“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
Before joining the world of education, my mother tongue consisted mostly of an abbreviated written and verbal vocabulary. Medical jargon is composed of an untold number of symbols and acronyms that make communication quite energy and time efficient. By using terms like MI (myocardial infarction/heart attack) and QOD (every other day), you could negotiate a serious conversation using 10 full words or less.
As an educator, I had to learn a whole new set of jargon — new meanings of phrases and words like scaffolding, differentiated instruction, accommodation, constructivism and rigor.
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Where medical terminology maintains its meaning despite the application, educational terms are more theoretical in nature and can often vary in interpretation. This is likely because schools deal with the whole child, rather than just a part of one. Due to the variables involved in child’s life, we need to attend to all the parts in order to fix one. From my observations, there are many interpretable differences within this theoretical paradigm.
One educational term I find exceptionally intriguing is rigor.
Defining and clarifying rigor
In medicine, rigor connotes a rigid state; severe trembling or shivering. In the Marines, it depicts the grit and discipline needed to accomplish a daunting task. Rigor is more of a term you would associate with a draconian Charles Dickens novel than with public education.
But in education — according to Barabara Blackburn, author of “Rigor is NOT a four letter word” — rigor is more about how the teacher teaches and how the students show that they understand. She says that 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.
Richard Colvin and Joanne Jacobs in their article, “Rigor: It’s all the rage, but what does it mean?” recall the rhetorical debates on rigor and classroom realities throughout history. In the 1800s, during the time of Horace Mann and the common school movement, the quest for academic excellence butted heads with the ideals of universal access to education.
During the late 1980s, states began to tighten graduation requirements after awakening to the rising academic mediocrity of its youth and the threatening impact on the nation’s future economy — both here and afar. There were too many kids falling through the cracks or graduating without necessary skills and knowledge. After someone suggested that students could work harder to master necessary coursework with the right assistance, this concept became the dominant focus of educational policy discussions and put a new spotlight on “meeting standards.”
Meanwhile, in the last decade or so, test outcomes of American students continued to pale in comparison with those of international students. What were they doing that we weren’t? Political and business leaders, as well as nonprofits, began pressuring educational systems to beef up their academic products to meet global standards. So in addition to having expectations, referred to as Common Core standards (or in Florida, the Florida Standards), the operative word rigor became the weapon of choice in the hopes of getting kids to meet those standards and prevent future industrial decline.
Culture of rigor
To want and expect rigor in the classroom is great. As a society, we certainly lack rigor in many aspects of our lives. But then again, we are no longer genetically predisposed to struggle, effort or perseverance. We don’t have to be.
So it makes sense that the successful application of rigor in the classroom or at home would require more than simply a mandate. Since rigor requires effort and commitment, a culture of rigor has to be created — right on down from business leaders to educational policy makers, from administrators to the educators and from parents to children.
And there has to be a seismic shift in mindset — per Carol Dweck, PhD — from a fixed mindset, where you believe you either are or aren’t good at something, based on inherent nature, to a growth mindset, where anyone can be good at anything, because abilities are entirely due to effort.
If we want to develop rigorous learners and thinkers, if we want our children to meet those standards, don’t we have to be cognizant of how we approach our own rigor?
In schools that are lagging behind expectations, educational reformers come in and script an educator’s lessons as well as the way it is implemented. Lori Ungemah, Assistant English Professor, in her Huffington Post article “What is Academic Rigor?!” shared the frustrations of teachers who were told by their administration that their lesson needed more academic rigor but couldn’t get the reformers to explain what it was they actually wanted to see. Even in the most delicate circumstances, rigor — in its practical application — remains difficult to embody.
The much anticipated arrival of the Florida Standards assures that a rigorous curriculum and the application of knowledge through high-order skills remain dominating educational objectives. While Blackburn and others have offered eloquent descriptions of rigor, many teachers and parents remain unsure of what rigor looks like. Because of that, the true meaning of academic rigor and its application remains hazy and misunderstood.
According to Rick Allen, interviewing educator Robyn Jackson in the ascd.org article “Support Struggling Students with Academic Rigor,” academic rigor can be viewed in four main components:
▪ Students know how to create their own meaning out of what they learn;
▪ They organize information so they create mental models;
▪ They integrate individual skills into whole sets of processes;
▪ They apply what they’ve learned to new or novel situations.
Ungemah offers some pragmatic ideas on rigor for both parents and teachers.
▪ Rigor is pushing yourself beyond your individual limits in order to get better at something — be it sports, reading or math. To make progress in anything there has to be an element of rigor.
▪ In order to achieve, students have to buy-in to the challenge. They must learn to embrace struggle. We have to make sure that they have the support they need as they move from feeling scared and overwhelmed, to taking a chance.
▪ Every minute of every task cannot and should not be rigorous. Learning can’t be all rigor, all the time.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.