What is Rigor?

Rigor is a word we seen thrown around a lot in education, but very rarely defined.  Today a colleague of mine asked me if I had any articles on rigor that he could use to help him with a paper he was writing.  As we discussed the topic, we both realized that rigor might be the most often used but least defined word in education.  Many teachers make statements like, “we can’t lose the rigor of the curriculum to projects,” or “our school offers a rigorous education,” without actually defining rigor.  There has also been a lot of talk lately about making curriculum “rigorous and relevant.”  What is exactly is rigor though?

A quick dictionary reference provides three definitions:

“the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate.”

“severity or strictness.”

“demanding, difficult, or extreme conditions.”

After glancing at these definitions it became even more clear today that the idea of rigor and education is not clearly defined.  I feel like most of the time in education ” we often equate rigor with more.” The problem is that more often becomes simply more work and more of the same thing.  A rigorous math class is one that has come to be defined by having “lots of homework” with “lots of problems”, which are, in reality, just more of the same. Math is just one example, but there are many subjects that are considered rigorous based on the amount of information which must be memorized.  One program that instantly comes to mind is the Advanced Placement (AP) program. I use this as an example, because when the discussion of project based learning comes up, many times it is those that have to teach AP classes that are concerned about how they can possibly incorporate project based learning when they need to “get through all of the curriculum.”  In fact the AP has itself come under fire, as studies examine the real effect of AP type courses and others deem their courses a scam.

All of this seems beside the point though and loses sight of the original question of what is rigor? If it is not more of the same thing, what is it?  Raising this question may seem akin to Pirsig’s metaphysics of quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and in a way it is, as I think that rigor is a word that is not easily understood.  Luckily though, as we begin to talk about rigor in education there are some guideposts to provide some clarity.  In a paper by the International Center for Leadership in Education they develop a Rigor/Relevance framework that is useful for thinking about curriculum, instruction, and assessment. This framework, based on the work of Dr. Willard R. Daggett, provides a way of thinking about rigor on a Thinking Continuum and an Action Continuum.  Leaving out a lot of technical details, the point that stood out to me from all of this work is that we can no longer just expose students to a lot of “isolated bits of content specific knowledge” and call it rigorous.  Instead, we need to allow students the space to think on their own and apply knowledge so that content can be both rigorous and relevant.

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