You know that famous scene in The Princess Bride, when the legendary Spanish swordsman, Inigo Montoya, says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
That’s often how I feel when I hear the word “rigor” used in early education.
I feel like I have to pause the speaker or writer immediately to ask for their definition before we proceed. Too often, the word “rigor” is used to explain why schools are ditching recess, packing away the blocks and dramatic play centers, assigning hours of homework, or canceling school plays in order to make sure the kindergarteners have time to focus on getting into college.
I don’t think that automatically equals rigor.
One definition of “rigor” implies the thorough practice of something. Other definitions include less palatable perspectives, as in “rigor mortis”, or words like “severe” or “extreme”. So given the variety of synonyms and uses (and my preference to avoid viewing early education through the lens of death or extremity) the one I prefer is thorough. And yet, sometimes when we hear something passed off in the name of “rigor”, it’s actually quite superficial.
A few possible examples: Drilling. Testing. Mouse clicks and touch pads.
These practices address a layer of learning. But only one. Rapid recall has its place, but it doesn’t provide a thorough education. Too often, the word “rigor” has come to imply “less” instead of “more”. Less play. Less art. Less social interaction.
A thorough early childhood education addresses the needs of the whole child. It applies concepts and discoveries to many different areas and forms. A thorough education allows children time and space to wonder and to dive deep in the process of actively questioning and exploring and creating understanding together.
As Rae Pica addresses in the latest section of our read along series, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives (affiliate link):
“There’s no debate over whether or not learning is important for kids. The thing is, they’re learning all the time; it’s just unfortunate that learning about such things as oneself, nature, and stress management are not considered as worthy today as are math equations and spelling words.”
“….There’s the contention that the “demands of the 21st century” are responsible for this action. If ever there was a century demanding imagination and self-expression — both of which are nurtured by the arts — it’s this one.”
As she notes in this section, many decisions that give the appearance of rigor — specific to these chapters: too much technology, homework, and removing the “distraction” of the arts — are actually superficial cultural habits and assumptions with little research to support them, and plenty to warn against them.
Thankfully, there are many educators who recognize that developmentally appropriate practice and rigor are not mutually exclusive, but work together in an intentional, child-focused classroom to create thorough, in-depth learning experiences.
In this example from NAEYC’s Young Child, the authors outline the practices of exemplary preschool teachers who skillfully create a classroom that is both rigorous and developmentally appropriate. Unfortunately, the authors note this as well: “Yet in studying these teachers, we found that their principals and elementary school colleagues struggled to recognize how such practices prepare children for the academic rigor of elementary school.”
Perhaps the answer lies, once again, in ensuring that all participants in the educational community understand child development and developmentally appropriate practice. Education creates a shared perspective and allows us to make decisions based on fact rather than fear or assumptions. We have to start conversations about how children really learn and grow.
Rae’s book is a good place to start.
What are your perspectives and observations when it comes to the concept of rigor in early education?
This section of the reading included the topics of technology, the homework debate, and the disappearing arts, so share your thoughts on any of those topics as well.
And as always, share your questions for the author, Rae Pica. She’ll be answering YOUR questions in the last post in the series!