The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Schools Need More Vigor, not Rigor

on August 24, 2015

As I promised when I began this blog, today I am giving you another dose of my basic philosophy of education. Yes, this essay was published before, a few years ago in Valerie Strauss’ “The Answer Sheet,” but I have revised it somewhat, and, for me at least, it is timeless. If you are a teacher and like this piece, why not copy it and slip it under the door of your principal’s office. Better yet, send it to your superintendent and school board.


Though my years in the classroom are long past, at heart I am still a cranky old English teacher who bristles at some of the neologisms that have crept into public language. I never tack “ly” onto ordinal number words, or say “myself” when I mean “I” or “me.” I won’t use “access” or “impact” as verbs because I consider them still to be only nouns.

Even so, I remain politely quiet when others commit such grammatical transgressions. But there is one word I dislike so intensely when used in connection with education that I can’t remain silent under any circumstances. That word is: rigor. Part of my reaction is emotional, having so often heard “rigor” paired with “mortis.” The other part is logical, stemming from the literal meanings of rigor: harshness, severity, strictness, inflexibility and immobility.  None of these things is what I want for students at any level. And, although I don’t believe that the politicians, scholars or media commentators who use the word so freely really want them, either, I still reproach them for using the wrong word and the wrong concept to characterize educational excellence.

Rigor has been used to promote the idea that American students need advanced course work, complex texts, and longer school days and years in order to be ready for college or the workplace. But, so far, the rigorous practices put in place under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the Common Core Standards, and various school reform plans have not raised test scores or improved high school graduation rates.

Since I believe it is time for a better word and a better concept to drive American education, I recommend “vigor.” Here my dictionary says, “active physical or mental force or strength; healthy growth; intensity, force or energy.” And my mental association is to all the Latin-based words related to life. How much better our schools would be if they provided classroom activities throbbing with energy, growth and life. Although school buildings have walls, there should be no walls separating students from vigorous learning. No ceilings, either. To learn, students need first-hand experiences with real-world problems — not only in math and science, but also in civics and nutrition; knowledge garnered from multiple sources– not only from textbooks and the internet, but also from talking to people of all ages and different backgrounds. They also need a variety of skills: the traditional school ones plus at least a taste of the skills of farmers, craftsmen, mechanics, athletes, business managers, and sales people.

Instead of aiming for higher test scores, a vigorous school would care more about what students do with what they have been taught. At all grade levels such schools would foster activities that allow students to demonstrate their learning in real contexts, such as serving in the school lunchroom or checking out books in the library, organizing playground games for younger children or reading to them, making items to sell in a school store, creating a school vegetable garden, painting murals in the halls, adopting a nearby road, or running a school recycling program.

Schools could also encourage students to use their abilities and interests beyond the classroom and beyond  traditional extra-curricular activities.  Offer them opportunities to create a musical group, write and perform poetry or plays, draw and post political cartoons and humorous comic strips, make informational or artistic videos, or work with adults on community projects.

As a result of the vigor that these activities exemplify, there will come the intellectual intensity, precision, critical alertness, expertise and integrity that the critics of education are really calling for when they misuse the word “rigor.” These habits of mind, body and spirit are the true fruit of educational excellence. In the end, vigor in our schools is the evidence of life, while rigor is the sign of an early death.

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