests do not address this new definition of rigor. The new Common Core State Standards will address this transition to some degree. But it will not be enough.

     We will have to ask one another what is learning? And more importantly, we need to ask what is learning at a higher level that is truly rigorous?

     Our true definition of rigor should be based on how far a student goes in their learning. Do they just skim the surface or truly invest themselves into a project or pursuit that forces them to interact and think a such high levels that they will have a different and better learning experience?

     Rigor, or what is academic, has to now be judged on new criteria. A student that designs a BBQ grill digitally, then builds the BBQ grill, then features this item on their project website or even sells it, would be seen as just as advanced, or even more so, than the student who scored a high percentage on a multiple choice math test. Rigor will be about what one produces in a professional sense vs. what one accomplishes on paper or in a grade book.

     Finally, back to the bell curve. Economically and culturally, we have to want and believe that all students can learn and learn at high levels. We need all students to seek and reach this new definition or rigor. They might be pursuing different things. However, they can all be involved in deeper critical thinking, more creativity and individually presenting professional and public work. The bell curve’s days are over and rigor as we used to know it is too. 

(images courtesy of Minarets High School)


  1. I am committed to working alongside you to change those structures by which our schools are evaluated, to allow for a new vision of rigor! Well done!


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