Teaching Opinion

What Rigor Is, and What It Isn’t

By Contributing Blogger — August 20, 2015 4 min read
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This post is by John Bosselman, a Humanities teacher at High Tech High Chula Vista.

For the past two years I have been traveling around the United Kingdom as part of an effort called REAL Projects, working with educators to transform their schools through deeper learning and project-based learning. The question I always get asked, no matter what school I am in, is “How do you ensure that these projects are rigorous?”

This question always strikes me with a sense of relief, but also a sense of worry. I am relieved to know that educators want to make sure the projects are challenging (after all, a sugar cube pyramid does not a project make). Quite often, though, the worry emerges when I ask them to define what they mean by rigor (or, rigour). The responses range from “really hard content” (i.e., super long lectures and really thick textbooks) to “the national curriculum” and being prepared for “exams” (i.e., standardization). I know these definitions to be too narrow and rigid for our work in schools. It is not enough to define rigor as doing 10th grade work with 6th graders (for my British friends, GCSE with year 7 students), or to follow a narrow prescriptive curriculum that does not incorporate what we know people need to be successful in the 21st century. And it certainly isn’t enough to score well on a multiple-choice test.

Clearly, we need to create a new definition for rigor. So, let’s begin where our students might. Let’s ask Siri.

“Excessive sternness.”

That’s interesting. What if we ask Google?

Notably, Google changes “What is rigor?” to “What is rigor mortis?” and presents us with the following:

Rigor mortis (Latin: rigor, “stiffness"; mortis, “of death”): stiffening of the joints and muscles of a body a few hours after death, usually lasting from one to four days.

Or, in the case of our students, for 12 or more years.

These are not suitable alternatives, but they do hint at what can happen to our schools if we make them rigid and devoid of life.

Instead, I propose that we define rigor through the lens of deeper learning. In the recent edition of Unboxed, Rob Riordan, one of the founders of High Tech High, provides us with a way of thinking about this new definition of rigor:

No rigor without engagement

No rigor without ownership

No rigor without exemplars

No rigor without audiences

No rigor without purpose

No rigor without dreams

No rigor without courage


No rigor without fun

So, what does a rigorous deeper learning project look like?

I had a chance to work closely with two teachers from School 21, a free school in the London borough of Newham. Jess Hughes and Pippa Sadgrove implemented a project called Words for Wildlife with their year 7 (grade 6) students. Through this project, students were investigating the species that should be reintroduced in the London borough of Newham. As part of the project, they read the Newham Bio-diversity action plan, a government published report, and created scientific information packets to give to residents that demonstrated how they could make their homes and community more suitable to an endangered Newham animal. They pursued the answer to their essential question--"How can our words save our wildlife?"--in their science and English classes.

This was a rigorous project. Students were engaged, working closely with experts from the Olympic Park biodiversity action team to understand how the park was designed to address the needs of Newham through the Olympic Legacy Project. They each owned the way they would present their animal and how it was targeted for reintroduction to the Newham community. One group selected the stag beetle to pursue an in-depth inquiry. They looked at exemplar animal cards and community organizing campaigns to create design components for their own information cards, letters to community members, habitat design plans and more. They presented their work to an audience at the Olympic Park and distributed over 150 information packets to members of the Newham community to educate the public about the need to co-habitate with these animals. They also shared their work at their school-wide celebration of beautiful work, where they transformed their classroom into a place where you could learn more about the species and how to save them. They dreamed that through this work, they could change and create habitats to sustain the life of these endangered species in their community. They exemplified courage, sharing their findings and presenting their work to experts and community members on exhibition evening. And, they had fun working in teams, collaborating with experts, and wading through the wetlands of Newham, along with other field trips.

When we re-define rigor to incorporate not just content and skills, but the components listed above, students are bound to have profound and significant learning experiences. Our purpose as educators is to help students find their passion, and to develop citizens who can make meaningful contributions to our current world and our shared future. Truly rigorous projects do this. If we define rigor in the right way.

Image courtesy of Jess Hughes and Pippa Sadgrove.

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