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Rigour as challenge, not weather

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The Guardian reported on March 10 that CO2 levels are increasing at an alarming rate and the two degree rise in temperature we were all satisfied with seems unattainable.

Once again, this received little to no coverage in the mainstream media, and unfortunately, most Canadian classrooms were left unaware. This got me thinking about what we do in the classroom. Why do we, teachers and students, show up everyday?

I recently went to an incredible event hosted by the Manitoba Chapter of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada called Pechakucha. These events involve speakers from all walks of life presenting an idea or story with 20 slides, changing every 20 seconds. If you do the math, that's six minutes and 40 seconds to do some heavy lifting.

I thought this was a rigorous task. One of the presenters, Andrew Yankiwski, owner of Precursor Productions, spoke about the notion of rigour. He looked at this concept from the perspective of process versus product, and simplicity versus complexity. I was intrigued by his premise that rigour is often found in the creation of something new, not through a process that becomes evermore complex, one in which the process becomes the pursuit.

I began to think of my own practice and the conversations I have with teachers all over the world about rigour, about preparation for the "future," and fundamentally about the role of education. Perhaps the rigour in education is about the creation of something new: new knowledge, new skills, new perspectives -- transformation.

When I speak with students and teachers about rigour, I often get a sense that it involves hardship, strictness, stress, and a great deal of time. Many people say I should give my students more tests or exams, as this represents rigour at the post-secondary level.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines rigour as firstly "a) severity, strictness, harshness. b) harsh measures or conditions. c) severity of weather or climate; extremity of cold."

Its second definition of rigour is more related to human behaviour: "logical exactitude, strict enforcement of the rules, austerity of life."

What? This means at some point education was meant as either a means of making life miserable for students through mindless or tedious work or as some means for social control.

A few years ago I went to visit High Tech High in San Diego. I was introduced to a gentleman who had acquired the title of "The Emperor of Rigour." Did this mean he was in charge of strapping down students and having them define 70 key terms of the Spanish-American War? Or better yet, was he in charge of the air conditioning to ensure that the climate in the school was cold? I don't think so. His title was yet another clue that perhaps the notion of rigour within education is elusive or misinterpreted.

The reaction to the traditional notion of rigour, that of low-level thinking activities, has spurred an entire industry (and lucrative one) devoted to project-based learning, flipped classrooms, or experiential learning. When we're not careful, activities which fall under these categories often look like purposeless episodes of Internet surfing or poster making.

Rigour, however, may have something to do with what William Doll suggests. Doll sees rigour as "purposely looking for different alternatives, relations, connections." This understanding lends itself to the practice of challenging students to think of solutions to complex problems, to the use of a variety of disciplines and to work with other people. In this regard, Doll is speaking to a post-modernist perspective that envisions education as a challenge, something that is attainable through some difficulty, higher-order thinking, collaboration and an understanding that we are all connected to each other. Perhaps with this concept of rigour, we can start to solve the problem of massive increases in CO2 levels.

If rigour can be conceptualized as the creation of new knowledge, as answering big questions, as redefining how our world works, then there is hope for our species and all the rest of them that we are dragging down with us. If we continue to see rigour, however, as hardship and/or piles of meaningless "work," then we risk perpetuating the status quo.


Matt Henderson is a graduate student in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba and teaches high school social studies at St. John's-Ravenscourt School.


The Learning Curve is an occasional column written by local academics who are experts in their fields. It is open to any educator from Winnipeg's post-secondary institutions. Send 600-word submissions and a mini bio to

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 J14

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