I was recently at an educational conference listening to a very well-regarded national speaker talk about ways to increase academic rigor. A colleague leaned over and commented that she was so tired about hearing about academic rigor. The only time she wanted to hear the word rigor, at this point, was when it was followed by the word mortis. She felt like the combined words of academic and rigor should be banned because it is so overused it no longer means anything. I think she is not far off the mark.
Since the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the USSR, educational talk has been dominated by the idea that we are falling behind other countries and need to increase the rigor in our schools. This focus has resulted in piling on more work for our students. Many times, all this additional work does just the opposite of what we hope.
Research tells us that over the long term, we have increased the amount of homework students are assigned. Unfortunately, a lot of what is assigned is “busy work.” If you have been the recipient of busy work, you know how it got its name. You may feel busy completing it, but you are not going to get much out of it. The assignments require very little thinking and do little to aid understanding or deeper learning. Research also shows that educators frequently assign more challenging texts for reading, but the reading levels of these texts are so far above the comprehension skills of the students that they get little out of them. I can assign a seventh grader the collected works of Immanuel Kant, but without a lot of support, they are going to do nothing more than fill up space on a bookshelf. Rigor should not mean more work; rather, it should mean work that requires students to think more deeply.
Author and educator Robyn Jackson defines true academic rigor as an academic experience where: “students know how to create their own meaning out of what they learn, they organize information so they create mental models, they integrate individual skills into whole sets of processes, and they apply what they've learned to new or novel situations.”Well-designed curriculum does all of these things, taking into account the individual needs and strengths of the students in the room. The best lessons I have experienced are not taken from a national or international program; rather, they are from great teachers who know their students and have a love of intellectual curiosity.