‘Rigor’ and ‘Rigorous’ are 4-letter words!


OK, I can count.  I know that ‘rigor‘ and ‘rigorous‘ are not really four-letter words.  However, I believe that they, when used by politicians and educators, they are curse words.

Here’s what brings this to mind: I am trying to figure out what I have learned in my 41 years of reporting about education. Over the years I have sat in 1000’s of classrooms and have spent countless hours with lots of teachers, and, for the life of me, I cannot remember a single teacher ever using either the noun or the adjective in our conversations.

But administrators and politicians, that’s a different story.  My hunch is, the further away they are from the classroom, the more likely people are to use those cuss words.  But they aren’t cussing, of course. Sadly, they are describing what they are convinced schools need more of.

It was the great Debbie Meier who first brought to my attention the familiar form of rigor in our language: rigor mortis.

Let’s ask Merriam Webster:

Full Definition of rigor. 1 a (1) : harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment : severity (2) : the quality of being unyielding or inflexible : strictness (3) : severity of life : austerity b : an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty. 2 : a tremor caused by a chill.

Full Definition of rigorous. 1 : manifesting, exercising, or favoring rigor : very strict. 2 a : marked by extremes of temperature or climate b : harsh, severe.

Is that what you want for schools, for your children or grandchildren?

So, if you care about education and you hear some know-it-all talking about the need for more rigor, run the other way.  Or, better yet, confront him or her.

Here’s what good schools, some of them anyway, look and sound like: https://themerrowreport.com/2014/11/07/what-happens-in-good-schools/

12 thoughts on “‘Rigor’ and ‘Rigorous’ are 4-letter words!

  1. There is an alternative definition here: http://edglossary.org/rigor/ : “While dictionaries define the term as rigid, inflexible, or unyielding, educators frequently apply rigor or rigorous to assignments that encourage students to think critically, creatively, and more flexibly. Likewise, they may use the term rigorous to describe learning environments that are not intended to be harsh, rigid, or overly prescriptive, but that are stimulating, engaging, and supportive.”

    Don’t we have more important things to do, than to debate semantics of a term, especially based on a false premise of a one-sided, out of context definition?


    • “Don’t we have more important things to do, than to debate semantics of a term,…”

      Isn’t that what you’re doing? Debating the semantics of a term? In fact, you’re completely re-defining it to suit your purpose. “Rigorous” has an accepted definition. If “stimulating”, “engaging” or “supportive” are the words mean, why not use those words?


      • The problem is the “semantics” are used to force meaningless drudgery on unsuspecting children. It’s not just the word, It’s the action behind it. If you can make students puke through drudgery, you will have a successful student, right? NOT!


    • ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

      It speaks volumes about Success Academy that the parents who send their children there insist that “rigor” means “rich and rewarding” because that’s what Success Academy tells them that rigor means. Of course it doesn’t! And what kind of educator wrongly uses “rigor” to mean “stimulating and engaging”? And tries to convince gullible parents that they should ignore reality and believe them? And this is what they teach the children! A word means what I want it to mean. Scary.

      But it certainly speaks volumes that the wrong definition is ascribed to “edglossary.org” — which is apparently the “education reformers” glossary. Apparently, they take to heart the REST of the quotation:

      ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

      ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.'”

      Welcome to the future of education, the Success Academy way.


  2. Well, it’s not the only thing I do…..
    Seriously, I have NEVER heard a teacher use either term, and the only educators I recall hearing use them are basically from the ‘test, don’t trust’ camp that endorses what strikes me as an outmoded and harmful pedagogy, one that rewards regurgitation over just about everything else. I think that book of definitions, or at least that example, is naive. Just MHO


    • I can see how teachers may not use the terminology – perhaps it’s the kind of bullet-point shorthand, used by folks who develop new curricula or educational models, but it resonates with many parents. Personally for me, as a parent of 3 elementary age kids, one of my fears is a classroom, where a teacher teaches to the middle, and my son finds it too easy, gets bored and eventually loses interest in learning.

      So to me, as a parent, when I hear “rigorous curriculum”, my first question is – is it truly a high expectation school culture that is rich, positive, focused on critical thinking and fun, or is it just harsh, overbearing and rigid? I suppose “rigorous” can mean either of those two things, and it’s important for a parent to figure out, which meaning of this word is used at a school, that claims itself to be rigorous.

      As you may remember, one of my kids attends Success Academy, which often calls its curriculum “rigorous”, and this question of “depth and richness” vs. “harshness and inflexibility” was one of my main worries, when we first applied to the school. A year and a half later, I am happy to report, that I find the school’s academic approach to be rich and fun, but they also stay on top of things (try to skip a homework assignment, and you will be getting a phone call from the teacher lol). Equally as important, even though my son does well academically, he doesn’t get to cruise in class and gets challenged at his level with extra credit work, and my son enjoys it.

      So, the fight against the term “rigor” has this element of dog whistle politics, that de-legitimizes concerns of parents like myself, by saying – “rigorous” ALWAYS means harsh and inflexible, and can NEVER mean “rich and rewarding”, as some opponents of charter schools like to imply.

      For parents like me, “rigorous education” has a positive meaning, for the reasons that I described above.


      • “one of my fears is a classroom, where a teacher teaches to the middle, and my son finds it too easy, gets bored and eventually loses interest in learning.”

        Yes, much better to “teach to the top” so that those in the middle and better yet, those who are below the middle (remember, that is 50% of the students!) understand (“wink wink nod nod”) that they are NOT welcome nor will not be “taught to” at our school. They won’t be taught at all! They will be offered the “rigor” that the students well ABOVE those middling children can handle, and if those middling students don’t get it, well “off with their heads!” Or just “off with their renewal forms”!

        From one parent to another, let me reassure you that for generations in the United States, most of the smartest students in elementary school have been taught without “teaching to the top” and have done just fine. Finding the work “easy” in 4th grade isn’t necessarily a bad thing and gives your child a chance to pursue reading and other interest he loves outside the classroom. A good way to damage a child’s love of school is to constantly make it “hard” for him because you think that if that child is not pushed to his limits at age 8 or 9 and experiences some “boredom” at school, it will be a terrible thing.

        The youngest “advanced learners” I know have pursued their learning — OUTSIDE of school — by reading or building or creating or thinking because they enjoyed doing it, especially when they are of elementary school age. If you need a school that teaches to the top in elementary school in order for your child to be a top student in middle or high school, it is possible that the child just wasn’t an advanced learner in the first place. And all the pushing in the world may just as likely backfire later. It is fine to be bored once in a while. It is fine to use that time to daydream. (I’m sorry, I know that is a bad word in certain schools, because daydreaming interrupts “rigor”.)


      • Parent010203, I agree with some of your points. To me, the ideal alternative to “teaching to the middle” is not to teach to the top, but to reach every child at the level they are at. That is obviously difficult to do and requires more than one teacher in the classroom, various small group activities etc…


  3. I take your point, but I would describe the best aspects of the Success curriculum as ‘demanding’ and ‘challenging,’ both positive words in denotation and connotation, and leave ‘rigorous’ out of the conversation.


    • John, you are probably right, it would be nice to get someone like Frank Luntz or George Lakoff to coin and focus-group a better term, so that people don’t trip over it.

      Of course it’s also common in politics, when professional wordsmiths try to artificially attach a negative connotation to a neutral term, in order to gain tactical advantage, as in the “Death Tax” vs Estate Tax”.


      • Frank Luntz? You mean the Faux News language destroyer who creates a whole new language to suit business purposes? Thank you, no.


  4. Ah yes, love those catch words that people cling to with the false belief that the more miserable a child is, the more that child will learn.

    Allow me to quote from page 20 of my book Brainstorming Common Core. “Driving the agenda of children is the need to connect to every last child. Begin by taking the drudgery out of learning. There is no rule that rigor, grit and other contrived catchwords that suck the joy out of learning cannot relate to the joy of learning”

    Hard work is not drudgery when is about the business of seeking ones passion. The joy of learning drives a child to work harder to achieve a more relevant goal than drudgery/rigor will ever do.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s