It is that time in the year when schools are ramping up their efforts to attract new families to their schools. I know this because hidden algorithms on my social media have started spamming me with school admissions adverts for the next academic year. Whilst this intrusion always irritates me for many different reasons, it also allowed me to notice the extraordinary number of references to ‘academic rigour’ this year.
I can partially understand why parents would be attracted to shiny new buildings and schools with proven track records in producing outstanding results. I also understand why parents might be attracted to schools with a track record of sending students to the most prestigious universities. But what I can’t understand is why anyone would be particularly attracted to a school that champions ‘academic rigour’…
In my day (I hope this is the only time I catch myself saying this), rigour at school meant we copied a lot from the blackboard, took turns reading books out loud in class, traipsing around with heavy textbooks, and being forced to take humiliating cold showers after PE lessons. Some of this was considered good teaching (and still is) and some were accepted as essential character-building (and still is).
I do not have an issue with rigour per se – if something is worth doing, it is worth doing properly and not in a half-hearted way. So I like to see rigour in the classroom, as much as I like to see it in every other aspect of school life. So why make such a big deal of academic rigour? Well, it depends very much on how it is defined and what it looks like.
Olaf Jorgenson and Percy L. Abram recently shared their thoughts on The Dark Side of Rigor, and it is one of the best articles that I have read this year. Rigour, they argue, can refer to situations where “teachers demand students to think deeply and stretch their intellectual grasp to push their assumptions and apprehensions and tackle academic challenges they might not have otherwise tried”. They refer to this as “rigour-as challenge”. I’m super comfortable with that interpretation.
However, academic rigour more often characterized by teachers assigns an inordinate amount of homework or course reading, give tests that are beyond many student’s capabilities, and otherwise places heavy demands on students’ time, energy, and resources that they must subject themselves to sleep deprivation, isolation, emotional fatigue, and anxiety to earn high marks”. They refer to this as “rigour-as-suffering”. I’m incredibly uncomfortable with that interpretation, and it goes well beyond a cold shower.
Indeed, under the umbrella of academic rigour, Jorgenson and Abram suggest that many schools and parents have somehow “normalised adolescent stress and its debilitating effects on students”. Here, stress and anxiety is accepted (and not always intentionally) as an acceptable and necessary by-product to win in life, particularly where success is defined in terms of being admitted to a prestigious university or college.
This is not to say that academic achievement, ambition or aspiration is not a worthy endeavour, but there is an argument to be made against unnecessary, unhealthy, and inhumane academic distress – and the peril and ethics of putting student academic achievement ahead of student wellness.
Michael Sandel, in his recent book, The Tyranny of Merit, also describes how it is not just the losers who suffer under academic rigour; many of the winners also progress onwards and upwards carrying wounds – he refers to these young people as wounded winners and shares a number of harrowing statistics concerning the rise and rise of mental health issues that appear to coincide with the increasing pressure to achieve the results that they need to go the universities and colleges that they want to go to.
It should be said that some students absolutely thrive under the conditions of academic rigour. They love the high pressure, content-focused and standardized learning environments that constitute a rigorous education in many schools. But for too many other students, academic rigour amounts to suffering. The unending pursuit of success leaves many students under a state of constant stress and fatigue.
So what to do?
I don’t have the answers to this one. But here are some things that we might think about:
1. We may need to reframe academic rigour so that it represents rigour-as-challenge. We want students to be challenged and as a result, they will sometimes be uncomfortable and stressed or anxious. Some stress is healthy and normal and to seek to remove stress or anxiety would be a neglectful preparation for life at or beyond school.
2. Perhaps we might even look to start talking about academic vigour rather than rigour. I would much rather see the vigour in my classroom, rather than rigour (mortis).
3. We may need more support. If we acknowledge that we need to work with the education system we have, schools will need to increase their awareness and provision for mental health and well-being for both the losers and winners of the current system. We need to think about what systems, structures, strategies, staff, training…is needed to do this well. There will be some things we need more of (additional experts and staff training for sure), and some things we need to do differently. For example, I can see that we need to assume that students need to be equipped with tools and strategies to help them better look after themselves…
4. We may need to redefine success. If the only game in town is a high stakes programme designed for admission to the most prestigious universities and colleges (which becomes more competitive each year due to a growing number of applicants), then students will be required to endure increasingly more “rigour” to achieve success – more tutor hours, more work….more suffering. But there are other learning programmes and other ways for students to shape and define their success.
These days, cold showers are associated with their health benefits. What I used to experience as humiliation and suffering is now something I might pay good money for at a spa. We need the same thing to happen with rigour.
Rigour can be good – but it has to be done the right way if there are to be any benefits.