The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Our Schools Need More Vigor Not Rigor

on January 1, 2019

As I promised, I am beginning to write this blog once more. Since some readers may be new and others not familiar with my beliefs about education, I am starting with a dose of my basic philosophy of what schools should be and do. Although I published this essay when I began this blog I have revised it, and for me at least, it is timeless.

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 our language but don’t belong there. I make it a point never to tack “ly” onto ordinal number words such as “third” or say “myself” when I mean “I” or “me.” And I never use “access” or “impact” as verbs because I consider them still to be only nouns.*  Even so, I remain politely quiet when others commit grammatical transgressions. I figure they will learn what is right or continue to mark themselves as dummies.

But there is one word I dislike so intensely when used to express what education should be that I can’t remain silent under any circumstances: “rigor”. Part of my reaction is emotional, having learned that “rigor” is properly paired with “mortis.”

My other reactions are logical, stemming from the literal meanings of rigor: harshness, severity, strictness, inflexibility and immobility. None of those qualities are 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 rigor so freely– really want them either, I still reproach them for using rigor to characterize educational excellence.

Rigor has been used incorrectly to promote the idea that American students need advanced course work, complex texts, and longer school days in order to be ready for college or the workplace. But, so far, the rigorous practices included in 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 to a higher level, I recommend “vigor.” My dictionary says it means “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 the word “life”. How much better our schools would be if they provided classroom activities throbbing with energy, growth and life. Although school buildings have walls, they should not separate students from vigorous learning.

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 backgrounds. They also need a variety of useful skills: at least a taste of those of farmers, craftsmen, mechanics, athletes, business managers, and sales workers. 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 a school should foster activities that allow students to demonstrate their learning in real contexts, such as serving in the school lunchroom, checking out books in the library, organizing playground games for younger students or reading to them, making items to sell at a school store, creating a school vegetable garden, painting murals in the hallways, adopting a nearby road for clearing its trash quarterly, and school recycling of re-usable materials, such as cardboard milk containers.

Schools should also encourage students to use their abilities and interests beyond the classroom and beyond traditional extra-curricular activities. They should have opportunities to create a musical group, write and perform poetry or drama, draw and post political cartoons and humorous comic strips, make artistic or informational videos, and work with adults on community projects. As a result of the vigor that those activities exemplify, there will come the intellectual intensity, precision, critical alertness, expertise and integrity that the critics of education are actually 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 early death.


*If you don’t believe me, look it up

2 responses to “Our Schools Need More Vigor Not Rigor

  1. Steve Buel says:

    Better believe it. Nice to have you back, Joanne.


  2. Jane Watson says:

    Thanks for writing your blog. Just heard about your husband – so sorry.

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