Sunday, February 16, 2014

Clarifying and Personalizing a Definition of Rigor

What is rigor?
We’ve heard it’s what the Common Core State Standards have imbedded in their performance objectives.  We know it’s what our principal and site administrators have told us that’s what they’re looking for when they come to observe our classroom.  We know it’s the type of teaching we need to provide and kind of learning our students need to demonstrate and communicate.  We're constantly reminded to incorporate and increase rigor when we plan and provide our instruction.
However, what exactly does this rigor look like, and how do we know if we’re providing it appropriately, effectively, and as expected?
If you look up the definition of rigor on, you will find the following definitions:
1.   strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people
2. the full of extreme severity of rules, laws, etc.
3.   severity of living conditions; hardship; austerity
4.   a severe or harsh act, circumstance, etc.
5.   scrupulous or inflexible accuracy or adherence
This last definition also give an example: the logical rigor of mathematics, which many of us educators – particular math teachers – may understand.  However, what exactly is that logical rigor of mathematics? Or science?  Or English language arts?  Or history?  Or social studies?  Or even art, music, or physical education?  What does rigor in that context even mean or even imply? 
"You can't teach with rigor if
you don't know what it means!!!
How can you teach with rigor if
you don't know what it means?!!"

If you search for synonyms, you will find words such as inflexibility, stringent, harsh, difficulty, and even cruel.  Is this what marks a rigorous ?  Is being inflexible counterproductive if we want our students to think critically and creatively about what is being taught and learned?  How can our students express their own original arguments, claims, conclusions, and ideas supported by the data, evidence, and facts they have acquired if we are stringent about our expectations?  What about the words harsh and cruel?  Those words harken images of the schoolteacher in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” and that we have to instruct our class like Professor Snape from the Harry Potter novels.

What about the synonym, difficulty?  Does that define rigor?  If so, then we must already be implementing the rigor in our classroom.  Difficulty is generally defined as easy and hard based upon amount and effort.  We generally increase difficulty by asking and providing more more work, more time, more effort, more responsibility.   We work our kids harder to get more out of them.  We give them time to work in class from bell to bell and extend the learning by giving them more work to do at home.  We extend the school day or the school year to give them more time to learn all the stuff they need to know, understand, and be able to do by the end of the school year.  We figure the more they know, understand, and are able to do, the more they have learned.
Is teaching and learning for difficulty a bad thing?  Of course not, and if anyone tells you that we should not have our students doing hard work or even more work also does not have a clear understanding of what rigor means.  Hard work and more work are a good thing.  However, as the old adage goes, too much of a good thing is not a good thing.
Is providing more time to teach and learn the wrong approach?  Again, no.  However, how exactly are we using the time allotted?  Are we just giving our students more questions to answer, more problems to solve, and more tasks to complete, and is the more work we providing truly helping our students develop deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness?
Rigor is more synonymous with depth – specifically, depth of knowledge. understanding, and awareness.  Education – and society as a whole – expects us teachers and our students to go deeper with what is being taught and learned.  It’s not about how many questions a student can answer, problems a student can solve, or tasks they cam complete but rather how clearly they can explain their thought process and establish connections between academics and the real world.  Answers, responses, and solutions are now both quantified and qualified as correct, incorrect, or those that can be defended or justified.  It’s not only about what students need to know, understand, and be able to do but also how they can use what they have learned to think critically, creatively, and strategically – or deeply – to answer questions, solve problems, and complete tasks.  Knowing what addition is and using it to add two plus to two used to be acceptable.  However, our students must now be able to analyze why the answer is 4; evaluate why the answer is not 3, 5, or any other number; and create a real world scenario in which they can use a number of addition algorithms to attain a sum of 4.
This concept of rigor follows the definition stated by Barbara Blackburn in her book Rigor Is NOT a Four-Letter Word (2008):
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.

Blackburn provides us educators a more teacher-applicable and even student-centered definition of rigor we educators can understand and use to base our planning, instruction, assessment, and instruction. She also does an excellent job clarifying what she means.  We need to establish a learning environment in which our students learn at high levels, which suggests have them think deeper.  We need to support students as they think deeper through facilitation and guidance.  We need to set high expectations for our students to demonstrate and communicate their deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness.  If we need further help, Blackburn provides us with a plethora of strategies and tools to help us implement and increase the rigor in our classroom.  We can work with this definition!
However, it still leaves much for interpretation – which, again, is not a bad or wrong.  Every classroom is unique.  Every student responds to teaching and learning differently.  Every teacher’s approach and expertise varies.  What may be rigorous for one child or group or children may not be for another.
So how do we implement rigor in our teaching and learning, and how do we continuously increase the rigor to challenge and engage our students?  Does it mean increasing the level of difficulty or deepening the learning experience by providing questions, problems, and tasks that are more abstract, complex, and intricate?
Perhaps rigor is not something that can be defined universally.  Perhaps rigor is more of a personal philosophy or perspective than a standard.   Perhaps it is more individualized than standardized.  Perhaps in order to for us to truly clarify what is rigor we need to come up with own criteria for what qualifies as rigor by considering the following questions:

What kind of thinking and action are students expected to demonstrate in order to answer a question, solve a problem, or complete a task? (higher order thinking)

How deeply does a student need to know, understand, and be aware of a concept, idea, subject, or topic in order to answer the question, solve the problem, or complete the task accurately, appropriately, and effectively? (depth of knowledge)

By considering these questions as we plan and provide teaching and learning, we can come up with our criteria for rigor, which can be simply explained as the following:
Rigor is marked by the student’s ability to demonstrate higher order thinking and depth of knowledge, understanding, and awareness of what is being taught and learned in order to answer a question, solve a problem, or complete a task.

This provides us not a definition but rather a frame of reference that will help us educators in planning and providing instruction.  We can look to Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy to define the level of thinking students must demonstrate and the knowledge they must develop.  We can look to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to determine how deeply they need to know, understand, and be aware of what they are learning in order to answer the question, solve the problem, or complete the task.

We can use the standards, the curriculum, and the text as a basis for planning our instruction.   However, we should question whether they go deep enough.  Do the story problems in the math textbook show how to apply mathematical concepts and practices in a real life context or do they allow students to gain deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness of how math is used to address a real world issue, problem, or situation?  Does that author study i and the one or two examples of the author’s work featured the English Language Arts textbook provide our students with the deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness not only of the author’s style but also their impact on literature?  Does the history or social studies textbook truly provide enough facts and information about an event or culture or should our students go beyond the textbook and research and investigate further or review other perspectives?  Does the science curriculum merely review theories and provide opportunities to engage students in lab experiments in a controlled environment or should we extend the learning and take our students into the field where they can observe and test these theories in the natural environment?
If you are asking yourself these questions as you plan and provide teaching and learning, you have a developed deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness of what is rigor and how is it incorporated in teaching and learning.  Now your next step is for you define what is rigorous instruction in your classroom and for your students.

- E.M.F.

For further information about teaching and learning for higher order thinking and depth of knowledge, please visit our website at


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