#7. Rigor and Joy

Rigor and joy… For many, the concepts are mutually exclusive: one rules out the other. Rigorous learning allows little room for joy. But for those of us in the world of self-directed learning, they go together perfectly, naturally… even obviously.

The term “joy” is heard rarely if ever among educators.

The term “rigor” is heard often. It’s a strange word: used frequently with little shared agreement on what it actually means. If a general understanding exists, it is esoteric at best.

When people say things like, “That’s a very rigorous school,” they mean it pushes students to high levels of academic achievement – and how could anyone argue against that? They also imply it is only for the best, most hardworking students. It means, too, that those students will have a very large work load, including hours of homework and study for tests on a regular basis. “Rigorous” suggest exclusivity and privilege: only elite students can succeed in a rigorous learning environment. It’s not for everyone.

We have developed a different understanding of rigor, one that leads to joy, which feeds a hunger for more learning. Our approach is more rigorous than a traditional, coercive one.

It is simple. Learning – real, authentic, meaningful, long-lasting learning – only happens when the learner decides he wants or needs to learn the material. Self-directed learning demands (so to speak) that each learner make those decisions.

What is more “difficult”: doing what you are told to do, or figuring out what to do for yourself? Which leads to a more fulfilling sense of accomplishment?

When I succeed at the thing you ordered me to do, I walk away, perhaps proud of my success, but with little personal connection to it. I am likely to forget much of what I learned by doing it. It may have been easier for me to rationalize cutting corners or procrastinating. If I do not succeed at the thing you ordered me to learn, although I may be disappointed – or you may be in me – then I can easily dismiss it. I can give up because I wasn’t really invested in the goal anyway. I was just doing it because I was told to. Or I could neither succeed nor fail at learning the material: I could just go through the motions of the learning, appear to learn it, and then move on to the next task you order me to do. All of these options breed ambivalence, complacency, or worse, apathy. There is no room for joy in this kind of rigor. 

But when I decide for myself that I want or need to learn something, then I am engaged in the process of learning it in ways that are joyful. The nature of success itself changes when I organize my learning around the things that are important to me.

I decided to grow chrysanthemums from seeds, but after they germinated and sprouted, they all suddenly died. Why? Let’s figure out what went wrong and try again.

Or I decide for myself to prepare for the AP Composition exam. Or to learn Spanish. Or build my own guitar. Or figure out the Periodic Table of Elements. Or read “Hamlet” with a few of my friends. Now learning these things comes from my own desires and interests. I enjoy doing them. The fact that they are difficult to learn – or “rigorous” – does not deter me. It propels me. I can see for myself that I am succeeding or struggling. I know when I am confused. I ask for help when I need it. I know when I have made improvements. I know when I have mastered a skill.

This is joyful. And because it is joyful, I want to learn more. And if it’s harder to learn this time, let’s have at it. I’m more excited to learn. I can’t wait.

So… what’s next?

by David Lane, co-founder and Director, Ingenuity Hub, Personalized Learning Collaborative.


Ingenuity Hub opened in October 2016 in Leominster, MA. We are a private, nonprofit organization that provides self-directed learning services to teens. Our programs are tuition-based, but we turn no one away based on their ability to pay. Many families in central Massachusetts need this alternative to traditional school, but can only afford partial, and in some cases, no tuition. Please consider making donation of any amount to help us run our programs and offer this critical alternative for teens.  You can make donations here.

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