“Rigorous” is one of the most commonly used words in education these days. In their profiles, many schools—public, private, parochial, charter, institutions of higher learning—claim to be “rigorous.” Teachers and professors claim to be or have a reputation for being “rigorous.” But what on Earth does that word actually mean? What does it mean to be a “rigorous” teacher?
In Change Leadership: A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools (Jossey-Bass, 2006) Tony Wagner et al. explore whether rigor is about content or teaching, or both. They conclude that there are common elements between content and instruction, but ultimately, the definitions of rigor are ambiguous. While each educator must make sense of rigor for himself or herself, Change Leadership suggests ways to help teachers understand rigor better. Rigor is not “simply about students being given more or harder work. Rigor is about what students are able to do as a result of the lesson.” The state of Virginia requires students to memorize ninety-two natural elements. But, what good is such information if the students do not understand the scientific method behind Mendeleev’s Periodic Table? In contrast, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts do not earn merit badges through memorization and test taking. Instead, they need to develop a plan and execute it, and the end result is a hands-on service project, the sum of everything they have learned.
In other words, the drill-and-grill exercise of memorize, regurgitate, and repeat is not only unrigorous, but also an inadequate method of instruction. A student who performs outstandingly on the state’s standardized test because of drill-and-grill methods of instruction might well not understand the deeper meanings behind raw data. There is no point to knowing random facts unless you appear on Jeopardy. Albert Einstein insisted that, over time, facts fade, but education remains. Woodrow Wilson called this the “spirit of learning,” the idea that every day, students experience something new about themselves and their world that enhances daily living. For, in the end, learning is a lifelong process, no matter one’s profession.
Are you a rigorous teacher? Well, if you are pushing students to think about the deeper meaning behind the content and providing them with opportunities to develop and execute their own intellectual projects, then perhaps the answer is yes. How a teacher chooses to be rigorous may vary from classroom to classroom, and from school to school.