By Betsy Zobl Jagosz
Rigor is a prominent buzzword in education at the moment and Common Core Standards emphasize the need for rigorous content and learning. The emphasis on rigorous learning prevails in current conversations about education standards; a quick and dirty Google search on “rigor in education” returns more than 12 million results. The first page of hits is mostly journal articles with titles like “Characteristics of a Rigorous Classroom” and “Recognizing Rigor in Classrooms.” Clearly, rigor is all the rage.
Discussions of rigor tend to focus on the demanding nature of content, sometimes eliciting apprehensive visions of second graders learning about multivariables and sixth graders reading Ulysses. But the idea of rigor, alarmist extremes aside, is a good one –students must be given demanding, challenging content accompanied by high performance expectations. In all the conversation about creating rigorous content that challenges students, however, we don’t want to ignore the need for vigorous content as well.
Vigorous content is flexible and dynamic. Vigorous content doesn’t end with an answer; it ends with more questions and inspires reflective, evaluative student learning. It promotes real-world extrapolation and fosters critical thinking skills founded on rigorous content. Vigorous content can and should be demanding, but more than anything, it should propel the student beyond content. It gives the student an opportunity to build on the content after the student has written the paper and passed the exam.
An example from my classroom – students are reading a text set during the Afghan civil war. There is a great deal of Arabic vocabulary in the text, and students must be able to understand not just the literal meaning of Arabic words, but their meaning within an unfamiliar cultural context. The word tasbeh literally refers to prayer beads, but does tasbeh correlate to, for example, rosary? This is rigorous content, and by mastering the meanings of the unfamiliar words so that the vocabulary contributes to reading comprehension, students are responding to high performance expectations. At the end of the semester, though, what will they do with that new vocabulary?
I invigorate and enhance the rigor of the text’s vocabulary by pushing students to project the idea of cultural nuances in vocabulary outside any one, in-class, text. Vigorous learning about vocabulary looks beyond individual words and their meanings and promotes vocabulary acquisition skills that have application across curricula and outside the classroom. Students learn about connotation vs. denotation and that the meaning of a word can shift depending on time and place. Content that teaches about language families encourages students to extrapolate the meaning of unfamiliar words based on common etymologies. This type of vigorous work with vocabulary guides students away from the dictionary and leads to an appreciation for the dynamic nature of language. Developing vocabulary acquisition skills is the vigorous counterpart to the rigor of learning demanding vocabulary words.
Ideal educational content is both rigorous and vigorous. The challenge for content providers is in combining both. A rigorous biology text can have exquisitely detailed diagrams of body systems that give students the opportunity for in-depth exploration and understanding of how the body works. But a vigorously rigorous biology text could incorporate discussion of biomedical ethical issues beside those lovely diagrams, allowing students to locate the science of the body in the political and sociological domains. This discussion would provide students with multiple opportunities to think critically about issues like the integration of science and society and the grey areas that often surround conversations about ethics and morality. This reflective learning can take place in a safe, practice environment – the biology classroom – before students have to take their critical thinking skills on the road in the real world.
By all means, let’s continue to prioritize rigor in our content and our classrooms. From an instructor’s persepctive, we need to keep vigor at the top of the list as well.
Betsy Zobl Jagosz is the Director of Operations at A Pass Educational Group by day and English instructor at Oakland Community College by night.