Why Schools Need to Change
Why Schools Need to Change

Today’s learners face an uncertain present and a rapidly changing future that demand far different skills and knowledge than were needed in the 20th century. We also know so much more about enabling deep, powerful learning than we ever did before. Our collective future depends on how well young people prepare for the challenges and opportunities of 21st-century life.

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The term "rigor" is misused in education. Let's retire this term that refers to a skill set that is decidedly 19th century.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
–Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

“Rigor” is so central to current conversations about education that it’s commonly referred to as one of the new “three R’s.” (Why R’s anyway? And why in the original three R’s do we misspell two of the three words even as we declare that reading and writing are the whole point of school? Is alliteration really that important? Never mind—different post.)

I’ve been in education for more than 20 years as both a practitioner and a researcher. I have spent a lot of time thinking about rigor, and a lot of time asking teachers and principals what they mean when they use that term. (During the NCLB era, it was depressing the extent to which the answer to that question was framed exclusively in terms of proficiency thresholds.) When I was an academic, I co-authored a book about research methods called Reason and Rigor. So it was pretty surprising when I learned recently that I’ve been using “rigor” incorrectly for most of my career.

Here’s how it happened. I was talking to a good friend who is not an educator but is heavily involved in his kids’ school on a volunteer basis. (He’s also an attorney, Scrabble fiend, and all around smart guy; the man pays attention to language.) He was asking about how things were going at the Workshop School, and I was going on about one of the real conundrums I wrestle with all the time: how do we push students to do a level and quality of work they don’t necessarily believe they can do? And at some point, I referred to this as “the rigor question.”

“Don’t use that word,” he interjected. “That’s not what it means!”

I’m like this too. There are certain words whose misuse drives me bonkers. (Currently at the top of my list is any time people think just adding more syllables to a word makes it better. Like penultimate somehow means “more ultimate,” or prototypical means “typical, only better.” Irregardless, which isn’t even a word, is the Typhoid Mary of this epidemic.) So it didn’t surprise me that he was ranting about this. It did, however, surprise me that I didn’t know what rigor meant.

Let’s do a little experiment. Right now, before I look it up for you, stop reading this and write down what you think rigor means. I’ll wait…

…and we’re back. Here’s what I would have written:

Rigor: a demand, challenge, or high standard.

A mini-epiphany for me was that while rigor is a noun, we almost always never mean it that way. Something is done with rigor, or an assignment lacks rigor. I have heard people refer to “the rigors of medical school,” but I have literally never heard anyone refer to “a rigor.” But that’s not the real eye-opener here. Take it away, Merriam-Webster:

Rigor (n)

  1. harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment: severity; the quality of being unyielding or inflexible: strictness; severity of life: austerity; an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty
  2. a tremor caused by a chill
  3. a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; especially: extremity of cold
  4. strict precision: exactness, logical rigor

Holy crap! That sounds horrible. I definitely do not want to do that to our children, even if we take out the extreme cold part. (Our students experience quite enough “severity of life,” thank you very much.)

It’s almost too perfect, isn’t it? We wanted to communicate that we think all kids can be great, and that schools should expect them to be. We ended up saying that our core values are strictness, harshness, cruelty, and inflexibility. And in practice, our schools tend to look much more like the actual definition of rigor than the imagined one. (Hidden benefit for progressive educators: next time someone tells you that project-based learning “lacks rigor,” you can arch an eyebrow and reply, “Well I certainly hope so.”)

We need a new R, people. One that actually means what we think it means. The good news is that if we build on past precedent, the word doesn’t even have to start with an R. Personally, I’m going for cRaftsmanship, but feel free to choose your own. But please, let’s retire a term that, it turns out, refers to a skill set that is decidedly 19th century. The English language and all of our students will definitely be better for our efforts.

​Matthew Riggan (he/his)

Co-Founder, Workshop School

Matthew Riggan is the co-founder of the Workshop School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.