Hard Hurts; Rigor Invigorates

Lately, there’s been a lot of chatter about the concept of rigor.  Books are being written about it. Principals are touting it and teachers are trying to figure out what it looks like with a 150 students.

Several years ago, a colleague accused me of not wanting as much rigor for my department as he wanted for his.  To this day, the comment still makes my stomach churn.  There isn’t a teacher alive who doesn’t want to think of his instruction as rigorous.  In fact, the term rigor has sometimes been worn as a badge of honor when teachers describe their classrooms.  Some teachers have even been known to use the word rigor as a way to weed out the lightweights who can’t handle their one size fits all instruction.

In my last book, So What Do They Really Know (146-147), I compare the terms rigorous and hard.  As I examined my own beliefs about how the two concepts differ, I discover there is a fine line between having a rigorous classroom and a hard one in terms of student success.  Here’s what I learned:

Rigor invites engagement.  Hard repels it.  When learners are engaged in something rigorous, they lose track of time.  When the activity is hard, time seems to drag on endlessly.  Learners who experience rigor, feel encouraged, self-confident, and have a sense of accomplishment.  Hard is often trademarked by discouragement, avoidance, and a feeling that the effort spent doing the activity is a waste of time.

Our beliefs about rigor affect how we approach instruction.  For me rigor isn’t tied to quantity or rate.  It isn’t about the number of novels I blast through or the number of pages I assign for homework, or even how fast I cover content.

Rigor varies and depends on the learner’s skills and motivation to complete the task.  It changes as the learner gains expertise. When it comes to rigor in the classroom, the bad news for teachers is that instead of having one high bar that all students are expected to reach, there needs to be several, adjustable bars that move as learners progress.  Most importantly, rigor invites engagement because learners experience success.  For me, if students aren’t engaged, I’m a very lonely teacher.

Consider how you invite students into challenging, interesting curriculum as you plan for first semester.