Language Matters in Education: Putting Vigor over Rigor

9/11/2016
This will be the first in an ongoing blog series on key language and learning distinctions that really matter when we’re crafting high-quality, student-centered experiences for our students.I’ve been a language nerd since I first started to accumulate a vocabulary in early childhood, and I believe that the words we choose always matter.  In education, what Kath Murdoch calls “invitational language” can make a huge difference with students; open-ended “how might we?” opportunities unlock creativity, innovation and critical thinking about how to make our communities and lives better, helping students develop problem-solving skills for school and life beyond the schoolhouse.  Guy Claxton’s ideas about a language he calls “Learnish” are connected to this as well, to students becoming flexible and fluent in the language needed to articulate their own learning.  Similarly, poor use of language can truncate high quality experiences and stifle creativity, limiting how students view the possibilities and parameters before they even begin to problem solve, even belittling or diminishing students and their varied minds, learning pathways and world views.Rigor vs. Vigor
I’ve heard the word “rigor” used for far too long in education, and it horrifies me.  Rigor comes from late Middle English, from the Latin word regere, which means “to be stiff.”  We refer to a corpse as going through rigor mortis when it becomes stiff shortly after death.  So why on earth would we describe education as rigorous?  Do we really want learning to be stiff and inflexible, or do we want students to enjoy learning and spend their lives doing it?  Educator Shawn McCusker put it perfectly on Twitter this August, when he wrote, “My least favorite word in education is rigor. I feel like we use it to justify grinding the souls of our children.”  I couldn’t agree more.  The word rigor makes me think of angry teachers using rulers to rap students on the backs of their hands or heads for lack of conformity to the rules of traditional education.I am a proud graduate of the Open Schools of Jefferson County, Colorado, where we didn’t use the word rigor.  Instead, founder and educational thought leader Arnie Langberg believed in vigor, in building a culture where learning was vigorous and personalized, not rigorous and inflexible.  The word vigor also comes from Middle English, from the Old French vigour and the Latin vigere, meaning “to be lively.”  A lively educational experience is one that students find engaging and relevant, authentic and meaningful, an experience that makes them think and wonder and take risks for the sake of deeper learning. The word vigor makes me think of students collaborating to solve authentic challenges, of conversations filled with energy and enthusiasm, of classrooms filled with noise and movement and thinking and risk taking.PictureGraphic by Lisa Westman; click image to see full articleConsider thought leader Milton Chen’s claim that we can judge the quality of a classroom by whether students run in more quickly than they run out.  In my experience, students always run into a vigorous learning environment–and generally dream of running out of a rigorous one.  As educator Lisa Westman points out in her blog and graphic, there is a big difference between compliance and learning.  The higher the grade level, the easier it becomes to mistake compliance for engagement–or even to value compliance over learning because, after all, compliance is quieter and less messy than authentic, engaged learning tends to be.Think about how different a learning environment becomes when we focus on vigorous engagement over rigorous drilling.  Think about how much more enjoyment is possible with a word like vigor.  And vigor isn’t mutually exclusive to high test scores, if anyone’s worried, just as fun is not mutually exclusive to learning. In fact, vigorous learning, by which I mean deep, engaging and meaningful learning, will lead to more transferable knowledge and skill, not less.  (Although they use the word rigorous way too often in their work, see results from the first Knowledge in Action research project for quantifiable evidence that students can have fun while simultaneously learning something serious and important.)  I love how my colleague Dayna Laur captured genuine learning–and its unfortunate antithesis–in a recent letter to her daughter’s teachers.  And colleague Jill Akers Clayton blogged recently on the space between knowledge and understanding; a vigorous classroom seeks the kind of deep curiosity and understanding she describes, as well as vigorous learning opportunities that allow young people to explore the world beyond their classroom walls.

As we begin this new school year in the northern hemisphere, and near our last months in the south, I wonder what might happen if we re-envision our school cultures and instructional pedagogies through the lens of vigor.  What might we do differently this year to emphasize vigor over rigor?  How might we help our students to see their own learning as flexible, and foster their ability to learn from failure?  How might we increase the joy in our classrooms, foster students’ enthusiasm and energy for learning?  How might we ensure, in other words, that students run in more quickly than they run out of our classrooms and schoolhouses?Perhaps most importantly, how might we help students reach high expectations not through stiffness and inflexibility but through multiple pathways that capitalize on their individual gifts and passions?  What does it look like to facilitate learning experiences with that level of flexibility and personalization, particularly in light of our standards-driven accountability systems in the United States?  We all know that challenges exist, that even the best of teachers feel they have to teach to the test by February or March.  But while we enjoy the first few months of school, with testing still far off on the horizon, how might we rethink how we meet those standards?  If we put vigor first and trust that learning happens when students are engaged and excited, we might combat the belief that rigor leads to excellence.  Rigor may lead to episodic successes, to what Sarah Lewis calls “an event-based victory” or two, but mastery is a life-long pursuit, one pursued with vigor and enthusiasm and passion by those who are committed to their own growth.Let’s make this the year we put vigor before rigor in how we talk and think about our classrooms, schoolhouses, and students.