Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels,
each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels,
and each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2008).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What is rigor?

In the October 2008 issue of Educational Leadership, Tony Wagner described the skills students will need to be successful in the 21st century in an article titled “Rigor Redefined.” Here's my response (originally posted over on Tales from a Teacher's Heart) and I offer practical ideas for rigorous projects for your students.

In his article “Rigor Redefined,” Tony Wagner describes the skills students will need in the future in order to have successful careers and be good citizens. The skills move beyond memorization of content for a test and shift the focus to a higher level of learning.

As I reviewed his list, which includes critical thinking, problem solving, initiative, collaboration, adaptability, accessing information, and effective communication, I was reminded of a comment my dad made several years ago. He said, “The purpose of education is for students to be able to figure out what to do when they don’t know what to do.” Most of the skills Dr. Wagner describes are needed to achieve that.

Many teachers I talk with agree with his recommendations. We all know we should not limit our instruction to “the test.” I firmly believe preparation for a standardized test should be the floor of our instruction, not the ceiling. And we can incorporate these skills as we teach content.

As you can see from the sample projects below, these activities provide the opportunity for students to engage in critical thinking and problem solving, to demonstrate collaboration, leadership, initiative, entrepreneurialism, and curiosity, to access and analyze information, and to effectively communicate with others.

Excerpted from Chapter 4 of Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word:

Sample Projects

Language Arts

“Shakespeare Incarnate” Create and perform a skit as a follow-up to a novel or short story. The skit can be an adaptation, a continuation, or written from a different point of view. Each group has to advertise their play, use costumes that the school owns or create their own, and stick to a time limit. Students then perform the play for peers and/or an audience.


Create objects incorporating Pascal’s Triangle or certain shapes (such as a rhombus). As an alternative, create a game that incorporates the use of graphing (such as Battleship).


“Green Plan” Each group must construct a plan to save the environment and live more “green.” Language arts skills are also incorporated as students plan speeches to convince the population that living green is the way to go. Students must decide on recycling programs (keeping in mind effectiveness and cost). Students will create charts and graphic organizers showing the efficiency of their plans.

Social Studies

“Mr./Madam President” Create media campaign for the ideal presidential candidate. Each group is a campaign with one candidate, a campaign manager, etc. The candidate must give speeches, have a plan, take a stand on current issues, and win the votes of the population.


“Music to My Ears” Each person writes their own piece of music, incorporating knowledge gained through their studies. Students can then perform in front of peers in an “American Idol” type of setting.

Career/ Technology

“Future Creations” Students design robots to perform a specific function in the workplace. They draw a draft design and create a model. They also write a resume for their robot, detailing qualifications.

Click here for a printable pdf of this chart.

Dr. Wagner’s list adds to our knowledge base of expectations for success for each student. But I would caution you that rigor is more that what we expect students to do. Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels. Only by creating a culture of high expectations and providing support so students can truly succeed do you have a rigorous classroom.

Click here for more information, sample chapters, and selected templates from Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word.

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