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Uncategorized   |   Oct 6, 2011

Is rigor a four-letter word?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Is rigor a four-letter word?

By Angela Watson


I never thought that rigor might be a bad thing until this past weekend.

In fact, I didn’t consider the controversy around the term at all. Most of my understanding about rigor was based on the book Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word by Barbara R. Blackburn. As the title suggests, the author presents rigor as a good thing in education.  She shows teachers how to ask quality questions that engage kids in higher-level thinking, and increase the complexity of content through projects and other meaningful assignments. Her approach to rigor is based on believing in students, encouraging them, and supporting them through scaffolding their learning.

I found Blackburn’s understanding of rigor to be very helpful and relevant. Her book is really empowering and clearly values the opinions of both teachers and students. How could there be a controversy over something so obviously beneficial for schools?

Then I went to EdCamp.

I attended an excellent session called Tools or Toys: What does Rigor Mean in a Tech Context? We did a Chalk Talk, in which the facilitator writes a statement on the board (in this case, “Rigor is…”) and participants brainstorm their thoughts, coming over to write whenever they have something to add. When a natural break in the brainstorming occurs–usually after about five to eight minutes–a verbal discussion and debate follows. It’s a great technique to use in the classroom because students who are too shy to share their ideas verbally may feel less inhibited about writing their ideas down, and the slower pace of a written discussion allows for more think time and reflection.


You can see from the chalk talk photo that there were very divergent opinions: stressful, digging in deeply to a topic, thinking/working to the edge of your ability, NOT short for rigormortis. Many people were quite apprehensive about using the word and it’s possible implications: the first comment in the discussion was from a participant who was shocked that anyone had anything positive to say about the word at all!  It became quite apparent that rigor is a word with a bad reputation, associated with drill-and-kill exercises and testing kids to death.

After some discussion, it became apparent that rigor as defined by the department of education is very different from rigor as defined by teachers. There was a general consensus that rigorous curriculum SHOULD be engaging, collaborative, creative, and challenging. However, it’s often twisted to mean testing and accountability, because rigor is used as an excuse for demanding too much of both teachers and students.

There was a sense that rigor is a term that needs to be re-claimed by educators who care about what’s best for kids. Some great resources from the session that help with that are posted on Krzysztof Grabarek’s blog. You can also read sample chapters from “Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word” at the Eye on Education website.

The nebulousness of the term”rigor” has led some people to ditch that word altogether. What are your thoughts on this? Is there another word that better describes the type of learning environment and curriculum we want to provide our students? What’s your perception of rigor?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I have this term I’ve come up with. Contested Key Construct.

    It is a label for ideas (i.e. constructs) for which there is near universal esteem (i.e. it’s key!), but wide disagreement about it’s actual meaning or form (i.e. contested). Heck, much of the time that disagreement is unacknowledged, and often unknown.

    What is Teacher Leadership? We all know it is important. We have very different ideas about it is. Reflective Practice? Tbere are a whole bunch of them.

    The problem with contested key constructs is that the allow language to act as a buffer between different ideas and practices, getting in the way to sharing practice and evaluating what we (and others) are doing.

    It seems that Rigor is another contested key construct.

    1. Hey, Alex, thanks for taking the time to share that. I like the idea of a ‘contested key construct’ and agree that rigor seems to be one of them. It’s interesting how language that was intended to be communicative ends up being divisive and unclear. I think that’s why it’s so important to constantly examine the language we choose and what it means to our intended audience. That’s true in the classroom when communicating with students, and true when talking with one another, as well.

  2. Thank you for posting this because it has expanded my reflections pertaining to my practices in the classroom.

    The original latin word rigere means “stiff”. This may be construed as being negative; however, there is a positive side, depending upon the context. We tend to think of stiff as being unyielding an lacking flexibility. It may also mean strict adherance to a principle or subject. In a classroom where “anything goes” children suffer from the lack of rigor.

    I remember as a child trying to get the teacher to go off topic because I was not interested in his/her agenda. If teachers allow their students to waiver off course, the students may miss important skills. If I enjoyed the pace of my teacher’s lesson I was typically fully engaged even if it was a topic considered “boring”. The teacher must keep a rigorous pace, without lags, so time is not wasted.

    In a classroom where children children are not permitted to think or move, the children are not given the opportunities to be creative. There is a delicate balance. To give the children the opportunities to be the forward thinkers of their generation we cannot allow rigor mortis to settle in our daily lessons.

    That is the challenge!

    I am planning to ask this question of my students 3rd through 6th graders. It should be interesting!

    1. Hi, Margie! Rigor in regard to instructional pacing is an important concept. I would say it’s one of the most important ways I’ve sought to make my own instruction more rigorous: never wasting a single moment of students’ time. There is a tremendous amount of down time in most classrooms, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve shared so many resources on my site for streamlining procedures and routines. Taking the entire class to the water fountain three times a day is thirty minutes of wasted instructional time daily and the opposite of rigor, in my opinion. Very small changes in routines can make a powerful impact on the depth and quality of students’ learning experiences.

      I’m looking forward to hearing what your 3rd-6th graders think of this topic. I bet they’ll have some great insights!

  3. I secretly prefer to use the term “vigor” instead of “rigor”. The word “rigor” has very negative meanings in Webster’s dictionary.
    I try to teach enthusiastically and with energy. I encourage my students to write creatively and enjoy education. Every time I hear the word “rigor”, I know what’s meant by it, but I substitute the word “vigor” in my own mind. I shared this with my administrator and they used it for a PD workshop!

    1. That’s great, Ruby! 🙂 I love that you’ve taken a term which isn’t meaningful for you and changed your perception of it. I agree, teaching “vigorously” sounds much more enjoyable than teaching “rigorously”!

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