Teaching Opinion

Response: Thoughts On The Meaning Of “Rigor”

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 06, 2012 11 min read
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Donna Browne asked:

“What is rigor?”

You sure see that word around a lot these days in education circles, so it’s definitely a timely question. Thanks, Donna, for asking it!

My three guest responses today -- from Barbara R. Blackburn, Cris Tovani, and Ira Socol -- have varied “takes” on the question, as do several thoughtful reader comments.

I have seen instances where the word “rigor” has been used to support mind-numbing instructional strategies and to criticize extraordinarily fruitful lessons. However, I might not be quite ready to jettison it from my vocabulary. That raises another question for me: How widespread must the misuse of a word need to become before we abandon attempts to “reclaim” it?

I don’t know the answer (and I’m very interested in hearing other people’s thoughts). I am thinking about it, though. The Google Books Ngram Viewer allows users to search, compare, and graph word usage in hundreds of years of books including over 500 billion words. Though it’s admittedly not “scientific,” I’ve previously used it in this blog, and am using it today. I searched a number of often-abused education “buzz words” to see how widely they are used:

As you can see, I searched the words/phrases “rigor,” “accountability” (I’m intrigued that there is not a Finnish translation for that word), “student achievement,” (which is often limited to meaning standardized test results), “professional development,” (most of us teachers have had to sit through some awful workshops), and “school reform.”

Though it may be a little difficult to see since the color for “rigor” and “school reform” is similar on the chart, rigor is the least used of those expressions. Though reclaiming the word “accountability” might be a lost cause, perhaps there might be value in reclaiming the others....

Response From Barbara R. Blackburn

Barbara R. Blackburn is author of over a dozen books, including the best selling Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word. She also speaks to teachers and leaders on topics such as rigor, motivation, and student engagement. She can be reached through her website:

When you hear the word rigor, do you think it means harder or the most failures in a classroom, or that it is something that is only for gifted or honors students?
There are five key myths about rigor:

Myth #1: Lots of Homework is a Sign of Rigor
Myth #2: Rigor Means Doing More
Myth #3: Rigor is Not For Everyone
Myth #4: Providing Support Means Lessening Rigor
Myth #5: Resources Do Not Equal Rigor

True rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels.

Notice the key aspects of this definition. First, you are creating an environment that is conducive to growth. Rigor is about achieving at a higher level, but that doesn’t happen immediately. It’s important to focus on progress, those small steps that together, show student growth. Encouraging students not to give up, using language that shows students you know they can learn, and celebrating the positive will help you create an environment to support rigor.

Next, focus on your high expectations. Although this starts with believing each student can learn, we also need to put those high expectations into practice? By not allowing the word “can’t”, both from students and yourself. In addition to continually reminding students you know they can, and then providing the support students need to be successful.

The third aspect of rigor is supporting students so they can learn at higher levels. This will require a focus on scaffolding within a lesson. Focusing on prior knowledge, modeling the thinking process of strategies, and providing support for gaps that occur between their current knowledge and the new standards is critical. Some students will need extra help outside of class time, and that may require a school-wide plan to provide opportunities for the students who need it the most.

Finally, each student should demonstrate learning. There are two aspects of this. First, provide a variety of ways students can demonstrate understanding. It’s fine to use questions that are similar to the final assessment, but also provide opportunities to play to students’ strengths. Allow them to show you they know through technology, drawings, projects, etc. Second, as you use formative assessment to check for understanding, incorporate strategies for each student to participate. Using whole group instruction and asking one student to answer does not accomplish this goal. Use think-pair-shares, clickers, dry erase boards (or the new whiteboard app for the IPad), or thumbs-up thumbs-down strategies so you can see if each student is understanding each part of the lesson.

This may sound daunting, but you are already demonstrating high expectations, providing support for students, and asking them to show you they understand. Building on these, you’ll create a climate that supports rigor. Despite all the misconceptions, rigor is more than planning a lesson, or teaching certain standards. Effectively implementing rigor is a matter of weaving together your curriculum, instruction, and assessment so that students grow and learn at new levels.

Response From Cris Tovani

Cris Tovani is an English/Reading teacher and the author of So...What do They Really Know? and several other books.

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 stings. There isn’t a teacher alive who doesn’t want to think of his instruction as rigorous. Some teachers have even been known to use the word rigor as a way to weed out the lightweights who can’t handle 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 drags on. 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 has been 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. It has nothing to do with how fast I cover content.

The concept of rigor is complex and varies from person to person. What is rigorous for one may be too easy for another. Rigor changes depending on the learner’s skill level and motivation to succeed. As learners gain expertise, they can endure more difficulty. 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 for me, rigor invites engagement because students experience success. When students aren’t engaged, I’m a very lonely teacher.

Response From Ira Socol

Ira David Socol is a “Senior Provocateur” with Band of Educators, consulting with schools who seek to re-imagine education. He has a blog and is the author of two books:

There is a reason revolutions bring new vocabularies. Language is a powerful thing, and trying to describe how you or your idea is different from what came before, though it has the same name, is difficult. Napoleon and Washington did call not themselves “King,” a loaded word. “Automobile” and “car” trumped “horseless carriage” for the same reason.

But here we are in education with the word “rigor.” You know, “rigor,” from Old French: “stiffness, rigidness, rigor, cold, harshness, difficult.”

“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,” Tony Wagner wrote in 2008 in a piece where he noted that, “In my interviews, everyone stressed the importance of critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration.”

“There’s a lot of talk in education circles today about rigor,” Debbie Shults writes, “Educators are frantically waving copies of The World is Flat as they attempt to awaken their colleagues to the impending doom our nation faces if we do not deliver a rigorous and relevant education to every American child. But what is rigor?”

The Washington State School Boards have similar issues: “It’s easier to start with what rigor is not, at least when talking about learning. “Severity, rigidity, hardship” which, in education, might look like endless repetition, or long hours of filling out worksheets.”

We have a word which describes something few educators actually want, but because politicians like the word, we waste unbelievable energy trying to redefine it.

“Rigor” - rigidness, inflexibility, difficulty for the sake of difficulty, has no place in this century’s education. It failed in the two previous centuries, leaving two-thirds of American students behind, year after year, according to NAEP scores. Those two-thirds have consistently failed to “achieve proficiency” because of what “rigor” suggests, an inflexible system in which things are made harder for the purposes of hoop-jumping, which has driven millions and millions of kids out of school or into despair.

In those “good old days” which politicians and “educational reformers” love, that was the idea. “We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks,” Woodrow Wilson said in his Princeton days, when the “rigorous system” left 80% of students out of school before high school began. But our goals - our stated goals - are different.

For “all” students to succeed, we need no “rigor” at all, we need the opposite: flexible. adaptive. active. communicative. collaborative. We need Universal Design in our classes and Toolbelts in our students’ hands, so they can reach the necessary learning - now millions of times greater than just a generation ago - as efficiently and effectively as they can.

So please stop trying to re-define a word which represents something we do not want. Instead, let us say what we mean as we fight to re-imagine education.

Responses From Readers:

Readers left many thoughtful comments. I’m publishing excerpts with links so you can easily review them in full:

Donna Browne
, who posed the original question, shared this:

Oftentimes, rigor is a blockade to educational accessibility.


What is rigor?

It is the wrong word, the wrong concept for what we seek in schools...Along with stopping the use of “achievement gap,” I have committed to stop using “rigor.” For now I have settled on “challenging” and “rich” instead of “rigorous.” I think this is more than semantics; it is about acknowledging student autonomy and the organic nature of knowledge and learning.

Perpetual Student:

The way that I view rigor is that it is a level of instruction that is sharply focused on the instructional objective, requires higher-level thinking on the part of the student, and presents a challenge.

Bill Younglove

More importantly is just how “rigor” might be achieved. Basically, there are two “tradeoffs": breadth of course vs. depth. To increase depth, generally, is to increase rigor. The second is to move students from being teacher-dependent to be(com)ing independent, toward the higher echelon of Bloom’s Taxonomy.


The principal asked that very question at a faculty meeting and the teacher next to me leaned in and said. “isn’t that what happens to a dead body?”

...I am afraid that rigor is just a word, a trick, a distraction from the real work of education meeting students where they are and moving them up on the learning curve in a thoughtful, planful way.

Nancy Flanagan, a great blogger here at Ed Week Teacher, shared that she had contributed to a report this topic in the past (see p. 31). Here’s an excerpt:

It might be easier to define rigor by noting what it is not: Rigor is not a synonym for ‘harder,’ and it does not mean moving first-grade curriculum into kindergarten, or algebra into the seventh grade. ... Rigor means teaching and learning things more thoroughly - more deeply.

Rigor is not assigning more homework. It is assigning better homework, open-ended work that pushes kids to think in multiple ways about the tasks they’ve been assigned, provides constructive feedback on their efforts - plus permission to edit, test prototypes, make multiple drafts. Most important, the teacher will not accept work that is less than the students’ best effort. Adding rigor to the curriculum cannot be achieved by moving standards, benchmarks and course requirements around, although those are the first things policymakers think to do.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Barbara, Cris, Ira, and many readers for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Friday.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.