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What Does “Rigor” Mean in the World Language Classroom?

Last week, #LangChat participants tackled a much-used buzzword in education. It seems that “rigor” gets thrown around a lot by educators, but the definition remains somewhat unclear – especially in the world language classroom. As many participants pointed out, the dictionary definition of “rigor” is certainly not in line with the goals of most teachers. Webster’s dictionary defines “rigor” as “harsh inflexibility, a condition that makes life difficult, strict precision” – which does not describe a supportive, healthy learning environment!

Nevertheless, as @tmsaue1 pointed out, learning can be difficult and uncomfortable, particularly in the world language classroom, which often forces students out of their comfort zone. But that can be a good and important thing. Learning in a language other than one’s own is one of the greatest academic challenges any person can face, thus making the performance-based world language classroom rigorous by default. At the same time, a world language classroom where students play games all day, perhaps acquire vocabulary, but are ultimately unable to communicate, is not a rigorous classroom.

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Rigor in the World Language ClassroomParticipants sought to reclaim the word and apply it to the world language classroom in a constructive way. For some, rigor is an ideal to which teachers adhere; for others, rigor in the classroom can be student-driven, as well. Still others decided it refers to the nature of the material taught in class (for example: depth versus breadth). Ultimately, any and all of these re-definitions of “rigor” are useful for the world language teacher seeking to help his or her students acquire the target language and become truly proficient.

Teachers and “Rigor”

“Rigor” can represent an ideal to which teachers themselves aspire. Participants shared their thoughts on how teachers can apply the idea of “rigorousness” to themselves and their teaching:

  • @dr_dmd believes that teachers should be “rigorously” devoted to ensuring that all students are successful, and looking for ways to make that happen best we can. Teachers can be rigorous not just with their students, but also with themselves: unwaveringly committed to being the best teachers we can be.
  • For @pamwesely, “rigor” is achieved when there is a connection between lesson objectives, activities, and assessments.
  • To @CoLeeSensei, a rigorous class focuses on depth in learning, use and application of the target language, rather than breadth (number of tenses or vocabulary words memorized).
  • @MartinaBex re-defined “rigor” as “the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate,” thereby facilitating acquisition of the target language. She went on to say that this means challenging each student at his or her level through differentiation, which provides appropriate challenges for progress.
  • @DiegoOjeda66 believes that rigor in education is synonymous with having high expectations. Teachers create a rigorous learning environment when they have high expectations for their students and give them the tools to meet those expectations.

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Rigor and Efficiency

@DiegoOjeda66 went on to note that while “rigor” may have a different meaning in other contexts, in education, rigor and efficiency are very much related. Using in-class and out-of-class time effectively to attain proficiency represents rigor. @tmsaue1 noted that some teachers think because their students can conjugate in three different tenses, their classes are “hard” and “rigorous;” he contested that this is not the case. If students cannot use those tenses in context, then the time spent memorizing them was wasted, and the class was not “rigorous” because it failed to get students closer to proficiency. As @espanolbartlett pointed out, rigor means getting students to hone higher thinking skills in L2; rote memorization does not do this. Similarly, @CoLeeSensei shared that a teacher who holds him or herself to rigorous standards will ask students “what didn’t you know that you needed to know to do this” to refine activities and assignments to students needs for more efficient learning in the future.

But a rigorous classroom is not exclusively or overly focused on student output. As @MartinaBex noted, many teachers believe that using a lot of communicative activities in the classroom indicates rigor. But she believes her class to be much more rigorous now that she focuses more on input, rather than output. @SECottrell agreed, noting that world language teachers often overlook the importance of input when they focus so much on output, pushing students to use language that they don’t have. This represents an inefficient use of class time, and if “rigor” is associated with “efficiency” (as @DiegoOjeda66 suggested), a classroom that focuses too much on output without appropriately preparing students cannot be rigorous. @dr_dmd pointed out that teachers need to be rigorous about their own part in the process.

Teachers, Administrators, and “Rigor”: Aligning Expectations

Many participants noted that school administrators may have a different sense of the meaning of “rigor” than teachers. For example, administrators may be more concerned with rigorously preparing students for standardized testing and AP/IB exams, while teachers are focused on actual language acquisition. Participants notes that exams like the AP can help teachers and students set appropriate
goals, but teachers must not lose sight of the larger goal of language acquisition and proficiency. Teaching to the test allows many students to pass who actually unable to communicate in the target language.

To help get teacher and administrators goals in line, @dr_dmd suggests inviting an administrator to observe an excellent lesson focused on authentic communicative learning opportunities where students are appropriately engaged for acquisition. @SrtaLisa’s department brainstormed ideas for how to explain the goal of world language teachers (to develop higher order thinking skills in L2) to non-language teachers here: http://t.co/nuOCa3Wt

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The Role of Student Motivation in Creating a “Rigorous” Learning Environment

A rigorous classroom needs more than a capable teacher; students must be engaged in their own learning. It is up to the teacher to motivate students to take personal responsibility for their learning and to be actively engaged in class. Participants rightly differentiated terms like “rigor,” “fun,” and “engagement.”

  • @DiegoOjeda66 stated that a fun class with no rigor is just a fun class; however, a class can still be fun while being rigorous, and will leave a lasting impact on students.
  • @tmsaue1 reports that he has seen classes that are engaging and fun, but that did not challenge students to learn anything new. Such classes cannot be called rigorous.
  • @pamwesely believes that rigor does not necessarily equal student engagement. Rigor suggests active, progressive learning as well as engagement.

It can be a challenge to cultivate motivation in students. Many participants reported that their students often as for “free days” where the focus is shifted away from actual learning. @SraHoopes says that her students don’t ask for “free days” because they know it’s not going to happen. She established early on that class time is too valuable to waste on “free days.”

So how can a teacher help students contribute to “rigor” in the classroom? @CoLeeSensei shared that it’s important to offer students the opportunity to strive for and choose their own levels of achievement. She offers students “level up” options in oral assessments, which include things not explicitly taught in a particular unit. She is consistently impressed at how students take these opportunities that lead to excellence.

Many thanks to all our participants for their engagement and insightful contributions! A special thanks to @dr_dmd for moderating the evening’s discussion.

We invite all participants to suggest topics for future #LangChats on our wiki. Participants are also encouraged to vote in each week’s poll to help choose that week’s topic.

Join us Thursday, October 11th at 8pm EST (5pm PST) for the next #LangChat!

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

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Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

One comment

  • Please rebel, and refuse to give in to eduspeak, lovers of meaningful language. We don’t need faux-terminology like “rigor” to help us understand what makes a great foreign language class.

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