Rigor Mortis: Let’s Redefine Rigor to Meet Student Needs | Alden Blodget | 6 Min Read

May 16, 2023

In a country where self-serve businesses seem a fitting symbol for a pervasive approach to life, I’m not surprised that I get a lot of criticism for promoting schools that make room for the self of the student: “Kids today already seem over-indulged, narcissistic, and entitled,” say my critics. “They need to learn about the ideas of others, get outside themselves, learn about different cultures.” Others, despite the research, scoff at the notion of allowing students to study what matters to them, what is emotionally relevant. They laugh at the idea that high school students are intellectually curious or can possibly make good choices. One colleague asked me with great contempt whether I would simply “let them choose which elements of the periodic table appeal to them and study only those.”

It might surprise my critics to learn that I share their unhappiness with the epidemic of self-absorption that affects not just our children but a huge number of adults. We all need to take more seriously our responsibility to develop social capacities in our youth: empathy, compassion, respect, and admiration, as well as, when appropriate, guilt and remorse. I also believe that children need exposure to ideas and career possibilities that they might never have considered. If you spend all your time playing the piano, how will you ever discover your potential or aptitude for math or science? Though I emphasize the need for schools to focus more on the development of skills (reading, writing, reasoning, questioning, problem-solving, etc.), I also know that factual knowledge is essential. You can’t think like a historian if you have no knowledge of history; you can’t reason or be creative in a know-nothing vacuum.

The problem is that my critics see school issues as either/or propositions. Either students contemplate their navel or they learn about the world. Either adults decide what is essential knowledge or students do. Either schools teach skills or they teach content (and they damn well better teach content or our kids will bomb the SATs and APs). Either school can be teacher-centered or it can be student-centered. Either everyone meets the graduation requirements or anarchy rules. Either everyone gets two hours to complete the test or the results lack integrity. Either all seventh graders take Spanish or scheduling becomes impossible.

And what a surprise. Everyone knows which side of the fallacy wins. We have created schools that serve adults—their needs, their interests, their selves, their concept of efficiency and what’s important. Adults know best.

The justification for this all-or-nothing “thinking” is built in part on equating rigor with rigidity. Rigor suggests individually and developmentally appropriate challenge and difficulty:  high expectations, and encouraging students to do their best to improve their skills and understanding—all of which implies a need for flexibility to treat students as individuals by helping them move from wherever they are when they arrive to a higher, achievable level when they leave. Unfortunately, when schools ignore the needs and interests of the children, the individual nature of learning and achievement disappears in the rush to standardization, and healthy rigor gets all mixed up with deadly rigidity—with meeting rigid, inflexible, universal expectations that must apply to all. Everyone wants rigorous education, but rigor has become hopelessly confused with rigidity.

For decades, I have listened to tirades about the “loss of standards” whenever students looked as though they might step off the conveyor belt of rigid sameness: “What will our diploma stand for if Harry doesn’t have to take a foreign language?” “How can I give a fair grade to Mary if she is given more time on this exam? Doesn’t giving her more time penalize those who finished on time?” “If I reduce the number of essays for George, how can I say he has completed my history course?” “If Charlene goes off campus to study film for a semester, she’ll have to finish her graduation requirements in summer school or take a PG year.” The sky is falling; the sky is falling.

The schools I envision are not built on foundations of either/or premises. It’s possible for students to pursue interests that matter to them AND to meet some reasonable balance of requirements to explore and think about areas beyond their immediate interests. Very often, one thing will lead to another, and students will choose to move into new areas as they dive more deeply into something that really interests them. As most of us know, when answering genuine questions, people tend to move naturally and easily across artificial boundaries of departmentalized thinking. But even if students are required to try something new, they are more likely to do so happily if more of their experiences in school are emotionally relevant—are connected to their self.

Well, what about the importance of moving young people beyond the self? In my experience, it’s more likely that students who have developed their own beliefs, who understand themselves, who have found their own voice, and who are self-confident and engaged in their learning will have a strong foundation for opening themselves to the ideas and beliefs of others. Current research suggests that compassion and empathy play out along the same neural pathways that we travel to develop our sense of self: “Simulation of one’s own self is an important means to understand others.” So it seems possible to conclude that a school’s attempts to impose, too early, an adult’s self—an adult’s interests, views, and aspirations—on the developing self of the child might stunt the healthy development of the child’s sense of self and, consequently, weaken the base on which children build their ability to empathize.

A barrage of adult opinions and beliefs could overwhelm and hobble the developing, still-unstable self of young people. Literature and psychologist couches are filled with the voices of people struggling to free themselves from the weight of their parents’ suffocating expectations that they be someone else, that they fulfill their parents’ dreams, and that they think their parents’ thoughts. Schools need to be much more careful to guide children as they develop a sense of self, not as an end in itself but to establish a more robust basis for understanding others. Understanding someone else is a whole lot healthier than and different from being someone else. Schools can make room for the self of students AND move them beyond the self.

Education does not have to be about making young people clones or mini-mes. The key to successful schooling is flexibility, allowing students to pursue their interests and searching for more organic ways to move them to try new things. Unfortunately, our system seems modeled on the iron bed of Procrustes. I remember the first time I heard that story in the sixth grade. Travelers who stopped at Procrustes’ Inn were given a one-size-fits-all bed. Those who were too long for the bed were cut down to size while those who were too short were stretched. As a child, I found the story both terrifying and idiotic. Who really cares whether everyone fits into the same-sized bed? Sadly, I have discovered that many teachers and administrators do.

People are not the same. We all learn differently, have different profiles of strengths and weaknesses, different patterns of neural connections, and different perceptions of and approaches to solving problems. We care about different things and need different paths to reach different goals. If learning, not teaching, is what matters, we need schools that reflect the rich variety of individuals who come to them. Rigorous standards and high expectations have nothing to do with rigidity and sameness. Chopping and stretching the self of the young just creates a lot of corpses.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Alden Blodget for Intrepid Ed News.

Alden Blodget

Veteran teacher and administrator Alden S. "Denny" Blodget is the author of "Learning, Schooling and the Brain: New Research vs. Old Assumptions." He also helped create the Annenberg Foundation's Neuroscience & the Classroom. He is the editor for TeensParentsTeachers.org, a free online resource focusing on issues affecting young people and the adults who work with them.

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