Do High Grades Mean Lack of Rigor?

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20 thoughts on “Do High Grades Mean Lack of Rigor?”

  1. Robert Harrell

    I haven’t looked at the article yet, but I am certain it is good.
    However, I did want to share what happened at a meeting last week. I am on our Instructional Leadership Team, and we had a meeting last Monday in which we discussed instructional strategies and especially technology. The presenter began talking about rigor without bothering to give any indication of what it is. During our pair/share time, I talked to my principal (who was my partner) about needing to define the term and what the Department of State says about it. She liked what I had to say and asked me to share with the entire group, so it looks like we will be defining rigor at my school very much like the Department of State does.

    1. Robert Harrell

      Okay, I have now read the article. It wasn’t good – it was excellent. Nice job, Chris. I’m hanging on to this for the day (I know it will come) when the subject of a bell curve arises.

  2. Alisa Shapiro

    The article on grading distribution is fantastic, esp for non-stats people.
    I’m still reeling from the thought of a dept head inserting himself on the bell-curve issue…sounds like at best, a breach of academic freedom, but more likely an unethical attempt to manipulate ‘student outcomes.’

  3. The rigor buzzword drives me CRAZY! I’ve seen teachers and administrators turn it into some macho contest to be the most difficult instead of most effective teacher. I want my students to learn more not struggle more.

    1. It is way too easy to argue against this idea of RIGOR by looking at the dictionary definitions of the word. The education deformers really should have found a better word to describe what they probably meant as closer to “expectations” or “learning outcomes.” I do not have children of my own yet…but I would not want another inflicting this rigor on my child.
      a (1) : harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment : severity (2) : the quality of being unyielding or inflexible : strictness (3) : severity of life : austerity
      b : an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty
      2: a tremor caused by a chill
      3: a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable;especially : extremity of cold
      4: strict precision : exactness
      5 a obsolete : rigidity, stiffness
      rigor defined for kids
      1 a : the quality of not being flexible or yielding b : an act or instance of being strict or harsh
      2 : a shuddering caused by a chill
      3 : a condition that makes life difficult or uncomfortable; especially : extreme cold
      4 : strict precision :

      1. I just had this conversation with an elementary teacher at my school. She was lamenting the neighboring district’s lack of “rigor” (her granddaughter attends there), and when I pointed out that some might say my teaching approach lacks “rigor” as defined traditionally (she likes TPRS from observing her students in my classroom), and that rigor basically means what Michael pasted above, she was kind of surprised that she had even used the word. Like you say Michael, it is almost too easy to throw that one under the bus, where it belongs (unless using Dept of State definition of course). Robert, how appreciative I am that you gave us this gift of clarity on the term!
        Chrisz, I shared this post a few weeks ago with the group from my school that is attending an SGB workshop this spring. Nice that you can make the mundane not.

    2. The problem is not with the word “rigor.” The problem is with language. The problem is that words are polysemous and can lead to mis-communication.
      Take the word “organic.” It has become widespread with the meaning of “grown without artificial pesticides or artificial fertilizers.” In physiology, organic refers to bodily organs. In chemistry, organic refers to compounds with a carbon base.
      When students ask to grade on the curve, they are not asking for a bell curve distribution (as Chris so clearly described). They are rather asking for additional points for everybody.
      So if some appear to be employing the common and vulgar usage instead of the more specialized, academic sense of high standards attained through support, they should be questioned about their loosey-goosey (non-rigorous) use of a buzz word. What do you mean rigor? Do you know how the state department defines rigor? Do you know what Barbara Blackburn means? (See below) Do you mean being punitive and harsh (thereby raising the affective filter)? One of our high expectations is that we negotiate meaning, rigorously (exactly and with precision). Rigor demands that professionals be more rigorous in the use of the jargon of their profession.
      There is a lot of misunderstanding about rigor. Like Robert (above, and thanks to Robert) we can (as TPRS teachers) take advantage of opportunities to educate our colleagues and administrators.
      Another thing, is that since there is so much confusion and ignorance about this word in its specialized sense we can continue to define it in terms of comprehensible input, showing that more sequential grammar is the opposite of the special meaning of rigor.

  4. Yeah. My colleague Leanda said “are we trying to identify talent or nurture it? TPRS works to nurture talent”. The whole thing about rankings and exclusion is totally bogus.
    BTW I should thank my evaluation prof from U of C Anthony Marini. The only useful class I had in my teaching practicum led indirectly to that blog post.

  5. Barbara Blackburn defines rigor:
    Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, and each is supported so he or she can learn at high level, and each student demonstrates learning at high level. (Blackburn, 2008).”
    She expands on this in her “The Beginner’s Guide to Rigor,” which can be downloaded at
    She expands on this by addressing four myths:
    Myth #1: Lots of Homework Is a Sign of Rigor
    “The ‘more is better’ idea permeates the discussion of rigor…’Doing more’ often means doing more low-level activities, frequent repetitions of things already learned. Such narrow and rigid approaches to learning do not define a rigorous classroom.”
    Myth #2: Rigor Means Doing More
    “Tony Wagner (2008a) studied classrooms across America and found that many of them were characterized by low-level, rote activity. The focus was too often on covering material or preparation for the next test…True rigor is expecting every student to learn and perform at high levels. This requires instruction that allows students to delve deeply into their learning, to engage in critical thinking and problem-solving activities, to be curious and imaginative, and to demonstrate agility and adaptability (Wagner, 2008a).”
    Myth #3: Rigor is Not for Everyone
    There is a belief that the only way to assure success for everyone is to lower standards and lessen rigor. [Rigor] is anchored in the belief that every student can be successful given adequate time and sufficient support…[Rigor] is about improving achievement — for every student. There is no evidence that says supporting the success of every student means lessening rigor or the quality of schools. Just the opposite…
    Myth #4: Providing Support Means Lessening Rigor
    “But we’ve found that supporting students so that they can learn at high levels (Blackburn, 2008)8 is central to the definition of rigor. As teachers design lessons moving students toward more challenging work, they must provide scaffolding to support them as they learn…They [students] are motivated to do well when they value what they are doing and when they believe that they have a chance of success.”

    1. Notice the focus is on high levels. Not on impossible levels. Not on painful levels.
      There is so much that makes me think about what we believe about language acquisition. We have high levels of expectation: 90-98% in the T2, communicate confusion, show up for class, respond to questions, listen with the intent to understand, clear your desks, look, sit up, show me you understand,…
      We believe that everyone who will do these things can learn a language, “given adequate time and support.” We believe in delving deeper. We believe that less scope is more gains and that more scope leads to less gains.

      1. In essence, having high expectations/standards. . . so long as those standards are individualized, then I’m on board.
        You listed ways students demonstrate rigor during class time. A red flag still goes up when I hear talk about critical thinking and problem solving – 2 things not necessary for language acquisition a la unconscious process. And I worry that this sense of rigor will translate to our field as an expectation of higher levels of output and thus pressure FL teachers to continue to put the cart before the horse.

        1. Here is a high standard: Students instantly understand and automatically repond to “wants to eat.”
          I do not think this cannot be reached by memorization. It cannot be reached by “look up the infinitive and give me the 3rd per sg pres act ind of “to want.” It is reached in the interpersonal mode through sufficient time and sustained focus in a variety of contexts. It does not come by critical thinking and problem solving but it is necessary for both. How can we solve hunger problems at any level if we cannot say and understand that anyone wants to eat?
          But Blaine’s way does lead to problem-solving, and immediately so because every situation contains a problem, the solution of which leads to another problem, which requires critical thinking to solve. The problem is that Geo wants to eat. The solution is to look in the fridge. But there is a problem. There is nothing in the fridge? Why? (Put on your critical thinking caps.) Because last night Ronald McDonald took all of the food to sell in his restaurant.
          I share your concern that rigor will be interpreting according to a legacy mindset. My reason for sharing the Blackburn piece above is to show that people who are presenting on rigor are not saying what everyone thinks they are saying. That is, “Rigor is not…” and it is especially not the first thing that pops into your mind. It is called “academic rigor” in the US Department of State definition and I think that we should remind people that it is that type of rigor which is in mind here.
          But rigor must be tied to relevance and “3rd per sg pres act ind of to want” is neither relevant to the real world of the student or our high language acquisition expectation of automatically knowing and responding to “wants to eat.” And the response could be verbal or nonverbal, it could be a look of puzzlement or disbelief. It should be appropriate to the output ability of the listener (the x part of x+1). This is where TPRS/TCI wins.
          And attaining rigor must be scaffolded. This is also were TPRS/TCI wins.
          Let’s say we are training 3rd graders to be alligator hunters. High standards include knowing the habits, strengths and weaknesses of the alligator, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the hunter, passing the appropriate trials before actually going on a hunt. There is another teacher who thinks that students have to learn responsibility and rigor the old-fashioned, hard way. She just throws the students to the alligators and says, “Your HW is to catch two alligators for tomorrow, and if you don’t we will double it for the next day.”

    2. I agree with Eric that we need to keep defining and re-defining what we mean and explaining what this looks like in language acquisition. Whenever I am in meetings and have to address the topic, I make the following points, based on the US Department of State definition:
      1. Depth and integrity of inquiry: “Academic rigor implies that sufficient time be devoted to a topic or unit of study and that students would have an opportunity to explore it in depth, developing questions as they go along.” [Actual quote from the web page] Trying to “cover” a certain amount of material or a certain number of chapters and stages is not rigor because it doesn’t give students the opportunity to explore in depth.
      2. Sustained focus: In the classroom setting, we [TCI teachers] ask students to stay focused on what is happening in the class discussion, story creation, or conversation. This is difficult for students because they have to sort through a flow of sound and separate that flow into specific words, identify the words and decide if they know their meaning or not, put the individual words together into an utterance that makes sense, decide if the utterance requires a response, determine what the correct kind of response might be and whether or not they are capable of responding, choosing how to respond, then respond (indicate lack of comprehension, indicate lack of knowledge, give a specific response, etc.) The department of state provides ideas for helping students maintain this focus: vary the pacing, grouping, and activities; develop a personal code system with the class; ask mediative questions.
      3. Suspension of premature conclusions: Unfortunately, legacy methods give students the conclusions and then ask them to practice them. By using the language 90%+ of the time for genuine communication, students are able to begin making hypotheses about how the language works. By allowing students to create their own mental representation of the language (Van Patten) rather than giving them rules of grammar, we encourage them to hear and read the language in a way that they identify (often unconsciously) the exceptions that prove the rule.
      4. Continuous testing of hypotheses: By providing students with opportunities and encouragement to use the language for communication, we give them the chance to test their hypotheses about the structure (grammar, syntax, lexis, etc.) of the language. By reinforcing their correct utterances and re-formulating their incorrect utterances, we give them the feedback they need to refine their hypotheses. Sometimes we give explicit instruction as well; for example, a student in his second year of German recently was talking about something he used to like and said, “Ich magte das.” He communicated what he wanted to say but made precisely the same mistake that children make when they say “I goed”, that is, he applied the default rule of past formation to an “exception”. I first praised him for having acquired the rule and then explicitly drew attention to the correct form (mochte) so that he would be aware of it when he heard it again. This student was able to test his hypothesis about past-tense formation and find out 1) his hypothesis is correct for the majority of verbs but 2) some verbs do not follow the pattern. These are very important things to understand, and he reached the understanding on his own rather than having a set of rules presented to him for (often mindless) practice.
      Settings in which students are given the “grammar rules” and then asked to create and practice permutations of sentences on the basis of these rules are not experiencing a rigorous curriculum but are being “trained” on the basis of behaviorist theories (Skinner) that we now know do not apply to language acquisition and development.
      Whether we follow Bloom’s Taxonomy, Costa’s Levels of Inquiry, or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge schemata, the TCI classroom is (more) rigorous because students deal with the language at an (more) advanced level and in a (more) sophisticated manner. Rather than emphasizing recognition and recall – as important as these may be at the start of acquisition – TCI emphasizes understanding from the very beginning and then encourages students to apply that understanding, analyze the results of that application (was it correct or not?), evaluate the quality of their utterances, and create new utterances with the language they have acquired. Studies (e.g. Denver Public Schools) show that students who acquire language through TCI “learn at high levels” (Blackburn) because they are sufficiently supported to do so.
      Just some thoughts on a Good Friday evening.

  6. Here is an interesting PPT: (Then click on The 3Rs.ppt)
    In summary, the three Rs are Rigor, Relevance, and Relationship. No matter how poorly one starts by defining rigor, we must cross out certain expressions of rigor (e.g., increasing meaningless HW) as we consider relevance, and others (harshness) as we move to relationship. Relationship includes providing the support /scaffolding system for achieving higher levels of expectation. We cannot let others define rigor in a sloppy way or in in a manner which is isolated from relevance and relationship. Relationship is necessary for the interpersonal mode in which SLA occurs.

    1. Excellent PowerPoint, Nathaniel. The website of the US Department of State addresses Relevance and Academic Rigor, though I have emphasized the Rigor element because that has been the point of discussion most of the time. However, this PowerPoint takes it one step further and emphasizes the need for balance. Our current emphasis on rigor alone neglects these other important elements and thereby holds up an inferior educational experience as the model.
      I will be expanding my comments about Rigor to include Relevance and Relationships whenever I have the opportunity.

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