Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Meaning of Words

Jargon in education is nothing new. Luckily there are so many resources available to make sense of it as it applies to our professional practice.  Just check the Dictionary of Educational Jargon to get some clarity, then have some fun with the Educational Jargon Generator. Words are always flying around in education circles. Whether it is in person at events and workshops or in social media spaces, I routinely see conversations play out where educators take a certain stance on the meaning of specific words. Now mind you, I am speaking about education buzzwords and am not discounting the negative meaning of words outside this realm. From my lens I see a great deal of time and energy spent on debating the negative aspects of words that other educators value. 

Certain words jump right out at me such as grit, innovation, branding, mindset, future ready, deeper learning, and personalization. Each day various people chime in stating his or her disapproval of such words when an article focusing on its merits arise. Does the meaning in someone’s opinion really matter or is it more about the outcome as it pertains to the learning culture of our schools? Do our students feel the same way about these words as the adults who spend energy discounting them?  Maybe I am off base with my thinking here, but I try to find the value in many of the words listed above as I can see how they can relate to a positive school culture.

One word that I want to talk about is rigor. It is this word after all that motivated me to write this post. I have seen many people I respect get pretty fired up about the term. Taken out of an educational context the word rigor can imply being rigid, inflexible, strict, unyielding, etc.  With these descriptions, it is no wonder many people dislike the word. I for one don't see it this way, especially when using the term throughout my presentations and work. 

The Rigor Relevance Framework

I see rigor as a way of framing lessons and learning outcomes at the high end of knowledge taxonomy. Rigorous learning empowers students to develop, have the competence to think in complex ways, and to apply their knowledge and skills. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, students are able to use extensive knowledge and skills to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge. This is my view of rigor. The definition below pretty much sums it up:
Rigor: A concept either describing an assignment that challenges students to use critical thinking skills or a learning environment that is challenging but supportive and engaging.
Rigorous lessons and learning activities ask students to compose, create, design, invent, predict, research, summarize, defend, compare, and justify to demonstrate conceptual mastery and standards attainment. Rigor is quite simply levels of thinking, including 

  • Scaffolding for thinking
  • Planning for thinking
  • Assessing thinking
  • Recognizing the level of thinking students demonstrate
  • Managing the teaching/learning level for the desired thinking level

Rigor is NOT:

  • More or harder worksheets
  • AP or honors courses
  • The higher-level book in reading
  • More work
  • More homework

Rigorous learning is for all students (check out the Rigor Relevance Framework). The perception that rigor only applies to a certain group is near-sighted at best. Herein lies another point of confusion with the word. After all, all students not only deserve, but also should be made to feel that they can handle higher expectations.  

Not being flexible with the meaning of educational words and terms seems to be a bit hypocritical. In the case of this post, taking the opposing side of terms that others find value in seems a bit rigid, strict, and unyielding. Words in education are what you make of them. Try to have an open-mind and the inherent value might provide more context for your own work and goals, but more importantly that of your students. 


  1. Eric, I appreciate your thoughts on what rigor may mean in different education circles. I wrote a recent post where I was somewhat critical of the word, mainly because I've seen it used as code for learning that is more exacting to standards. While I am certainly not opposed to standards, I believe standards should serve students and authentic learning experiences and not the other way around. But your definition of rigor I completely embrace. In fact, we had some sharing and learning around the Rigor Relevance Framework earlier this school year. It's a great way to think about the types of learning experiences we design for our students.

  2. The argybargy over the word "rigor" is in the same category with the flurry of comments that the common core standards are bad because "common" can mean course or vulgar.

    Checking a good dictionary reveals the most frequent (ahem, the most common) use of a word and meanings that have fallen into disuse. "Rigor is rarely used as a noun these days by people other than EMTs and morticians, but rigorous still is used in positive senses in, for example, athletic training and scientific research.

    Educators do themselves a disservice when they use terms that are obsolete or that they use in ways the public doesn't recognize as legitimate. Why go through all the anguish of trying to explain a term that will never make sense to anyone outside your little group?

    1. Agree. The application and common perception to the word "rigor" is related to "rigor mortis". The education profession does a disservice when they do not understand this. Another example is the over use and misapplication of the phrase "in the trenches". Educating is not war- there is no acceptable levels of collateral damage.

    2. Thanks for the comment Scott. I am going to push back a little bit though. Are you saying that there is no leeway then as to the meaning of words? Many words have numerous meanings and can resonate in different ways for different people. In the case of rigor, if it resonates with educators in the way as I described shouldn't that take precedence....especially if the outcome is a favorable one for all students?

    3. Your definition of what rigor is and is not is spot on. You said "Words in education are what you make of them." This is true and arguably, the need for the clarification of what rigor is and is not would not be necessary if it was appropriately understood and applied in the first place. I agree with you 100% - "if the outcome is a favorable one for all students". Thank you for provoking thought and open discussion.

    4. Thanks for the clarification Scott.

  3. Without even taking sides for the word rigor, what I appreciate so much about your insight here is your point about being flexible in our thoughts as educators. I don't think things have to be so "absolute". Whether talking about twitter chats, sharing tech tools, using certain words, or whatever... what might be old news for someone, might be new to someone else. We shouldn't take that discovery away from people. We're educators who come from different places, different backgrounds, learning at different levels and different paces, having different expertise, etc etc, and we should consider all that before making absolute-type statements. Hope this makes sense... Thanks for sharing, Eric.

    1. It makes perfect sense Maria. Although I stand by my ascertain of rigor in education your point from a holistic view rings true. It is outcomes that matter most. If we take an absolute stance on areas that are clearly gray as opposed to back and white we run the risk of sacrificing improvement on many levels.

  4. I've advocated and will continue to advocate against the word. Not sure how we can arbitrarily change language. I agree, it can evolve but at this point rigor is a polarizing term that can be better expressed with other words and phrases. It carries with it too many negative connotations for too many people. We're better off adopting new language. Even at its best, it emphasizes "hard" as the goal of good learning. I don't believe that is the criteria to seek. Certainly some learning is hard but it's not the dominant way we should describe learning.

  5. Thanks for the comment Dean. I would say that the education world in general has become obsessed with way to many words. However, what we see here is the fact that a word, in this case rigor, means something different to you than me (and many others as well). To you the word means hard. To me it means to think critically. Can that be hard at times? Yep. The point I was tying to make is that so much time and effort is put forth debating the relevancy and value of a term. In many cases arguments for and against can go on and on, but does that serve us well? Adopting new language is a novel idea, but not very practical in our lifetime. Was I always in love with this word? Nope...but I was willing to put some bias aside and reflect on how it fits into professional practice. By no means to I expect others to agree with me, but I do think that the outcomes far outweigh the face value of a educational word.

    1. I would agree that words often have different and varying meanings. The challenge is that words offer a visceral response. Words like accountability tend to be embraced by leadership. I rarely find teachers seeing it as anything other than a top down notion of distrust. I've seen folks work hard and changing that but the reality is, when you're dealing with large districts, this is tantamount to impossible. That's why we need to think about choosing words that have such a polarizing effect.

      You were able to change your perspective about rigor, I'm guessing that took a lot of work. Is it worth it to help others make that shift? What if instead, we used words that had were less controversial and actually stayed true to its meaning. What you're doing is basically changing its definition. That seems like a lot more of a challenge that simply using words that adequately describe learning. Complexity, challenge, critical and even robust are generally words a majority of folks can embrace. Rigor less so.

      Thanks for the conversation.

    2. ....but many people have embraced the term rigor and rigorous learning described in the post. If it works for them and their kids do we really want to substitute terms just because we might not like them. I would push back and say that all the words you listed (complexity, challenge, critical, robust) can all be construed as "hard". However, like you I see the value in those words, along with many others, in our quest to provide a great learning experience for kids. In the end it is not my intention to help others make the shift, but instead to be open to alternative meanings that are not set in stone. Thanks for engaging!

    3. I think if you find value in the concept and others do, go for it. My objections is using it in broad educational conversations. I've seen it used in mission statements when I know people have differing opinions about it. The language you use in your community, is totally dependent upon how folks interpret it. I only caution about thrusting it upon others knowing it has negative connotations for many.

  6. I'd have to agree with several commenters here. For "rigor" the well has been poisoned, at least for now ... poisoned by its use as a weapon to insinuate that a lesson wasn't rigorous enough because it didn't fit a very narrow scripted or very "research based" program based lesson design. It's use in conversation about learning in an "emperor's new clothes" way. Anyone that is a good teacher just knows what it is and looks like ... so if you aren't sure or need or want to have it clarified ... then ... well ... get it? Its use to describe just 2-3 teachers' classrooms as a model of rigor (in staff meetings, trainings) ... "because they have the best interests of their students in mind." (so the rest of you don't). I have conversations with teachers fairly often that share when "that word" is uttered they have negative physical reactions to it and talk about how much they hate it and how it is misused. When that word is used I usually have a negative attitude and question the agenda of the person that uttered it until they prove otherwise (and most people I work with and my wife who is a teacher say the same thing). This might sound like an over-reaction, but that's how bad it has been for too many the last 5 - 10 years. So use it, but when you do I suggest that you explain what you mean and don't mean by it regularly ... realize you probably have educators in attendance that you just put on edge.

  7. Excellent post. Rigor as an educational concept has either been embraced as teachers seek to challenge students to deeper levels of thinking or misunderstood as being tasks that are "more" or "harder". Frustration can easily arise from those who have mistaken rigorous work for something else. Scaffolding and support are part of rigor, and that may take an increased level of effort and creativity from instructors. Seeing the progress when our students succeed at complex levels of thinking that we've never seen before makes it all worthwhile.