My View

Rigor vs. Rigor Mortis
By JACK KAUFHOLD/School Administrator, November 2018

ANOTHER WORD has entered the lexicon of overused phrases in the field of education. That word is “rigor.” It has taken its place alongside such other aphorisms as “vision,” “21st-century standards” and “data-driven instruction.”

After listening to a keynote speaker at a recent conference on school improvement use this word “rigor” repeatedly, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to look up the word’s meaning. At first, I wasn’t alarmed. The words “challenging,” “exactness” and “precision” appeared in the definition. Reading further, however, I noticed more troublesome words such as “inflexible,” “unyielding” and “rigidity” entered the definition. As Shakespeare once noted, “Therein lies the rub.” Exactly what were educators intending through use of the word?

Two other words often juxtaposed by and about K-12 education are “standards” and “standardization.” When I was a military instructor, we had standardized textbooks in the form of field manuals. There were standardized lesson plans called lesson reference files, and much of the course material was learned through self-paced programmed materials. Each instructor had to be checked out for every lesson to ensure he was teaching the material exactly as written. Any instructor who was long-winded or failed to teach the entire lesson was quickly reassigned.

A Military Application
No doubt, there are those reading this who would agree that this type of education is highly desirable in this era of outcome-based education. They believe customized textbooks containing standardized content, common lesson plans and lessons presented in tightly packaged modules will ensure more efficient learning for students.

But my question that begs to be asked is “Is this truly education?” Resorting to my dictionary, I found that to educate is to “develop mentally, morally or aesthetically,” as well as “to bring out the latent capabilities of students.”

While standardization and uniformity may be the rule in military education (“There is one way and one way only to disassemble that weapon, soldier. Don’t get creative!”), is this rigidity appropriate for current educational practice? Where does mental development, creativity or divergent thinking fit into this paradigm?

In 1970, futurist Alvin Toffler wrote in his acclaimed book Future Shock: “It is no longer sufficient for Johnny to understand the past. It is not even enough for him to understand the present, for the here-and-now environment will soon change. Johnny must learn to think and to anticipate the direction and rate of change in the future … and so must Johnny’s teachers.” I believe this is still true today.

Outdated Standard
So we must ask ourselves, “What do we mean by rigor?” Is it creating more and more inexorable hoops for students to jump through? Is it requiring students to learn more information that may be outdated by the time they are adults? Will this type of rigor really prepare students to meet the challenges of the future?”

Perhaps rigor should consist of teaching that requires students to think and to question for themselves, to search for new solutions to old problems and to create answers for modern questions. In denying students the opportunities to gain these skills and to rely on the old standards of rigor, we actually may supplant rigor with rigor mortis.

JACK KAUFHOLD is a retired superintendent residing in Palm Beach, Fla.