RIGOR: Is it a word teachers can learn to love?

Nancy Flanagan, popular edu-blogger and member of the TLN Forum discussion group, is quoted at considerable length in a new guide for education journalists with the plain vanilla title Understanding and Reporting on Academic Rigor. It’s the latest in a series of “pocket guides” produced by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, headed by former Los Angeles Times education writer Richard Lee Colvin.

The 32-page guide, co-edited by journalist/blogger Joanne Jacobs, begins with the story “Rigor: It’s All the Rage, but What Does It Mean?”  — and continues with articles that may help reporters grasp the big idea that “rigor” doesn’t have to involve paddles and primitive pedagogy. The guide includes some brain research (naturally), a piece on rigor in career/tech, and a profile of a rigorous 40-year California teaching veteran (plus his first-person article about rigor in English instruction).

In addition to sidebar comments from notables like Deborah Meier (and two governors), the publication offers up a collection of quotes under the heading “Experts on Academic Rigor.” A few comments by K-12 educators appear under a different heading: “Teachers on Rigor.” (We’ll leave it to readers to decide why “experts” and “teachers” are two different categories.)

Flanagan, an NBCT and former Michigan teacher of the year, has a half-page commentary that appears on the inside back cover the report – a good spot, we think, since many of us approach “nonfiction text” by first browsing from back to front. Flanagan begins her remarks this way:

It might be easier to define rigor by noting what it is not: Rigor is not a synonym for ‘harder,’ and it does not mean moving first-grade curriculum into kindergarten, or algebra into the seventh grade. … Rigor means teaching and learning things more thoroughly – more deeply.

The guide is an interesting read — both to see what journalists are being told to seek out, and as a prompt to explore the idea of “rigor” in your own teaching practice or school. The lead story includes comments from teacher educator Barbara Blackburn, author of Rigor Is NOT a Four-Letter Word, who offers tips to reporters about “what to look for” in their search for rigor in the classroom. She also observes:

“People don’t know what rigor means. The teachers I work with are being told they’re supposed to include rigor. It’s certainly the flavor of the month. But teachers all say everyone is telling me what to do but they can’t tell me how to do it.”

Effective teachers who read Flanagan’s definition will likely decide that they DO know what rigor is – it’s something they do regularly. Flanagan writes:

Rigor is not assigning more homework. It is assigning better homework, open-ended work that pushes kids to think in multiple ways about the tasks they’ve been assigned, provides constructive feedback on their efforts – plus permission to edit, test prototypes, make multiple drafts. Most important, the teacher will not accept work that is less than the students’ best effort. Adding rigor to the curriculum cannot be achieved by moving standards, benchmarks and course requirements around, although those are the first things policymakers think to do.

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