A colleague of mine never liked the idea of rigor in schools.

Now that might seem like a shocking or disappointing view for a teacher. Education, as we know, should be challenging and even difficult, for learning valuable new skills is never supposed to be simple. There’s no free lunch, and nothing of value comes easy in life. Thus, whenever critics and reformers talk about public education and lament how American students are supposedly falling behind, they strongly endorse the idea of rigor in education. If it’s not hard, the logic goes, then they’re not really learning anything. However, it’s never that simple. And questioning the idea of rigor is not as passive as it might seem.

For twenty years or so, the idea of rigor has been all the rage in debates about student achievement, education reform, and “fixing our schools.” Rigor is paired with ideas such as grit, standards, basic skills, and achievement gaps in identifying the problems of education and the key factors in improving it. It was back in 2001 that President George W. Bush decried “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” as he teamed with Senator Ted Kennedy on the No Child Left Behind Act which, among other things, promoted high standards for all kids measured through yearly standardized testing. The law also promised all students would achieve at grade level by 2014. And it was in 2009 that President Obama declared “It’s time to expect more from our kids.” But what do people really mean when they say rigor?

It was, as we sat in a meeting discussing student achievement and being responsive to our students’ needs, that David first questioned the idea of rigor. A veteran teacher who was a tireless advocate for all kids, he told us, “I just don’t feel good about this idea of rigor.” He’d been listening to discussions of maintaining or increasing rigor in our schools and how any innovation must not compromise our rigor. So, David actually looked up the definition of rigor and learned it is characterized as “demanding, difficult, and extreme conditions, also severity and strictness.” As an educator, he told us, “I find it difficult to feel good about those terms when teaching kids.” The idea of severity and strictness being the guiding principles of our educational practice just doesn’t feel right.

So, David told us he wants to replace the term rigor. Instead, he wants us to plan and teach with a focus on vigor. As an educator, I’m intrigued and excited about that idea. Vigor is characterized as effort, energy, enthusiasm, and robustness. That sounds like the kind of class I want to teach. I imagine a vigorous class would naturally have much higher levels of engagement. And if I know anything about education after nearly thirty years, it’s that an engaged student is much more likely to learn and achieve. As a parent, I know that a class taught with vigor is the type class I’d want for my own children.

Education writer Carol Jago in her book “With Rigor for All” argued for the importance of “teaching the classics to contemporary students.” Her point is that schools must not underestimate students’ abilities or avoid certain material because it might be difficult. The key is engaging them in the challenge of learning complex information and skills. To a student, rigor often just means something is hard. And to parents and education critics rigor just means high expectations. In reality, true academic rigor means designing lessons that provide students with challenging but engaging material and activities which actually support them in achieving those high standards and encouraging them to persist even when the work is hard.

Far too often, teachers feel pressure to make sure their class is hard enough. This pressure may be internal, coming from a need to justify the time and effort kids put in to earn the grade. It can also be external, coming from people who associate school with lots of homework or perhaps the media who simply focus on test scores and international comparisons. In reality, the difficulty of a class is not the appropriate way to gauge its value. Ultimately, it’s all about the learning which comes from the students’ engagement with the class. And a class taught with vigor, not rigor, sounds like a pretty good place to start. 

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @ mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com