In her spring 2008 piece entitled “Rigor vs. Vigor” published in Independent School, Amy Purcell offers a meaningful distinction, one which I find myself using each day as I reflect on and support the rich, subtle and complex interplay between how children learn and what that means for how we should teach. Purcell writes,
“Consider the American Heritage Dictionary definition of Rigor :
1. Strictness or severity, as in temperament, action or judgment.
2. A harsh or trying circumstance; hardship. See synonyms at difficulty
3. A harsh or cruel act.
Why is it that so many independent schools in their mission statements, curricula, and marketing materials tout academic "rigor" as a salient goal? Do they truly want children to experience academics as severe and harsh?”
As Purcell notes, it is difficult to find a school mission statement or national report related to education that doesn’t invoke the term “rigor.” Given the definition of the word, that fact has important ironies—and some potentially devastating implications for teaching and learning.
As we wend our way through the first decade of the 21st century, educators—and all adults who are committed to the health and well being of our children and future leaders—must be able to offer a vision of teaching and learning that moves beyond “severity,” “harshness,” “hardship,” and “cruelty.” Writers as varied as Josh Waitzkin (The Art of Learning), Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind), Carol Dweck (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success), Howard Gardner (Five Minds for the Future) and even The New Commission on the Skills of the American Work Force (Tough Choices or Tough Times) point to a vision of learning in and beyond the classroom that embraces what Purcell calls vigor,
“1. Physical or mental strength, energy, or force.
2. The capacity for natural growth and survival, as of plants or animals.
3. Strong feeling; enthusiasm or intensity.
Consider the possibilities of academic vigor: Is it not our goal to engage students as active, energetic learners? To empower students to think boldly and intensely about math concepts or scientific inquiries? Isn’t it our greatest satisfaction when students apply their intellectual and creative energy to problem solving in ways that inspire and extend our own understandings as teachers? I believe that we strive not for rigor but for vigorous growth, both mental and physical, at independent schools.”
At a time when fear and uncertainty threaten to choke off the creativity and sense of possibility that can best guide us through the current economic turbulence, we need the courage, boldness, determination, heart, mettle, soulfulness and belief in the capacity of the human spirit on which Summit School was founded in 1933. The roots of this 76 year-old school, like the roots of many of our finest Independent Schools, are imbedded in a fundamental understanding of and commitment to child development, learning theory, curriculum and subject area expertise, service and civic duty, and the best of the progressive education tradition: attending to the whole child, community, collaboration, fundamentals within a personally meaningful and socially responsible context, intrinsic motivation, hands-on/minds-on learning, and student agency.
We live in a time when we must redouble our efforts to engage our children—our future leaders—in academic vigor. For it is vigor, not rigor, that will cultivate and sustain in our children what NAIS President Pat Bassett describes as the “skills and values [that] will be essential for leadership and success in one’s family, community, and the marketplace in the rest of the 21st century”:
• Character (self-discipline, empathy, integrity, resilience, and courage)
• Creativity and entrepreneurial spirit
• Real-world problem-solving (analysis and synthesis)
• Public speaking/communications
Our best Independent Schools—those who, like Summit, possess the timeless and timely hallmarks of scholarship, vision, innovation, creativity, and care—live this crucial distinction between rigor and vigor each and every day with each and every child. This represents our heritage. . .and our future.
2 weeks ago