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Rigor 2.0

By Bill Madigan

Rigor mortis: Muscular stiffening following death, resulting from the loss of energy needed to elicit contraction of the muscly fibers.  

Rigor has been a buzz word in education for years, but what does it really mean, and what is its connotation?  Educators have wrestled with rigor’s true definition for a long time – they’ve discussed it, bemoaned it, praised it, and have been bludgeoned with it.  

I have often struggled with the negative connotation that accompanies rigor, a stiffness following death. That’s not very inspiring.  Luckily, I was introduced to a new understanding of rigor by one of my colleagues at AVID. 

Enrique Lopez is one of the best staff developers in the history of AVID.  He is sharp as can be, he stays up on research, and has been a key cog in the wheel of AVID’s ELL (English Language Learners) initiative for years.  He has also been central to much of AVID’s Excel program for ELL students.

Most importantly, he has walked the walk.

When Enrique was just newly married and only 18 years old, he was working the vines on a huge farm in central California and a voice said, “I can do better than this, for me and my family.”  Enrique will insist you understand that farm work is honorable, but at 28 cents every other vine, he knew he could not provide for his family the way he envisioned.

Enrique replaced pruning shears and the nomadic life of the farmworker for books and study.  Reading became his passion.  Reading is still his passion.  I think I read a lot until I get into a discussion about linguistics, assessments, or any other educational topic with him, then I have to work hard just to keep up. 

Enrique offers a view into what constitutes rigor 2.0:  less about the traditional puritan informed definition of hard work or drudgery and more about passion and purpose. At a recent brain-based learning conference, I heard a new catch phrase, “meaningful engagement.”

William Wraga, an educational philosopher and author of What’s the Problem with a Rigorous Academic Curriculum, states that the problem is precisely the negative connotations of the term rigor.  He offers the more positive term of “vigorous” curriculum, emphasizing the active and engaged. Vigor has a much more positive connotation than rigor.

Dr. Jacque Gamino, researcher at the Center for Brain Health at U.T. Dallas, has illustrated another more dynamic element in rigor 2.0:  enjoyment in learning.  Students with diagnosed ADD self reported that they enjoyed school for the first time in her SMART program.  Gamino and her colleagues developed a program of structured reasoning that has led to higher scores on not only reasoning tests but state standardized tests as well.  The SMART program is definitely hard work, and fast paced, yet it’s also enjoyable.

Alphie Kohn says in his article Feel Bad Education that we are so averse to allowing good feelings to be associated with schooling that we have created the high drop-out rates that plague many schools and communities.  Kohn insists that the number one priority for a teacher is to maintain and grow the enthusiasm of the learner.  In their book Teaching What Matters Most authors Silver, Strong, and Perini define rigor as, “complex, ambiguous, personally and emotionally challenging.” Sounds vigorous.

On the Edutopia website a discussion of rigor implies all these new elements of rigor 2.0.  The senior blog editor for Edutopia states, “If improving the rigor of education studies has been the watchword for much of the work carried out by the U.S. Department of Education’s key research agency over the past seven years, relevance and usefulness seem to be shaping up as twin themes for the half-dozen years ahead.”

So, meaningful and emotionally challenging sound so much more positive and rich, and give a much clearer direction than the old connotation of rigor conveyed by itself.  I almost want to insert the word passion as well, since passionate people work the hardest because they love to.  Steve Jobs also stated that it was the “crazy ones” that work the hardest.  He said others don’t get it because it’s the passion that drives him to “seem” like a crazy driven man.  So perhaps a little bit of attention to building a crazy passion in others is the best method for bringing out rigor 2.0.

Enrique is still passionate about this work, and it all started with a meaningful moment, not just hard work.


Bill Madigan and Enrique Lopez will be presenting a session called Culture, Relationship, and Identity: Why Connection Must Come Before Curriculum at this year’s AVID National Conference at the Hilton Bayfront in San Diego, CA, December 6-8. Their session will illustrate the power and necessity of building relational capacity as well as cultural awareness in teaching and leading. To learn more about National Conference, see our brochure.

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October 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteruggs soldes

Having worked with Enrique in the Central Valley for several years, I heartily concur with Bill Madigan's assessment of Enrique's passion and commitment to learning. He is forever seeking new ways to reach students and teachers. What makes him unique is an understanding of the difficulties many of our kids face, having "walked the walk," as Bill puts it. But there is another side to Enrique that he doesn't often reveal, a humility that allows him to share his life story with all of its hurts and disappointments, along with a keen sense of humor. I'm 100% sure that Enrique blushed when he read this article. Thanks for sharing, Bill.

October 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEd Torres

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