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rigorSome of best lines in the film The Princess Bride are given to the assassin-for-hire Vizzini. For those unfamiliar with this classic film, Vizzini’s repeated use of the word “inconceivable” is finally challenged by the vengeance-seeking swordsman, Inigo Montoya while they stand overlooking a cliff watching the Dread Pirate Roberts climb in pursuit:

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up]
Vizzini: (enraged)  HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I believe the same misunderstanding is happening with education reformers overuse of the word “rigor.” The word is tossed about by education reformers without any understanding of what it actually means. To clear up any confusion, here are three definitions of rigor according to

1 n excessive sternness
“the rigors of boot camp”
hardness, harshness, inclemency, rigorousness, rigour, rigourousness, severeness, severity, stiffness
Type of:
sternness, strictness
uncompromising resolution

“Excessive sternness” speaks of some Dickensian workhouse/boarding school experience, while “boot camp” is an altogether different kind of training, not one tied to 21st Century skills. How does education reforms desire to create “uncompromising resolution” help to make students career and college ready when cooperation and collaboration are part of 21st Century skills?

The second meaning:

2. n something hard to endure
asperity, grimness, hardship, rigorousness, rigour, rigourousness, severeness, severity
the quality (as of scenery) being grim and gloomy and forbidding
Type of:
difficultness, difficulty
the quality of being difficult

“Something hard to endure” is how many high school students do feel, so there is a degree of “difficult-ness” that they employ in order to stop class. “Grimness” and “hardship” are not qualities that encourage students to do well. Why would education reformers seek to make schools “forbidding” with rigor unless they wanted to eliminate schools entirely?

The third meaning:

3. n the quality of being valid and rigorous
cogency, rigour, validity
Type of:
believability, credibility, credibleness
the quality of being believable or trustworthy

Here at least is a definition that addresses on quality of education- “validity.”  Yes, there should be validity to information and the way to measure that understanding in order to be credible. A synonym to validity, however, is “the property of being strong and healthy in constitution”, and that might be a better attitude to have when discussing education reform.

In 2008, education advocate Tony Wagner called for a new definition of “rigor” according to 21st Century criteria. In an article published in ASCD Magazine titled “Rigor Redefined” he indicated that:

 “It’s time to hold ourselves and all of our students to a new and higher standard of rigor, defined according to 21st-century criteria. It’s time for our profession to advocate for accountability systems that will enable us to teach and test the skills that matter most. Our students’ futures are at stake.”

Wagner suggested the following criteria for rigor in education:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  2.  Collaboration and Leadership
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4.  Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6.  Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7.  Curiosity and Imagination

There is nothing about severity or harshness in Wagner’s recommendations for rigor in education. Unfortunately, the Draconian definition from is the one that most often captures the attitude of education reformers and politicians who call for tougher standards, increased testing, and more (home) work in order to create an impression of rigor as making school more demanding. Their misuse of what Wagner sought in using the word rigor fails to include higher order thinking skills, problem solving or the significance of imagination.

Therefore, when confused education reformers use the word “rigor” to mean more demanding lessons or tests so difficult that students cannot possibly succeed, I propose teachers respond with by saying the word “Inconceivable!”

When education reformers discuss the need for rigorousness in curriculum at every grade level, I propose teachers correct reformers,with or without Inigo Montoya’s accent, and say, “You keep using that word…I do not think you know the meaning of that word!”[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Colette Marie Bennett is the Curriculum Coordinator for English Language Arts, Social Studies, Library...

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