Some of best lines in the film The Princess Bride are given to the assassin-for-hire Vizzini. For those unfamiliar with this classic film, Vizzini’s repeated use of the word “inconceivable” is finally challenged by the vengeance-seeking swordsman Inigo Montoya while they stand overlooking a cliff watching the Dread Pirate Roberts climb in pursuit:
[Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up]
Vizzini: (enraged) HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
I believe the same misunderstanding is happening when education reformers overuse the word “rigor”. This word is tossed about by education reformers who do not demonstrate an understanding of what rigor means. To clear up any confusion, here are three definitions of rigor according to Vocabulary.com:
1 n excessive sternness
“the rigors of boot camp”
hardness, harshness, inclemency, rigorousness, rigour, rigourousness, severeness, severity, stiffness
“Excessive sternness” sounds like a workhouse/boarding school from a Charles Dickens novel, while “boot camp” is an altogether different kind of training. Both interpretations are not tied to 21st Century skills. How do education reformers who create the rigor of “uncompromising resolution” help to make students career and college ready when cooperation and collaboration are part of 21st Century skills?
The second meaning:
2. n something hard to endure
asperity, grimness, hardship, rigorousness, rigour, rigourousness, severeness, severity
the quality (as of scenery) being grim and gloomy and forbidding
the quality of being difficult
“Something hard to endure” is how many high school students do feel, enduring school as a requirement. Many employ a degree of “difficult-ness” in order to stop class. “Grimness” and “hardship” are not qualities that encourage students to do well or succeed. Education reformers who seek to make schools “forbidding” with rigor sound as though they want to eliminate schools.
The third meaning:
3. n the quality of being valid and rigorous
cogency, rigour, validity
believability, credibility, credibleness
the quality of being believable or trustworthy
Here at last is a definition that addresses one quality needed for education- “validity”. Yes, there should be validity to information in school and a way to measure student understanding of information in order to be credible. A synonym to validity is “the property of being strong and healthy in constitution”. Education reformers should substitute rigor with validity in order to promote better attitudes towards improving education.
So how did rigor become so misused? In 2008, education advocate Tony Wagner called for a new definition of “rigor” according to 21st Century criteria. In an article published in ASCD Magazine titled “Rigor Redefined” he indicated that:
”It’s time to hold ourselves and all of our students to a new and higher standard of rigor, defined according to 21st-century criteria. It’s time for our profession to advocate for accountability systems that will enable us to teach and test the skills that matter most. Our students’ futures are at stake.”
Wagner suggested the following criteria:
- Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
- Collaboration and Leadership
- Agility and Adaptability
- Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
- Effective Oral and Written Communication
- Accessing and Analyzing Information
- Curiosity and Imagination
Note that there is nothing about severity or harshness in Wagner’s recommendations for rigor in education. Unfortunately, the Draconian definition from Vocabulary.com is the one that most often captures the attitude of education reformers and politicians who call for tougher standards, increased testing, and more (home) work in order to create an impression of rigor in making school more demanding. Their misuse of what Wagner sought by using the word rigor fails to include higher order thinking skills, problem solving or the significance of imagination.
Therefore, when education reformers misuse the word rigor to mean more demanding lessons or tests so difficult that students cannot possibly succeed, I propose teachers respond with by saying the word “Inconceivable!”
When education reformers misuse the word rigor as a means to evaluate student or teacher performance with tools that only measure basic comprehension skills without addressing any creative problem solving, I propose teachers respond again with the word “Inconceivable!”
And if education reformers continue to misuse the word rigor to describe what is lacking in curriculum at every grade level, I propose teachers stop and correct the reformers, with or without Inigo Montoya’s accent, and say, “You keep using that word …I do not think you know the meaning of that word!”