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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What’s Wrong With the Word ‘Rigor’?

By Peter DeWitt — April 07, 2016 3 min read
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It’s a word that made one teacher post on Facebook that she wanted to “throw up in her mouth.” Pretty strong reaction, but when I asked people on my private Facebook page to provide a word that they have an issue with in education, over and over again the word rigor was posted. It happened so often that I added it to the list of 10 educational words that may need to be banished.

It is an individual decision to banish words, but I did want to address the topic of how words are used, which was the true point of that blog post. When leaders and teachers are together in a professional development session or sitting in the same room at a faculty meeting, is it possible one person uses a word, that so many others in the room might despise?

Yes it is possible...and I guess I wonder how we get passed that? So, I thought I would start with the word that came up so often on both sides of the argument.


PL Thomas, Professor of Education at Furman University, posted a link in the comment section of the banished blog to a blog he wrote about rigor and grit. In his post, which you can read in its entirety here, Thomas writes,

Grit," "growth mindset," and "rigor"--to name a few--are veneer, marketable veneer, for the truth about what students succeed/excel and what students struggle/fail. These terms force all the attention of educators and education on the student, creating in those students who struggle and fail (and the teachers who teach them, the schools who serve them) a deficit identity--they lack rigor, they lack a growth mindset, they aren't being exposed to rigorous curriculum or expectations. In short, these terms and practices are about fixing broken children.

So is the lack of respect for the word...or what it might represent when it’s used?

My friend B. Riley commented,

Spot on, Peter! Rigor is a word that I work hard to avoid. To me, and I realize it is only me, rigor means "stiff" and "unbending" e.g. rigor mortis, and that is not what today's learners need. They need to explore, experience and be flexible as they grow!

I have an enormous amount of respect for Bob, so to his point should we replace rigor with a better word?

Another person commented,

I couldn't agree more concerning "rigor." This has been my most hated buzzword for the last six years. It should mean "challenging, disciplined." Instead, it is almost always used in education to mean "learning something at the youngest age possible," which really means "trying to learn at an age when many children are not quite ready." Lesson X is probably good for 7-year-olds, but is only "rigorous" if taught to 5-year-olds.

And that comment sums up the issue that we have with buzzwords. Truth be told, I have had a love-hate relationship with the word rigor. There was a time when I thought it fit well, because it related to challenging.

Rigor 2.0
In the October 2008 issue of Educational Leadership (ASCD) Tony Wagner asks us to consider 21st Century Rigor, or Rigor 2.0, when he writes,

To teach and test the skills that our students need, we must first redefine excellent instruction. It is not a checklist of teacher behaviors and a model lesson that covers content standards. It is working with colleagues to ensure that all students master the skills they need to succeed as lifelong learners, workers, and citizens. I have yet to talk to a recent graduate, college teacher, community leader, or business leader who said that not knowing enough academic content was a problem. In my interviews, everyone stressed the importance of critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration.

That’s not so bad, is it? After all, don’t we want to focus on excellent instruction that will lead to better learning? Do we really want to spend our time covering standards using model lessons that may be pre-packaged?

Wagner goes on to write,

It's time to hold ourselves and all of our students to a new and higher standard of rigor, defined according to 21st-century criteria. It's time for our profession to advocate for accountability systems that will enable us to teach and test the skills that matter most. Our students' futures are at stake.

Unfortunately, rigor has an uphill battle because the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment.” That is quite the departure from Rigor 2.0 that Wagner described in 2008. Even the picture from above was what came up when I searched for “Rigor” in Creative Commons photos. There seems to be a clash between how some want to redefine it and how it’s being used in each individual school.

Perhaps the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) has always used it best when they created their Rigor, Relevance and Relationship Framework. ICLE has been pushing for schools to make student learning relevant, that is also age-appropriate and challenging (rigor), at the same time teachers are creating relationships with students.

Is rigor better when it is used with some other important words?

In the End
How should we really be using the word rigor? When the blog post about 10 words that should be banished went out, a principal Tweeted back to me that he hated that rigor was on the list. Actually, he responded with several Tweets saying that rigor should be used and that it has been used incorrectly to mean stiff when it should mean challenging.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary (and many other dictionaries) says otherwise.

Is rigor such a 4-letter word to many teachers and leaders because it was never redefined for them, or because they don’t believe in the redefinition? It is definitely a word that creates a visceral reaction in some, while others want to jump to it’s defense.

What is your experience with the word rigor?

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Creative Commons photo courtesty of Pixabay.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.