Should We Redefine “Rigor” Or Find A New Word?

Cognitive Rigor
After tonight’s #oklaed chat, a few educators and I hung around the Twittersphere and discussed the meaning of rigor. Yeah, we’re geeks like that.

The whole conversation started with a series of tweets, namely the comment by Kenneth Ward, Bridge Creek Middle School Principal:

This comment piqued my curiosity. What exactly is rigor? And is this really the right word to use for what we’re asking our children to do? Personally, when I hear the word rigor, I automatically think rigor mortis. (And frankly, I think some students experience this in some classes…) Rigor sounds hard, it sounds discouraging, and it sounds like something I don’t want to have any part of. I like the definition that Mr. Ward provided though:  

I also liked his qualification:

Then we had some other people join the conversation. (This is what I love about Twitter!) John R. Walkup, a former educator, and now a researcher studying cognitive rigor, added his own well-researched definition (and a huge resource on cognitive rigor) to another chat, which I followed:

This all started my mental wheels spinning. Why can’t we come up with a new word? [tweet_dis]I mean, if a group of college kids can create Google, and make a verb out of it, why can’t we come up with a better word for rigor?[/tweet_dis]

So I posed the question:

Naturally, not everyone was on board with creating/redefining a word, though I can see Mr. Walkup’s point:

Jeff Veal, a middle school admininistrator with Frisco ISD in Texas agreed with Mr. Walkup:

I agree that education has more than its fair share of problems. However, I also know that if we take a look at the stack of problems and think we can’t make a difference because there are more important or bigger problems than the one we’re looking at, then nothing will ever change. As a writer and an English teacher, I believe language is very important. If I don’t use the right words to explain to you what I’m thinking, you will not understand. This is not only important in education, but in the business world, in friendships, even in marriages. I am a huge proponent of choosing the right words, speaking carefully, and most importantly, thinking before speaking. For this reason, I’d like to use this tiny platform of mine to call for a change.

What’s a better word for rigor?

Mr. Veal, sardonically (I think) suggested another term:

Jason Stephenson, a 10th grade English teacher at Deer Creek High School in Edmond stepped in with a tidbit of information:


I don’t know anything about the reputation of Kylene Beers, but I do like the word vigor. It has such a positive connotation! The denotation isn’t bad either.

According to, vigor means:

  1. active strength or force
  2. healthy physical or mental energy or power
  3. energetic activity

The synonyms are bursting with positive energy:

  1. vitality
  2. energy
  3. intensity

When I think of vigor in my classroom, I envision students:

  • debating an issue
  • pouring their ideas into an essay, or a presentation
  • sharing and building on their thoughts in class or small group discussion
  • collaborating on a project
  • experiencing those “aha!” moments when a concept finally clicks
  • getting “mad” because the book didn’t end the “right” way
  • wanting to finish the assignment/discussion even though the bell just rang

This certainly beats the definition of rigor:

  1. strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people.

Naturally, any word with a great meaning can be twisted around to mean its total opposite. (Just think about how people my age used “bad” in the early 90s and kids today use the word “sick” to describe something that is good, or how current education reformers twisted “reform” to mean destroy…) However, it’s nice to start off with a word that has a positive meaning, then build upon it, instead of starting with a word that evokes images of dead bodies. (Shudders…)

So, what do you think? [tweet_box]Should we start talking about how we’re injecting cognitive vigor into our lessons?[/tweet_box] Or do you have a better word?

Related topics: Education Policy

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

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