Writers, philosophers, and mystics know that naming a concept or abstract reality puts limits on our ability to truly comprehend it. By labeling things, we attempt to contain them, define them, and compartmentalize them. An educational term that everyone uses but few are able to succinctly define is “rigor”. I wonder if it isn’t time to stop saying “rigor” in hopes of finally reaching a professional consensus on how to ensure it for every student in every classroom.
Perhaps rigor is difficult to define because we are trying to make it a separate thing—separate from “student-centered”, “inquiry-based”, and “scaffolded” learning. Maybe rigor is a sort of central nervous system of well-designed instruction, meaning that it isn’t a goal to achieve, but rather, an active ingredient in getting many parts to work together with efficiency.
Consider these content rubrics that communicate rigor as the core conduit binding other pieces of teaching and learning. That is, the rubric demonstrates how the three distinct categories of content, skills, and environment combine to function as one. If rigor underpins each category, we have an engaging and effective classroom.
In the ELA rubric, students engaged in highly rigorous content are “asking questions of one another” and “supporting interpretations of text with evidence”. In the skills area, they are participating in high level discussions, generating high level questions and writing that is supported with textual evidence. In the environment section, students are provided a safe place to explore ideas and many opportunities to learn from one another.
Thinking about rigor in this way moves the conversation away from abstract definitions to the very real concern that teachers have: How does it look for all of my students?
That sweet spot of rigorous learning for all is what matters, and that can only be measured by looking at what students are learning and how they are learning it.
The obvious way that the pieces connect and depend on each other suggests that when we dissect effective teaching for the sake of improving, we need to spend time on putting it all together again in a way that works for students. Rigor, the core of all effective practice, will do its job for students as a function, and not as an additional strategy or approach.
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