Questioning Rigor

There is a part near the end of the book Teach Like a PIRATE by Dave Burgess where he questions why we’re using the term rigor. (Read also Shawn White's "Let's change R to V: Vigor, not Rigor") Since rigor means:
/ˈrigər/ Noun The quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate. Severity or strictness: “the full rigor of the law”. Synonyms rigour - severity - austerity - stringency - strictness
Being thorough or accurate… that is great. Being severe or strict… I just don’t have to be in my classroom.

What I want in my classroom

  • I want my classroom to thoroughly cover my subject.
  • I want every child to learn and be engaged.
  • I want to be engaging, fun, and a force in my classroom that coaches everyone towards excellence.
  • I want to help students learn habits and ways to think about life that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
  • I want students to be unafraid of technology and just know it cold - particularly how to learn about new technology, the great historical figures and trends in technology, and how to spot trends in technology in the future.
  • I want to help students find their passion in my classroom.
  • I want to have a purpose for every minute the students are in my classroom knowing that sometimes to an outsider viewing a minute or two of what we are doing that I risk being accused of purposelessness. I’m willing to brave the ire and disrespect of a casual observer to be an excellent, deep teacher by providing experiences that immerse students in authentic projects and activities.
  • I will take students anywhere in order to teach a lesson. Outside. Inside. Upside down. I’ll take them to town (and have). If there is a lesson to be taught, we’ll move around and get in a better position to observe and be part of what we’re learning. Sometimes you have to get in a different position to see the world differently.
  • I am passionate about teaching my subject but even when my passion wanes about a specific topic, my passion will never wane about my students.
  • I know that lesson plans go awry and that things happen that mean I need to go in a different direction than I planned. I’ll be adaptable and learn from mistakes and grasp the teachable moment like a cowboy ropes a bull by the horns. The only failure I won’t tolerate in myself and others is that of not learning from failure.
  • I love my students. That love does not depend upon whether they love me back.
  • I will fill every moment with intentional learning.
  • I will know when to back off and let student groups do the work of brainstorming and creativity and interject when kids need help with the process of facilitating brainstorming and creating without interfering too much with their final product.
  • I’ll let kids do things differently than I would.
  • I don’t want kids to be a “mini me” but a super you. They have a purpose different from mine. They have talents different from mine.
  • I’ll look for student talent and encourage kids to bring it in and use it to teach others and me.
  • I’ll admit my mistakes and help the class learn from them. Mistakes are embarrassing but to pretend I’m the only one in the classroom who doesn’t make them is to elevate myself to a pedestal upon which I will readily topple very soon.
  • I’m glad I’m a teacher and will encourage other teachers to remember what excellence looks like.

Can you laugh and learn?

Maybe what I do looks like rigor but honestly, sometimes it looks like we’re having a blast. I read a study that the average 4 year old laughs 300 times a day and the average 40 year old only 4 times a day. Well, when school is in session, I might give that 4 year old a run for the money.

Rigorous assessment of teachers in 10 minutes: say it isn’t so!

I think the problem with rigor is that some are trying to assess it in too short of a time. Turning back to the Teach Like a Pirate book by Dave, he mentions that someone came in to assess his “rigor” by spending 10 minutes in his room. They came in when he was folding cranes at the end of a powerful lesson about Hiroshima. Hearing him describe the full lesson - it was a perfect ending that the kids will never forget.

This person sent to “assess rigor” spent 10 minutes in his room and left after commenting to a student or two that “this doesn’t look like history.” I would argue that teacher assessment teams must be held to the same rigor as a classroom teacher!

If I spent 10 minutes on a lesson, I’d be "dinged’ for not doing my job. If a person is assessing a lesson, they should spend the entire time in class. Period. One class period. Honestly, that isn’t enough.

Faking it

I remember a distraught teacher at a local public school telling me her story one night. She says that she teaches across the hall from the worst teacher she’s ever seen. The kids do nothing, literally, most school days. They are roaming the halls…coming over to her room…getting in trouble. It is a mess. The teacher teaches little or nothing.


The teacher writes beautiful lesson plans that take her hours. She doesn’t follow them, she just writes them.

The teacher “performs” a good lesson plan three times a year… the three times that administration comes in to observe her. That is it.

Now, I hate to say this, but honestly, for administration to observe three total lesson plans from a teacher is a big deal. I know teachers who are lucky to get a few minutes once a year.

Dropping by is always a good thing

My principal “drops by” as does my curriculum director. I know I’ve just said that you have to see a lesson, but let me tell you what my principal and curriculum director do. They drop by when they see students working (which is a lot) and see what the kids are creating and doing.

I have often asked them to judge me not by what they see in my classroom sometimes. Because sometimes it looks like we’re a tad on the edge of chaos. I ask them to judge me by what my students produce and know. And those students know quite a bit.

Keep an eye on the ball.

So, while I’d say not to judge an entire lesson by 10 minutes. I’d also say to administrators that if you’re not popping your head in and walking around to see what is going on, you don’t have your head in the game.

A coach watches the game to see what plays the players are doing (if any at all.) A coach knows his or her players and knows how they play. If you don’t know how your teachers teach on a day to day basis, you aren’t keeping your eye on the ball.

Final words on rigor

I have some people I respect greatly like Barbara Blackburn who work with rigor in the classroom. I have the distinct impression that it really means – “are you focused on teaching your topic” but sadly some are interpreting it to mean “are you in your chairs lined up looking at the board and working.”

I’ve seen people walk in classrooms where the kids were quiet working on worksheets and commenting on how orderly and great the classroom is. Hogwash.

I can walk in your den and it is clean and tidy and everyone is reading a book and comment on how well your family gets along. And I could be very wrong.

Just because a classroom is quietly working on worksheets means nothing. In fact, I’d say if all a class does is worksheets then there’s probably a problem. The best teachers I know probably spend the least amount of time at the copier of anyone at the school. They still need it but their lessons are written in the experiences and activities that they plan. If they use a worksheet it is with intention and strategic.

Best wishes to you teachers.

I hope you’ll all pick up Dave’s book Teach Like a PIRATE and I also highly recommend Invent To Learn by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager. Both of these books will help you picture and imagine excellent learning.

I’m not saying rigor is a bad thing. But sometimes we need to understand that how people think they are using it is not really what they want to say. What do they mean by rigor? That is what we have to understand. Depending upon what they mean it could be a good or a bad thing. And if they try to observe whether rigor is happening in a way that is non rigorous itself, we should call them on it. I don’t think you can assess whether rigor exists in a classroom in 10 minutes… that assessment is slack and lacks rigor.

Be willing to question.

We teach with our lives. Our lives should be those that question and ask.
  • Should we blindly let others who know nothing or little about our profession lead us down a road which we do not think it wise to trod without asking them to show us the map?
  • If we’re being taken on a journey, should we ask questions to help understand the qualifications of the tour guides and if they have a track record of getting others there safely?
  • If the very future is at stake, should we let the pendulum swing over the line from helpful to hurtful without standing in the way?
I think that these questions about rigor are ones that should be asked and applaud Dave Burgess for asking them so bravely.

I’d really like to hear from more of you. What are your thoughts about the term “rigor”? Is the assessment of “rigor” in your classroom done in a rigorous way itself? Please speak out so we can further this conversation.

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