Rigor. It is one the of the most nebulous terms in education these days. Rigor. We must have it. There is nothing more important. It’s imperative for our students’ college and career readiness. Right? Hmm.
I think we need to go old school here. Yes, that’s right. All the way back to Vygotsky’s good ol’ Zone of Proximal Development. We have been using it for quite some time now, and it has been proven to be valid. (Proven to me through the fact that not every assignment or lesson is rigorous enough for all students. And yet, many assignments are ‘frustration level’ for many students.) The ZPD also proves that ‘rigor’ is different for every learner.
I have heard many parents say, “my child is learning things in kindergarten that I didn’t learn until the third grade!” We are teaching our students more and more, earlier and earlier. We are all being told to push students to do more, faster. But is this truly rigor?
The intricate workings and development of the human brain is beyond my realm of true understanding, but I do know that children experience different developmental milestones at different points in their lives. Their mental development matures in stages, and for the sake of ‘rigor’, are we trying to force those stages to occur faster and sooner? Are we asking our students to do things that they are just not cerebrally ready to do?
This question may never be answered, but here is what I do know when it comes to ‘rigor’.
It starts early for each and every student. Rigor must start the first day of school. The teacher sets the tone in his or her classroom and for me, I make sure my tone is serious and academic, yet fun and exciting. I want students to be excited to walk over that threshold into our room, but I also want them to know that they need to get to work and do what I ask. At the same time, they know they can always ask questions, request more help, and get support from me and each other.
It starts even earlier for each and every teacher. For teachers, rigor starts long before the students even walk into the classroom on the first day of school. Teachers need to live rigor. They need to embody it, model it; show their students that rigor is a part of being in their classroom and their school. Teachers also need to be thoughtful. Teachers must know, from the very beginning of the unit planning stage, what the outcomes of each lesson should be and how to get the students to that end. Rigor is not “winging it” every day, lecturing for every lesson, or reading out the textbook in order to ‘teach’ the material. Teachers need to prepare in order to have their students engage in rigor.
Rigor is not just intellectually-based. Rigor is part intellect and part effort. Most of the time, students don’t do well because they refuse to put in effort. Many students say “I can’t do this” and I always respond with “you at least need to try.” More often than not, once they try, they understand that they can do it and they are successful. The best part about it is that they continue to be successful and work hard for those successes.
Rigor is an attitude. Refusal to do work is a personal choice, and it is the job of the teacher to motivate students as much as possible. There are consequences to not completing work—failing grades, lack of promotion, having to repeat a class, etc. Those consequences mean nothing. Students will do well when teachers assure them that they are capable of completing the task. When students feel supported and capable, they will rise to any occasion and continue to do so. Teachers—give students the tools to be rigorous.
So, you see, for me, rigor really has nothing to do with the difficulty level of the work. It has to do with effort and attitude. The difficulty level is dictated by Vygotsky’s ZPD and it is different for everyone. In our age of standardizing education, there is a desire for everyone to do more and know more before their successors. Guess what? It might never happen. But, in my experience, I got my kids to do more in one semester in my English class, than they had done all year in the grade before. They worked hard. They learned. They now have the beginnings of the much-desired college and career readiness skills and they perform well in their other classes. I believe those things occurred (and continue to occur) because I made their class ‘rigorous’.