My ‘postmortem’ on academic rigour

Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance? — -William Carlos Williams

A few years ago I sat on the strategic planning committee of an urban school district near where I work, and as members of the committee discussed curriculum and teaching, the word “rigor” was used a lot. At one point, I asked the other members of the committee what it meant. They thought I was being rhetorical.

You know what rigor means, John, one person said from across the table.

I’m not sure I do.

Academic rigor, said another person as if I meant another kind of rigor.

Right. What does that mean, academic rigor? I asked again.

It’s about standards, said a third person sitting at the table who did not work in schools. He was from the business community. When he said the word “standards,” there was a weighted inflection.

I think it’s about more than that, said the first person.

Standards for teachers and for students, a third voice chimed in.

It’s about the work being challenging enough to prepare students for college, said a fourth person who was neither a teacher nor school administrator.

The conversation went on for a few more minutes without resolution. The chair of the committee gave me the same look I usually get at those types of meetings. I was a troublemaker.

John, let’s not get too philosophical about this, ok? one member sitting next to me pleaded softly. I stifled the urge to ask why I was there. After all, I am a college professor. Even still, my intention was not to be philosophical. I was being practical.

I think if we are going to write these words into our philosophy and goals, we need to know what they mean. Don’t you? I responded. Whenever I hear people use this term, I think of rigor mortis and I don’t think that is what we want to portray, is it? I thought that we were promoting differentiation now.

We can have both, said the first person again. I had the stifle a smile at that point.

If we are going to change the curriculum to meet the needs of all the students with their different learning styles (i.e. differentiation), then how can we do that without being flexible, without adapting and changing the curriculum? I asked.

We could talk about this for a long time, said the first person.

To their credit, the committee did not want to convey the wrong idea, and so did not use the word rigor in the philosophy and goals of the district. But, after that, I was curious. I had heard the word kicking around as edu-speak for a few years. I wondered where it came from, and was there any consensus about what it means.

More recently, a local school district I am familiar with hired a new principal who, fresh out of his doctoral program has been using this term with his faculty. When he was asked what it means, he gave a similarly vague response to the one I got from the committee. He said, it depends on the situation, but the standards are high. When asked to give an example, he said high levels of thinking. This is obviously not an example.

Most curriculum directors, principals and educational consultants I talk with equate rigor with the language that the department of education uses, like “high expectations.”

Does it make me a troublemaker if I ask, “high” compared to what?

When I taught high school, my students thought rigor meant the schoolwork was going to be really hard.

My students at the university who are studying to be teachers think of rigor as curriculum and instruction that meets a high level of challenge.

Honestly, I don’t know what any of this means, and, I’m a professor of education. I probably should.

After doing a little looking around for the first usage of the term in academia, I found a number of books by a woman named Barbara Blackburn published between 2011 and 2017 that discuss academic rigor and though she attempts to dispel what she calls the “myths of rigor” in more than one of her books, she too fails to clearly define what the term actually means.

Blackburn rejects the idea that rigor in schools is about having teachers assign students piles of difficult reading, and she confronts the notion that rigor means being inflexible, hard, strict, stiff or tough.

She attempts to explain that rigor is about creating an environment in which all students are expected to learn at “high” levels. She goes on to say that in a rigorous classroom, students are supported so they can learn at these high levels, and that the students must DEMONSTRATE learning at “high” levels.

These are her repetitions. Not mine.

Blackburn’s books discuss Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is a list of thinking skills constructed in the 1950s by a psychologist named Benjamin Bloom. This multi-tiered list has been long held as a framework for high academic standards that teachers ought to use in writing the objectives in their lesson plans.

Bloom’s Taxonomy certainly ranks levels of thinking and is a valuable resource for thinking about curriculum and instruction. You will get no argument from me on the value of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but is rigor just another way of saying “Bloom’s Taxonomy?” If it is, then why not say “Bloom’s Taxonomy” instead?

If it’s not Bloom’s Taxonomy, then I still don’t know what rigor is. The stiffness, the inflexibility and the rigidity commonly associated with the word rigor stays with me. I can’t quite shake it.

Is rigor a new way of making the old back to basics argument that says schools fail to teach children what they NEED to know? Is it part of a hardening back to “Harold” Bloom’s (no relation to Ben) prescriptivist approach to curriculum? Or, it it like E.D. Hirsch’s belief that everyone should know specific facts by specific ages to be “culturally literate?”

I do believe that teachers should try to teach children to think at high levels. I also believe that children should value hard work. And, I do not think that students who are poor or learning disabled or who don’t speak English should be cheated out of the most interesting and useful skills that schools can teach, but so do a lot of people, including all the teachers I know. And, they are trying to teach children to create, evaluate, analyze, apply and understand their worlds every day.

Is rigor really just code for “schools and teachers are too easy, that some children do get left behind?”

I think it is.

If so, that code does a disservice to the children who are left behind, because it oversimplifies a complex societal problem, blaming the very teachers who work daily with those children to educate them to the highest standards they can with the time they have. Those teachers work with the neediest children and are the one’s who hear the word rigor the most in faculty meetings, at conferences and in the scholarship on Teaching. They are often told that their lessons lack rigor, mostly by non-teachers, and neither the teachers accused of not being rigorous enough, nor those people accusing them, have any idea what they mean by rigor, not any more than I do, anyway.

Some teachers do interpret rigor to mean pile on the hard work. And, who can blame them? That’s what it seems to mean. Besides, any vaguely circular definitions of rigor that are floating around in the edu-speak-is-phere, along with the myriad of thin denials that rigor means more work or harder work, what are we left to assume?

Well. Since I’ve climbed up here on this soap box, I may as well say this too.

Children hate rigor. Blackburn discusses what children think about rigor in one of her books, basing her findings on a survey she conducted. She describes a complexity of responses from the children surveyed, her conclusions are a muddy pond teeming with loose children’s perceptions of rigor, represented as a “complexity,” but her discussion of what they think about the term is actually unclear.

Unlike Blackburn, I taught school for 19 years, and I know all my students hated the term. Speaking of mythology, here’s a myth for you, ready?

Children don’t learn from fun and games.

FALSE. In fact, children learn more when they are having fun then when so called rigorous standards are imposed on them inflexibly.

And teachers hate the term rigor too. They don’t want to hear about rigor any more. Most will admit they don’t know what it means, all the while, suspecting that it means they are doing something wrong by not pushing their students enough. It implies they are not doing their jobs, and it provides nothing more that a lofty guru’s perspective minus any helpful data, strategies or approaches they can use to help children think at higher levels.


Recently, I have encountered new, popular and specific messaging around SEL (social & emotional learning), that screams out as a “Maslow/Bloom MEME” on social media sites that promote K-12 education. I have wondered what social and political energies might underly the idea that Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ought to be prioritized over and above Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive domains, and I think I understand it.

These “Maslow First” or “Maslow Over Bloom” MEMEers are mostly teachers who understand both logically and intuitively — from their actual experience working with children — a reality about how the drive for academic rigor actually prevents learning, especially for reluctant learners. And, as both Maslow and Bloom themselves expressed these same ideas in their writings, that children cannot assimilate challenging and complex concepts, cannot work outside their comfort zone to develop new understandings and cannot cope with the inevitable failure that is normal in the process of advanced thinking and learning, if they do not first have their needs, as Maslow outlined them, supported, advocated for and met.

Ready for another myth?

Teacher can instruct students with flexibility, while maintaining inflexible standards.

FALSE. The less flexible teachers are (or allowed to be) about standards like The Common Core or state standards, the fewer options they have about customizing instructional methods, and the larger the class size the more magnified this problem is.

The SEL movement, is why Maslow is back on the front page. But, school administrators, boards of education and academics have a decision to make, now. Do we acknowledge that rigor and that standards (both by definition, essentially inflexible and intended to be) are working against the emotional and mental health of children, working against the emotional intelligence of students, working against the social and emotional learning that at the same time policymakers and scholars, curriculum directors and school committees are promoting?

The SEL experts, the new SEL standards and SEL advocates are promoting curricula that teaches students to be self-aware, to self-monitor their behavior, to have social awareness, to build relationship skills, to practice responsible decision-making as well as other soft skills that ultimately require a flexible way of thinking, not a rigorous one.

Literacy research does not support the notion of rigor. The scholarship on reading shows that students who are regularly forced to read texts above their ability levels fail to develop the fluency they need to read at high enough speeds to maintain steady growth as readers.

Studies on the teaching of reading find that learning to read advanced texts depends on an automaticity that can only be assimilated through practice with texts that are actually at lower grade levels than the students measured abilities.

Therefore, if rigor means that teachers must assign only difficult texts, our students are doomed. And, if rigor instead means the inflexible alignment of curriculum to standards, which is different than the simplistic idea that teachers should be challenging their students, then our students are still doomed, because teachers need the flexibility to make judgements about what texts they select for students, based on what they know about their students’ developmental readiness to comprehend those texts.

One of my educational consulting clients recently asked me how their K-12 curriculum could represent BOTH the new SEL standards and academic rigor of the common core at the same time.

My response was a question: Which is more important to you? The client did not answer the question, but clearly the rigor was more important to the client. The thing is, the question is irrelevant. Without having their needs met, children will lack the motivation, even the ability to attempt rigorous academic work.

Now, that my autopsy of rigor is finished. I think we need to find a hole in the ground in which to bury it. I think there might be an empty plot in the cemetery of useless edu-speak somewhere between DDMs (District Determined Measures) and VAMs (Value Added Measures). If not, we can stack rigor on top of The FAR Cycle (Formative Assessment for Results) and RTT (Race to the Top) like they did back in the day when they ran out of space in the graveyard.




Clinical Associate Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts and host of Teacher Talk.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

New Member of the Family

“I Can Teach or Do Your Paperwork”

Equity and education requires long term investment

CoSpaces Edu offers free Pro access during school closures

College Graduation Day was the worst day of my life

The Prawn Blog — Issue #5

10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting College

My thought on pegging entry age as 12 years for JSS 1 Students

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
John Brown

John Brown

Clinical Associate Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts and host of Teacher Talk.

More from Medium

The Four Basic Motivations That Drive People In Life

Rehoming Myself at 50.

Courage, Connections, Sacrifice, and Power in Suzanne Collins’s Catching Fire

Contemplating the Meaning of “The More You Know, The More You Realize You Don’t Know”