Rigor in Education- What's the Deal?
“Rigorous lessons build on and extend prior knowledge. They encourage productive struggling. Although the objective of a lesson should be clear in the teacher’s mind, the lesson should not focus on one correct path to a solution or even one correct answer. A rigorous lesson embraces the messiness of a good [lesson] and the deep learning that it has the potential to achieve.”
--The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
My goal is to create content for you that perfectly blends inquiry, fun, and rigor in your classrooms. I’ve talked about inquiry and fun, (or creativity) before; have you ever wondered about the term rigor?
Sometimes, rigor is encouraged, but it can also have a dark side.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines rigor as:
1a (1) : harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment : severity (2) : the quality of being unyielding or inflexible : strictness (3) : severity of life : austerity
Harsh inflexibility seems incredibly negative to me, and is definitely not something I would ever want to encourage in a classroom.
According to Edutopia, however, we need a new definition of rigor. “Rigor is the result of work that challenges students' thinking in new and interesting ways. It occurs when they are encouraged toward a sophisticated understanding of fundamental ideas and are driven by curiosity to discover what they don't know.”
Since there are negative definitions of rigor, it’s important that we differentiate and continue implementing the positive attributes of rigor. As a result of providing positive rigorous instruction, our students are challenged to think critically about the topic, and develop a more in-depth understanding.
Positive rigor also encourages confidence in the classroom. Confidence leads to creativity. Once students are more confident in a topic, they will naturally gravitate towards thinking outside the box on the given topic.
Rigor in learning is, simply put, powerful.
Listen, kids may whine at first when you have higher standards and require them to push through more challenging coursework. But they truly can do it! It’s hard to not feel guilty for leveling up your game. The complaining has led me to question so many times whether I was pushing too hard or expecting too much. But if you just stick with it, it turns out they will accept that you are a tough teacher and that you believe they can do it!
Their coaches push them to run and require a lot of them, and they are not allowed to complain! They can do the same in school. Don’t be afraid to keep your expectations high. Of course, you will need to differentiate and reach every student. So I am not saying to make your demands on the kids unreasonable. You’ll know what a student can truly do, and be sure that you are aware of their differences. But keeping the level of healthy rigor high benefits everyone.
Remember that a whiny attitude at first is just a way of testing. Are you going to cave and say “oh you’re right, that is too hard for you” or will you stick to your guns and have them give it a try?
The reaction of kids to “test” the expectations reminds me of a video I saw a couple of years ago about parenting teens. It compared teenagers to riders on a roller coaster. When the ride crew comes around and pushes the bar down tight on your lap, what do you do? Of course you push back up to test it. But deep down, you are hoping it will hold steady. You know you need that clear expectation, that you don’t want too much freedom. You are hoping someone will be steady, clear, and not budge when you need that. I think about that video often and I feel that it relates to so many aspects of dealing with teenagers and kids.
NCTM shares the key to moving towards rigorous instruction as a big picture. “Professional development experiences that model rigor through the use of rich tasks, rich discourse, and good questions allow teachers to experience rigorous instruction.”
Let's break that down! Here are specific ways to incorporate healthy rigor:
- Have students explore and discover properties for themselves. For example, have them explore how they can arrange the desks in the room into a right triangle with a hypotenuse length of 7. Let them explore, fail, and discover that only certain Pythagorean Triples exist!
- Ask your class to display the information from the lesson in a graphic note. They’ll have to develop a layout to represent the big ideas and sketch visual memory triggers for the concepts. You can offer them printed templates for additional guidance as needed. (Because remember, we must differentiate to avoid the “harsh inflexibility” definition of rigor!)
- Encourage solid partner talk. Let students chat through question prompts such as these critical thinking challenge questions. They’ll have to clearly explain their reasoning, which strengthens understanding. You’ll see the power of rigor in action!
- Require writing in math. This is one of those ones that will induce whining, but it’s worth it. Push through / ignore the complaining stage, then show them explicitly how to do it! This Writing in Math Pack helps teach students how to navigate this challenge.
- Use strategic questioning. This applies during lecture, during practice time, and on assessments. Avoid multiple choice! Try having students explain in words. Prompt them to keep working when they are stuck, and phrase your hints as questions. This takes practice!
- Try “always, sometimes, never” questioning to encourage all of these aspects of rigor to work together! This type of questioning offers a rich task and also requires rich discourse. Be sure to pair students up so they have to work together to determine whether each statement is “always true,” “sometimes true,” or “never true.”