Rigor or Vigor? What Do We Want For Our Children?

Key Points

  • What started as rigor, relevance, and relationships has become rigor for the sake of rigor.

  • A vigorous learning system is strength-based, not deficit-based — human-centered, not curriculum-centered.

For nearly two decades educational reformers have been touting the need to create rigorous curriculum, standards, and learning for our students. The result of all these reforms are tepid at best and has damaged children and teachers at its worst.

It’s time to ditch the idea of “rigor” and the damage it has caused, as it is the opposite direction we want to be traveling in. Like my friend, Eliot Washer, Co-Founder of the Big Picture Learning Schools, once told me, “We don’t need rigorous learning, we need vigorous learning!” As educators, we must embrace the idea of creating vigor and vigorous learning and growth. 

First, let’s explore the definitions of both rigor and vigor. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “rigor” as follows:

  • Stiffness, to be stiff (e.g. rigor mortis)
  • The quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate
  • Demanding, difficult, or extreme conditions
  • Harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper or judgement
  • The quality of being unyielding or inflexible
  • A condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable
  • Strict precision

Now, lets take a look at Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com’s definitions of “vigor”:

  • Active bodily or mental strength or force
  • Active, healthy, well-balanced growth
  • Intensity of action or effect
  • Strong, healthy, full of energy
  • Healthy physical or mental energy or power
  • Energetic activity, force of healthy growth

When reading these definitions the stark difference between these two words and their meanings is striking. The words we use shape our behaviors and actions. Is a learning experience that is inflexible, severe, harsh, strict, and unyielding actually the learning experience and environment we want for our kids? Or, do we want them to experience a VIGOROUS school and curricular experience? A learning experience that is active, healthy, well-balanced and filled with physical and mental energetic activity? The answer seems obvious. One approach makes things more difficult, hard to bear, and something to try to live through. The other is about being active, healthy, engaged and becoming powerful. 

You can either stand with the student against the standards or with the standards against the student.

Trace Pickering

The old refrain is “rigor, relevance, and relationships.” Unfortunately, since “rigor” was most compatible with the existing order of traditional American education, it received the most attention and work. To be more rigorous, we systematically created an unachievable amount of standards in order to graduate, tougher tests, pacing guides, and tougher curriculum. We carried out the very definition of rigor — demanding, difficult, harsh, making life more difficult for everyone in the system. 

Rigor shows up in all the efforts to create a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” which assumes a mechanical orientation to improvement, believing that a consistent and same set of inputs will produce the same outputs. Want to show you have a “good” school? Show them how damn hard and unrelenting your curriculum and pacing guides are. Then simply give lip service to relevance and relationships. Relevance goes out the door with the idea that a single “guaranteed and viable” curriculum can meet all student needs and personal interests and desires. Rigor has no room for exceptions. Relationships are the cost of true “rigor.” You can either stand with the student against the standards or with the standards against the student. Rigorous approaches choose the later, further dehumanizing the entire system.

The result of rigor is that we’re creating rigor mortis in our kids, teachers, and schools. The constant drone of sameness, of drilling and killing teachers and curriculum directors chasing the illusion that a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” (inputs) will produce consistent, high-level outcomes. Teachers are burnt out and frustrated, feeling that much of their ability to adapt to individual students and contexts has been taken away. Students, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, see and feel the inhumanity of school with its focus on an unrelenting curriculum largely asking them to learn things in decontextualized ways. Rigor also assumes a deficit mindset, dictating all the learning and approach to learning rather than growth-minded and strength-focused like vigor implies

What if American education turned away from rigor and towards vigor? What if we became an education system focused on creating a life-affirming, well-balanced, energetic growth trajectory for our students, teachers and schools? What are some things we could do to move towards a vigorous learning system and approach? 

First, we need an honest conversation about the standards. I’m all for clear standards that create a meaningful baseline that all learners need to reach. Currently, however, the ~300 standards we expect all high school graduates to know and demonstrate are all about proving one’s “rigor.” A vigorous set of standards would include standards from all aspects of life and that every reasonable American adult should know and be able to do. I believe it’s pretty hard to argue that every American needs to know and solve Algebra II formulas and pretty easy to argue that all Americans must have a grasp on basic mathematics, including statistics and probability. Our standards should reflect this more reasonable approach.

Second, to have a vigorous approach to learning, students must have a much stronger voice in what and how they learn. They have to see how what they are learning helps them now and makes them stronger and smarter. They need to be able to explore things that interest them and have teachers around them who can help them see that knowing some science, math, English, history, technology, etc., etc. helps them in their interest areas and improves their life in general.

Third, a vigorous learning environment makes relationships and relevance absolute necessities. Healthy physical and mental energy is dependent upon strong relationships with caring adults helping them engage in relevant and worthwhile learning. The same thing needs to be provided all the adults in the system as well.

Let’s strive for vigorous learning for everyone in the system. Let’s be strength-based, not deficit-based. Let’s be human-centered, not curriculum-centered. Let’s drive learning through vigorous approaches characterized by strong relationships, relevant experiences, and truly deep learning.

Trace Pickering

Trace Pickering is a former Senior Fellow for Getting Smart and Co-Founder of Iowa BIG.

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