Education Commentary

Awesome Learning

By Sara L. Matthews — June 19, 2002 4 min read
When words fail reformers.

As a teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to observe that certain words and phrases become immensely popular among students for a while and then fade out of active use. For example, some time ago, the slang phrase “da bomb” was all the rage as students went about exclaiming, “you’re ‘da bomb’” and “that’s ‘da bomb’!” From there they moved to the phonetically spelled expletive “phat!” and “da bomb” became passé. “Super!” and “unbelievable!” ran the course for a while. Currently, the word of exclamatory choice among my students seems to be “awesome!” For some allotted amount of time now, I am able to say “Awesome!” in response to a student’s good answer to a question without any rolling of the eyes or someone saying, “Ms. Matthews, no one says that anymore!”

While some adults may shake their heads at the changing lexicon of students, I’ve noticed much the same phenomenon in the language of educators. The current word of fashionable choice is “rigorous.” All schools proudly claim to be “rigorous,” and all teachers within schools are eager to have their classes and curricula be rigorous. Indeed, rigorous schools, rigorous classrooms, and a rigorous curriculum are all in keeping with current recommendations.

Interestingly, no one is able to tell me exactly what this word “rigorous” really means, only that it is desirable and widely accepted. It might as well be “phat.”

“When you don’t know a word, look it up,” I tell my students. So, taking my own advice, I went to the dictionary and found these definitions of rigorous: 1. very strict or harsh, 2. very severe or sharp.

I admit to having been surprised as I read that. And knowing the actual definitions of the word has led to more questions, not answers. Is it wanted that my teaching of America’s children be harsh, I wondered? Is harsh teaching the condition under which we believe learning occurs? And having chosen “rigorous” as the adjectival mantra of modern education, from among the hundreds, even thousands, of suitable words the English language offers, what are we prescribing for our schools? Is it intended that even our preschools be harsh and rigorous? Is a kindergarten to be a severe experience for our nation’s 5-year-olds? Something about the idea of a “rigorous” preschool or kindergarten makes me uneasy, considering the tender ages of those children. Yet, a scant few years later, the 5th graders I teach are assumed to need as rigorous an academic experience as possible or their learning will somehow be at risk.

Having chosen 'rigorous' as the adjectival mantra of modern education, from among the hundreds, even thousands, of suitable words the English language offers, what are we prescribing for our schools?

Perhaps the greatest question is this: Why did we choose this particular word as a focus-determining descriptor for the education of our nation’s children? The answer, I believe, lies not within our schools but outside them. As a nation, we believe it is the purpose of the school to equip children for their lives beyond the classroom door. We believe school is but a preparation for what is to come. Would a harsh or rigorous experience in school be a preparation for what is to come? Maybe so.

A look at modern life is not comforting. In the past few decades, there has been a general trend in our society toward intensification of the workday. The traditional 9-to-5 day has been extended, for most, to 8 to 6 and sometimes beyond. Beepers and cellphones are ubiquitous as we all try to keep in touch with responsibilities. We drive through congested streets and bemoan the loss of leisure time to stressful commutes and work brought home. Sleep deprivation becomes an increasing problem, as more and more of us rob our nights to provide our days with the extra hours we so badly need. As we have come to live lives of increasing intensity, lives of increasing rigor, it is perhaps not a coincidence that we have also come to desire rigor in our schools.

Which would leave us then with the most rigorous questions of all. Is it truly a greater embrace of learning that we want as we encourage our schools to be places of rigor, or is it that we seek to embroil children early on in what has become the harsh and stressful nature of modern life? Does a “rigorous” approach to education in any way assure excellence in our schools? Or does it simply assure that children’s lives will mirror the lives of adults in our society?

Whatever the answer, as a teacher, I want my classroom to be first a place of learning. I am not willing to trade learning for something called rigor. I want my teaching and my students to join the ancient tradition of scholarly inquiry. Sophocles said, “Our happiness depends on wisdom.” I can offer wisdom to young minds without rigidity or harshness.

What other words might serve our nation's children better? Challenging? Thought-provoking? Stimulating? Profound? Insightful? Meaningful?

What other words might serve our nation’s children better? Challenging? Thought-provoking? Stimulating? Profound? Insightful? Meaningful? With infinitely better words at hand, how long should “rigor” continue to be the fashion in our schools? How long should teachers be encouraged to make their classrooms places of severity and harshness? Why can’t we simply restore learning and the well-being of children to their place of paramount importance in our schools?

I look forward to the day that “rigorous” becomes as passé in the educator’s lexicon as “da bomb” is in prepubescent slang. Until then, I confess that my own classroom is not a place of rigor, nor do I want it to be. It’s far better that my students leave it each day exhilarated, not exhausted. And that they see learning as a rewarding joy, rather than a perilous duty. That’s awesome enough for me.

Sara L. Matthews teaches 5th grade at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, Pa.

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as Awesome Learning