Education, like every occupation, has its own set of vocabulary and buzz words that come to define it in a particular cultural moment. For a while now, one of the terms that many schools have reached for is “rigor.” If you search through school webpages, you’ll find mention of “academic rigor” and “rigorous programs.”

But what do we mean when we say “rigor”?
What does a “rigorous program” look like?

Many years ago, I was sitting in a meeting when a colleague of mine said that she was tired of the term “rigor” and that she didn’t like what it implied for education. She went on to explain what rigor really meant. Then, she offered a catchy alternative that I have come to whole-heartedly adopt as the guiding ethos of my work as a teacher.

Definitions of Rigor

So, what does “rigor” really mean? Well, it comes from the Latin verb regere which means “to become stiff.” It’s where we get our adjective “rigid.”

In the medical world, “rigor” also describes “a sudden…shaking chill occurring during a febrile illness.”

To be honest, I want no part of either of these definitions of rigor for my classroom. I am not interested in stiffness and rigidity, nor am I interested in students feeling a sudden chill as they walk into my classroom. I do not want a cold, rigid, inflexible—diseased!—classroom.

Those who tout rigor as the defining value of their academic program or of their pedagogy do not, of course, mean it in this way. At least, I don’t think they do. They don’t want rigid environments, nor do they want children coming down with fevers when they set foot inside the school.

Yet, this is what their chosen term implies. I imagine they envision a certain level of difficulty or challenge when they use the term “rigor.” But the sort of challenge that rigor implies is not what I’m looking for. I find it challenging, for example, to be in environments where I am heavily constrained and micromanaged. That’s rigorous! I don’t want that for my classroom. I don’t want my students to feel constrained and micromanaged.

Some will probably say that they mean “exacting” when they use the word “rigorous.” To be sure, I can be exacting about certain elements of grammar or usage. Anyone who has taken an English class with me, for example, has heard my rant about the use of the word “utilize” as a pretentious and unnecessary substitute for the word “use.” We all have our little pet peeves; I am not immune!

Many teachers may be interested in exacting standards, but if those standards do not come with some degree of flexibility then we run the risk of committing what, in my view, is a cardinal sin in teaching: teaching curriculum rather than teaching humans. Curriculum doesn’t learn, so teaching curriculum is never going to get you anywhere. Humans, however, are learning machines; they can (and should!) be taught. You’ll get everywhere you want to go by teaching the students that are in your classroom, not the curriculum.

(When asked what we teach, we often respond with some piece of content or subject matter: "I teach English" or "I teach History." I actively try to undo all of that: "I teach humans." I'm a bit of an @$$...)

If we are rigorous in applying our curriculum to students, then we may find that we aren’t meeting the students where they are; we aren’t teaching them because we’ve not paid attention to what their particular needs are. Each student has a different need at any given moment. Rigorous education, for me, implies a bending of the student to my will, to the rule, rather than guiding the student down a path. A guide attends to the needs of the situation. A guide has the flexibility to change the plan to suit that situation. A guide cannot be rigid, but must take each moment as it comes.

(Perhaps this is why I find a good solid meditation practice to be indispensable for my career as a teacher…)

NOTE: There is, of course, a balance here. We don’t want courses with absolutely no curriculum or no standards. I wouldn’t call that a “course” at all. We might note that the word curriculum and the word course both come from the same Proto-Indo-European root kerse- which means “to run.” You can’t have a course without a curriculum.

Starting line
Photo by Kolleen Gladden / Unsplash

Vigor as the Standard

All of this negative talk about “academic rigor” leads, of course, to the important question: What should we be saying? What should we be valuing?

Back to that meeting where my colleague questioned “academic rigor” as a guiding principle…

She and I went back and forth on this a bit and she eventually came up with a fitting—and catchy!—alternative: “academic vigor.” Change that first letter from an R to a V and just see what you gain.

  • Vigorous classrooms are active. In a vigorous classroom, things move and they do so with purpose.
  • Vigorous classrooms are deep. They allow the student to swim down to uncharted depths, their hearts pumping as the pressure increases.
  • Vigorous classrooms are wide. They allow the student to range over a great deal of territory in search of their academic prey.

I know I'm mixing metaphors here, but vigorous classrooms are flexible like that! They can value both breadth and depth at the same time. They are not narrow in their scope. Rather, they are expansive in their application and their ability to offer each student the opportunity to latch on to something that will help them grow.

Some students need depth. They find something that fascinates them, and they want to dig, dig, dig.

Other students need breadth. They want to search far and wide and encounter as many new ideas as possible.

Are you rigorous or are you vigorous?

So, let’s look at our practice as teachers. Let’s look to our pedagogy. Are we creating rigorous classrooms where there is only one way through, a narrow channel that is always predetermined, no matter the student’s needs?

Or are we creating vigorous classrooms where the channel is both deep and wide and the students get to determine how they move through it based on their needs and interest in that moment?

The rigorous option requires that students align themselves with my interests and my values because I’ve set a particular course for them, and they must follow it.

The vigorous option requires that students find their own interests and values. They might even have to interrogate those values in order to see whether or not they are worth following.

Is your classroom rigorous or vigorous? Which do you prefer and why?

Taking Action

In recent years, I worry that I’ve not found the right balance between teaching curriculum and teaching students. This next year, I hope to swing that pendulum. Fortunately, my school has given me a platform to do this a little bit.

This year, I get to teach a seminar for seniors in the English Department called “Contemporary Literature.” While I have set aside a certain portion of the course, a few novels and collections of poetry, that we will all work through, I’m going to do that as a pre-cursor to the real course; it's a warm-up lap. We've begun the year by looking at some literature together so that we can get up-to-speed on some skills and habits of mind. Once we get through this literary bootcamp, however, I plan on taking off the training wheels and allowing students to explore the world of contemporary literature as they see fit. They will be permitted to choose texts that interest them, so long as they fall within a few parameters:

  1. The text must have been published or released in the last ten years. The course is called “Contemporary Literature,” after all.
  2. The works that they choose can be of any genre or medium provided that they can make a solid argument for the work having “literary or cultural merit.” NOTE: They get to define what constitutes “literary or cultural merit.” ← This should be interesting...I expect to learn quite a lot from them!
  3. For some of these works, students will have to convince a small group in the class to read/watch/listen with them: kind of like a book club structure. Sometimes, you can read on your own; at other times, however, I want you reading in community.

As seniors in high school, I’m hoping that they’ll surprise me by finding works that are far more interesting to them than what I would have assigned. I hope that they will find academic vigor and inspiration as they read, watch, or listen to them.

I also plan to allow the students to choose how they will be assessed. What do you want to do? Do you want to write a review? Create a video? Start a class podcast?

I don’t really care, so long as what you produce is publishable. That’s where my exacting standards will come in. They must produce content that is worthy of an audience of their peers. I am actually publishing this stuff and will share it with you, the fine people of the world, soon. Stay tuned.

But you may be asking yourself—

  • How will we know what is and what isn’t “publishable”? We have worked together to set some guidelines. I set students loose on a variety of high quality websites that deal with art and culture and then had them create a list of what makes something worthy of publication.
  • What happens if it’s not “publishable”? Then they get to revise it until it is.
  • What happens if they are convinced it’s publishable, but I am not? Then we find some third party to help us decide. (This hasn't happened yet, but it's early.)

In all of these logistics, I’m flexible. I’m a guide. Let’s address it when it comes up. We don’t have to control every little piece of the experience.

Questions for Reflection

Consider what I’ve written above. I would love to hear your thoughts. Here are some questions to think about:

  • Does the distinction between rigor and vigor mean anything to you? Which do you find more inspiring? Which do you find more important?
  • What does your classroom look like? Is it rigorous? Vigorous? Both? In what way(s)?
  • What is one change that you can make to move toward academic vigor?
  • What is one unit, lesson, assignment that you think would benefit from taking a different approach? How would you do that?
  • Is Stephen off his rocker? If so, how? 🤪

This post was originally published on as "Rigor and Vigor" at