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Instead of Rigor: Play and Risk

Buildings and bridges
are made to bend in the wind
to withstand the world
that’s what it takes.
All that steel and stone
is no match for the air, my friend
what doesn’t bend breaks
what doesn’t bend breaks…

—Ani Di Franco

How Does Rigor Mean?

Among educators, the word rigor often has a talismanic power. That power may come from a fact Maha Bali once pointed out on Twitter: it is an empty word, like quality, achievement, and excellence.

If it were only empty, though, it would not have the power it has. Like those other words, it is empty but exudes a positive aura. Who, after all, wants to say, “My teaching isn’t rigorous.”

And yet when we look at the practices that get called rigorous, we see that rigor is often a synonym for cruelty. (It may, too, have a macho inflection. No surprise, given the phallic implications of rigor. If your rigor lasts more than three hours, call a physician!) Rigor becomes an alibi. You hear it from teachers who, for one reason or another, feel self-conscious or defensive about their teaching — from teachers, for instance, whose students fail more often than they succeed. Practices that should be questioned and probably discarded get defended as evidence of rigor.

Sometimes, we want to defend our idea of rigor as real rigor, and somebody else’s as fake rigor. (“Real rigor,” we might say, “is empathetic. It helps strengthen students, not fill them with fear and self-hatred.”) I’m not sure that’s the right approach, though, because my inclination when words get soggy with competing definitions is to seek other, less saturated, words. Soggy words too easily hide bad habits.

Shunning the word rigor, or seeking to give it more of a negative connotation, might help show that alternative approaches exist.

On Rigor (Elsewhere)

I am going to follow one particular path away from the word rigor, but mine may not be as useful or productive as others’, so here are a few links to smart people discussing rigor in a variety of contexts:

Play and Risk

In a reflection recently on the major he created through our Interdisciplinary Studies program, a student in my senior seminar course wrote about two qualities he’s interested in exploring in life: play and risk. His major is a mix of Adventure Education and Psychology, and he wants to use what he has learned through wilderness training to help people with psychological needs. What he has learned tells him that success will require people to embrace both play and risk.

I’ve long considered play essential to education (and to life, for that matter). I spent a good portion of my earlier life in the theatre, where play is a serious business. (Sometimes, impatient and authoritarian theatre directors forget about the play part of plays and instead substitute their own idea of rigor: yelling at actors and technicians, sometimes demeaning them, even seeing it as a sign of achievement when they reduced people to tears. Working with such directors led to some of my earliest questioning of the idea of rigor.) Teaching writing, I’ve found almost nothing as effective at getting students to write more effectively and creatively than to encourage them toward a sense of play. Both learning and living, for me, require play.

But risk? There’s an interesting question. I suppose I’ve considered the idea of risk in relationship to the idea of failure — and the absolute need for education to encourage and support failure, since experiments without possibility of failure are not good experiments, and education ought to be experimental, and failure is a pretty common experience in most of our lives, and often we are so terrified of failure that it gets in the way of our progress, and sometimes education impedes that progress by punishing any hint of failure — but I had never made the connection directly.

I suppose I have not considered risk much because I consider myself risk-averse. Yet when I reflect on this, what I realize is more that I have areas in which I am highly comfortable with risk, and areas where I am not. If I think back over my education, particularly, the times when I have flourished have been times when I have accepted and even sought out risk. Not blind risk, not foolish risk, but a kind of informed risk, the risk the includes a sense of the stakes, a sense of what is at risk. For me, primarily intellectual risk, as physical risk is what brings my caution most to the forefront. It could be, in fact, that my strong aversion to physical risk has better enabled my willingness to plunge toward intellectual risk. I don’t know.

There is, of course, risk in everything. One of the lessons of any adventure/wilderness training is what to do about risk, including the psychological response to risk. How can risk be managed? How can it be made into something productive, not destructive; something energizing, not enervating — something that leads to the best sort of defensiveness rather than the kind of defensiveness that induces stasis or a fight-or-flight reaction.

Managing risk means managing fear. We know that fear is a great obstacle to learning (see Joshua Eyler’s How Humans Learn for more on this), but we also know that we learn well through new experiences that reach far enough beyond what we already know that we’ve got to stretch to understand. Learning requires the risk of challenge, the risk of failure, the risk of reaching toward the unknown and maybe even the incomprehensible.

But we also know that there is an ideal zone for such learning, a zone wherein the challenging, unknown, and maybe incomprehensible does not stretch so far beyond our current frame of knowledge that it is impossible to reconcile with some part of that current frame of knowledge. Nor is it something that provokes more fear and anxiety than it does curiosity. This is very much like the Vygotskian zone of proximal development — a zone of proximal learning. Helping students find their zone of proximal learning, and work within it (developing it, expanding it) is one of the great goals of education.

What if we set the idea of rigor aside and instead talked about play and risk in our work? What if, instead of asking how rigorous our classes are, we asked instead how those classes encourage play and manage risk to help students enlarge their zone of proximal learning?

What if we valued teachers not for the rigor they stick to, but the ways they use play and risk to build a practice that is flexible, unpredictable, and always evolving?

What if, instead of assessing students on how well they reach our unbending goals, we instead assess how well they play with the concepts they encounter, how much and how responsibly (and creatively!) they take risks with those concepts?

At least as importantly: How might our institutions change if we substituted ideas of play and risk for ideas of rigor?

Buildings and bridges are made to bend in the wind…

Thanks to Henry Huang for first linking play and risk for me.