Talking to people about instructional rigor is difficult. In some instances, the application of rigor or rigorous as a modifier works well. A rigorous practice on the soccer field, a rigorous investigation into a string of recent break-ins, and even a rigorous carpet cleaning (as a service near my home advertises) all give us a fairly clear understanding. The practice will be physically challenging, exhausting, and thorough; the investigation will be fully engaged, leaving no stone untouched; and the carpet will be thoroughly cleansed down to the molecular level. When rigor is applied to education, however, the term becomes a bit less clear.

If we are going to continue using the term, we need to be clear about what we mean when we say rigor.

I investigated how 21 high school social studies teachers defined and enacted instructional rigor in their classrooms. A “rigor spectrum” emerged. Rigor for Academics (RA) at one end was more teacher-focused, breadth-over-depth, and fast-paced; it was history discipline-focused and assessed through essay writing and multiple-​choice exams. On the other end was Rigor for Democracy (RD), which was more student-centered, social studies-​oriented, thematically organized, inquiry- and discussion-based, and more likely to focus on content associated with race, gender, LGBTQ issues, class, and power.

I developed two narrative descriptions for teachers on the RA/RD spectrum. Both of these descriptions are taken from notes and reflections I kept as a classroom teacher and are examples of my own teaching and conceptions of rigor at differing times in my career. These descriptions served as elicitation devices—or tools to react to—in order to gain traction when speaking about difficult or hard-to-define things. Since then, I have used these descriptions in university courses, professional development sessions with teachers, and with parents in social situations to engage more complicated conversations about instructional rigor.

Teacher 1—Rigor for Academics

Though class only began five minutes before, this teacher has already administered a five-question multiple-​choice quiz over the 20 pages of textbook reading from the previous night and has launched into a lecture on the major battles of the American Civil War. The teacher is “old school”—no LCD projector, no PowerPoint slides, no films—but he holds each student’s attention.

On most days, little student voice is heard. There may be a question for clarification, “Was it Seminary Ridge or Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg?” From time to time a student will ask a more penetrating question, “Why don’t we consider the Sons of Liberty to be a gang of anti-intellectual thugs? Is it because they were on our side?” This type of lecture is not every day, but most. Other days students in small teams break down primary source documents that they read and analyzed for homework. At least twice a week there are short, five- to 10-question multiple-choice quizzes on readings that focus on specific facts, names, dates, places, and events followed by a larger “test” of 30 multiple-​choice questions every Friday. This rhythm is interrupted every two weeks by some type of essay writing, either a document-based or more traditional essay question. The teacher talks students through the essays in the beginning of the semester but phases out this support pretty quickly. Soon, students are on their own.

Teacher 2—Rigor for Democracy

Last evening’s homework was to write 15 questions about the readings on the Occupy Movement, the Progressive Movement, and the New Deal—seven readings in all.

The teacher turns to his class and says, “Circle up! Talk to a partner, someone next to you.” The teacher continues, “Which text describes the best way out of a financial crisis?” Within a few minutes, the din of student voices is all that is heard. The teacher works the room, staying in earshot but a few feet behind students.

After 15 minutes, the teacher says, “Remember, the point of discussion is to engage each other intellectually. We are examining these texts for ideas; we are then going to evaluate those ideas, combine them with other information from class, and then apply them to our current economic crisis. To do this, we can’t have any interruptions or personal attacks. Now, which text has the best solution to our financial crisis?”

The students begin to apply their understandings onto the current dilemma, creating a lively, engaging discussion. Students prove they understand texts deeply and have a firm grasp on the content, asking questions, making arguments, and road-testing solutions. By conversation’s end, student thinking is propelled forward, but absolute answers are nowhere to be found. Wanting students to learn information as well as intellectual and academic skills, Teacher 2 arranged content around large essential questions taught through inquiry and discussion.

Knowing that a wide range of reading levels exists, shorter, more easily understood texts are used in the beginning of the year; then, slowly and deliberately, there are increases in number, length, difficulty of vocabulary, and complexity of writing style. With each successful unit, the complexity is increased. Students seem to write constantly, in multiple genres. Teacher 2 intentionally introduces difficult and unpleasant history slowly over time, increasing student exposure to violence, racism, misogyny, classism, and homophobia. Having students look honestly at history is ultimately rigorous.

Discussion and Conclusion

Parents and teachers alike react differently to the two teachers profiled. They see the benefits and complications of both. The pedagogy and curriculum of both teacher descriptions offer students different skills, processes, and content foci, which is important. Students in both classes are exposed to different skills and content. Teacher 1 is presenting a likely quite recognizable, college-bound AP pedagogy and curriculum. Teacher 2 is likely less recognizable, facilitating conversations around content that seemed “dangerous” with a pedagogy that is “complicated.” Teachers often steer away from content focused on power, race, class, gender, and LGBTQ issues—as indicated by studies such as the recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center on the teaching of slavery—out of fear that students may react negatively, feel disempowered, or the teachers feel unprepared to teach this way.

The hard question we have to ask as a profession is this: What do we want for our children? Do we want students to be prepared for college by learning the less complicated and largely celebratory nationalist interpretation of history similar to Teacher 1? Or is part of rigor engaging in difficult and challenging history through a lens of inquiry and discussion more like Teacher 2? This is a conversation we need to have. In our increasingly complicated society—of #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and the rising tide of student resistance after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida—I would argue that an RD teacher, like Teacher 2, is critical.  

Used as elicitation devices or conversation starters, the descriptions of both teachers can be excellent tools to begin conversations among educators, teachers, parents, and students about what constitutes rigorous instruction. Is it large amounts of work quickly given? Is it complicated content around an open and difficult question? What academic skills provide students with more rigor?

When I visit schools today, the concept of rigor appears everywhere. It is increasingly becoming a term used in mission and vision statements, a focus of instruction, and a component of teacher evaluations. When I ask what they mean when they say rigor, educators stumble, often with a long pause, rarely coming up with a clear answer. Teacher 2 speaks to me as the more rigorous. However, this teaching is difficult to do in both the planning and execution. So, if we want this, we need to struggle for it. At the very least, we need to begin a dialogue about what constitutes rigorous instruction.

Brian Gibbs, PhD, is a faculty member in the department of education at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, NC.