So-called “Rigour” in teaching

I semi-regularly hear the term “rigour” applied to teaching programs, and worse, language programs, as if it were a kind of virtue. It might be, but what is usually meant by “rigour” is not virtuous at all, it just sounds like it.

What is “rigour” anyway, and why would you want it in your pedagogy.

If you mean “rigour” in the sense of precision, thoroughness, and exactness, then probably I’d want that too. But if you mean severity, strictness, harshness, ordeals, suffering, these things have nothing to do with learning and no place in teaching.

Often when people talk about “rigour” it means, “We teach (language X) by traditional grammatical methods, insist on the ability to formally reproduce tables, paradigms, and minutely dissect grammatical minutiae, and we don’t have any time for nonsense like fun, communication, active language use, or new-fangled methods.”

The result of this is a miserable class, with minimal learning, where “rigour” means most students fail to learn, or drop out, or pass and don’t continue. But languages aren’t meant to be trials by ordeal – this isn’t the entrance exam for an elite special forces unit where we’re trying to eliminate people.

This is why I think “rigour” is a rhetorical term designed to reinforce one, traditionalist, form of pedagogy at the expense of other, competing, pedagogies.

What if the mentality of language programs wasn’t about minimising who made the grade, and was more “no student left behind” (and not in a stupid NCLB way)? What if we measured rigour simply by hitting language acquisition milestones, not by the severity or misery of students? What if we recognised that tables, paradigms, and grammatical analysis are not themselves measures of thoroughness anyway, or at least they are measures shaped to a different pedagogical goal, one that is not directly correlated to the ability to read and understand in a target language.

Then, maybe, we’d think that “rigour” didn’t equate to “better”, or at least that it didn’t equate to traditionalist pedagogies.


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