How to Find the Grail: The Path to Student Engagement (Part 2): Beware the False Flag of Rigor

By Ross Peters, Managing Partner, EXPLO Elevate

I sensed it was a badge of immaturity to ask about content relevance when I was a middle school student in an all-boys school.

It was not a question that represented the kind of thinking the school asked of us. If I am fully honest, I asked out of real curiosity and from a desire to be a bit of a thorn in my teacher’s side. Anyway as a seventh grader, I wouldn’t reflect longer than the time necessary to clock the lesson (the same lesson I would have to learn time and again)…”don’t ask, “why do we need to know this?”

Trying to remember that lesson at the right time was apparently impossible for me. Inevitably, I would step on that same mine before the week was out. I was more busy trying to remember to wear a belt (if you didn’t have one, you’d have to make one from toilet paper and get all the middle school teachers to sign it), and I was trying to avoid careening into the sort of low altitude mistake that would result in having to come back to school Saturday morning to clean up campus or scrape the gum from the underside of desks. Strangely, I fondly remember some brisk Saturday mornings raking leaves as punishment more than I do anything else from that school year. I knew that raking was a relevant and meaningful task. It allowed me to move, get tired, and see the fruits of my labor (as small as they were). I could see the difference it made to campus.

Of all the things I didn’t understand, places I wound up without thinking, mistakes I made that left even me scratching my head, I was totally clear of a few things (note; this is my seventh grader’s view):

  • My teachers took pride in being the hard teacher.
  • The expectations had many steps (and I was likely to skip a few because I lost the directions in the bottom of my bookbag).
  • I didn’t always need to know why I needed to know something.

We have made, I believe, a fundamental error in making an atavistic understanding of “rigor” guide our understanding of both teaching and learning. Both those that adhere too closely to a misguided definition and those that vocally rebel against it completely miss the nuance. Rigor is a good word IF we understand it as part of a means to an end rather than an end unto itself… and again for the people in the back…

Rigor is a good word IF we understand it as part of a means to an end rather than an end unto itself.

The teaching profession needs to change its attitude here systemically. We have preserved curricula, as well as clearly faulty assessment systems, in order to preserve that which we should have jettisoned long ago. The medical definition of rigor has a sort of humorous relevance to the academic one: “a sudden feeling of cold with shivering accompanied by a rise in temperature, often with copious sweating, especially at the onset or height of a fever.” It seems to capture some of the ways students may feel living in a school centered on rigor over engagement and relevance. Here is my working draft of a definition of healthy educational rigor (please take issue with it and share your view by contacting me at

Rigor (noun):

the part of great learning that requires attentiveness, careful and documented observation, and accountability for the expression of discovery or conclusion. Rigor requires a willingness to engage in a critique of one’s work, a commitment to the success of others, and the ability to grow from various forms of challenge. Finally, students in an environment where healthy rigor is a defining characteristic enjoy a culture of shared and purposeful engagement.

Rigor is not the grail of education, nor is it a sacred relic of any kind deserving protection by a guild of teachers sitting on the backbenches aligning in opposition to anything that might change the way things have been done in the past in order to reach for something better for the learners in a school. Unfortunately, rigor has been used too often as a sort of false flag that, while offering the comfort of familiarity and perhaps the comfort of standard measures of academic success, has long ago ceased to represent the best of great teaching and learning. However, when it operates within the Engagement Equation (Connection + Place + Expectation = Engagement), it has a vital role to play.

This is Part 2 of a three-part series on finding the path to student engagement. Read part one: How to find The Grail: Creating the Path to Student Engagement.