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Learning at its Best

Vigor not Rigor

Above from Google searches of vigorous and rigorous

Vigor means having [intensity, energy, and enthusiasm], and the potential for enhancing “active strength of body or mind”. When something is invigorating, it’s “stimulating…energizing…restorative”. A vigorous thing challenges you, and tests your abilities in a creative way. Even if it’s difficult, at the end of the experience you feel empowered and ready to try again.

Vigor in education is likely to be driven by internal motivation, passion, careful guidance and mentoring. You can expect to be pushed to your limits, but only so far as you are capable until the next go-round. No one learns to lift 200 pounds in a month. And the delivery method is likely to be diverse and adaptable to strengths and weaknesses. It’s systematic and deliberate, yet flexible. You are taught by your mistakes in a comprehensive way, without humiliation and with thorough evaluation of performance and attributes.

Think about it like weight training or aerobic exercise – the activities are diversified often so that you round out and get at all your muscles. You are given targets yes, but you can reach them in countless ways. You can use many tools or terrains to exercise. The results are measured in a variety of ways too – cholesterol levels, oxygen in the blood, heart rate at rest and peak heart rate over time, muscle tone, limberness – even sleep quality and ease in going to the bathroom are measures of a body that gets good exercise.

Like vigorous exercise, vigorous learning is “dynamic” and can be achieved with multiple methods and systems.

Rigor implies something more sinister. A dictionary definition of rigor is “strictness or severity, as in temperament, action, or judgment.” It implies brutality, being unrelenting and “harsh”. Rigor is also defined as being heavily reliant on “validity” and “credibility”.

When governments, schools, and parents cry out for more rigor in education, they are usually asking for the following things. The first is strictness in behavior. Students must act within a rigid set of behaviors – quiet unless spoken to, not allowed to move freely from place to place, and so on. The next is physical confinement. Learning only happens in a building, and in a classroom, and at a desk (even educational field trips are limited mostly to museums and indoors exhibits). In class you are often assigned a seat. Little children are conditioned to prevent themselves from squirming. Physical education is confined to a gym, designated field, or a racetrack. Another factor is a limitation on play time (up until its complete absence in high school), The fourth is uniformity – the same subjects taught in the same way by fact heavy text books peppered with politically correct analysis. There are banned book lists, and grade level book lists. Most of all, champions of rigor are attracted to harsh judgment of performance in the form of formulaic tests, standardized portfolios, GPA rankings, number and letter grading systems, and tiering of all kinds. “Accountability” if you will. There are always “stakes”, consequences, and tight requirements.

So I think it is worth noting why schooling is judged by is rigor and not its vigor. What does this simple shift in letters say about our society’s values and expectations?

Zuleika Irvin


7 thoughts on “Vigor not Rigor

  1. Hi Zuleika,

    Thanks for this. I do think words are important and that we should be careful to say what we mean. Lately I’ve felt that I want to reclaim ownership of words like rigor, excellence, challenge and achievement from the educational conservatives. I think that progressive, democratic, holistic and humane approaches can also legitimately claim excellence, and that we shouldn’t be afraid to use words like these to describe some aspects of what we do.

    On the other hand as I think more about the word “rigor” in particular, perhaps you’re correct, here. Rigor is derived from the Latin “rigorem” meaning numbness or stiffness. It has the same etymological roots as “rigid” for example. These are all adjectives that can describe something or someone that lacks life, warmth or suppleness (rigor mortis, e.g.)

    Vigor on the other hand is derived from the Latin “vigorem” meaning liveliness, activity, and force, to be lively, to flourish and to thrive. This word is all about being alive and having all the attributes that life connotes.

    These two words then offer a dramatic dichotomy. No less than life vs death. By all means let education be about life!!


    Posted by Paul Freedman | January 29, 2012, 3:09 am
  2. Puritanical ideas about children’s behaviors & roles really permeate our society and universal public education despite the differences in ways children learned “here” before Europeans arrived in North America and before those immigrants adopted, distributed, and enforced (through laws and social mores) systems of public education based on industrial, Yankee models rather than on models from other regions where kids learned mostly at and from home.

    Schools fear being liable for letting kids be kids and schools feel liable for test scores. Therefore, schools think that vigor is dangerous and that rigor is safe.

    Freedom, happiness, joy, meaning, satisfaction – these are the hallmarks of vigorous learning. Where we see them we should ask how we can go about creating conditions that allow them where we are.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 29, 2012, 10:47 am
  3. You are correct as I have not thought about this … I will begin preaching academic and instructional vigor versus rigor in which I have been doing! Thank you for the insight 🙂

    Posted by Bill | January 29, 2012, 1:03 pm
  4. I agree with some of your points, and find they are all too common. However, many educators have chosen to move beyond the surface view of rigor to truly explore what rigor can mean to learning. For example, districts who use instructional rigor–creating a climate in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2008)–as a foundation, find their students are learniNg. They are more engaged, take more ownership for learning, and the teachers in those classrooms understand that turning away from the myths of rigor (more homework, adding quantity not quality, etc) and focusing on their students, allows both teachers and students to thrive.

    Posted by Barbara | January 29, 2012, 7:18 pm
    • Barbara, what kind of student choices come with that rigor? Do you attribute their affective gains to the goals set by adults, the choices students have made, or some mix of both?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 30, 2012, 5:06 pm
    • Then why continue to use the outdated word. It is a buzz word which allows the myth to continue and allows people to place the blame on others instead of take true participation in learning opportunities in their community. I truly believe that all meaningful and relevant learning will help to draw out the same experiences and values to state above, why not promote meaningful and engaging education, why not call for Vigorous education. Also is it not just a myth that students lack high expectations. We can have all the expectations we want for students but unless they are engaged in their own learning and have the self motivation than it is for not. Deep learning and passion based education that allows teachers and students to do work that beyond the basics is what will allow students to thrive. We need flexible, living learning that is connected to life not rigid learning.


      Posted by dloitz | January 30, 2012, 5:20 pm

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