Artificial Rigour – Searching for a Field Guide

booksRigour is a popular term in learning and training environments.  It gets trotted out a lot in marketing materials as well.  But the problem is that a lot of what get posited as “rigourous” is actually not.  In an elementary school textbook, a work place learning module, or a keynote presentation, you’ll find things that look like rigour, but that doesn’t guarantee that they are.

Someone who really knows a topic will spot false rigour in an instant – much as adults may chuckle indudgently (or cringe) at adolescents who attempt to pose as being much older. So, maybe the first question is ‘how do I spot an expert?’, because they are the quickest, easiest path to spotting false rigour. A real expert is often easily identified  by their ability to accurately reduce a complex concept into layman’s terms without losing the fundamental meaning.  Of course it might take a real expert to recognize that  was done properly – so that’s getting you into a worthless ‘infinite loop.’

Leaving us with a conundrum of the first order: it is very difficult to accurately call out artificial rigour without sufficient expertise. So, what’s a non-expert to do?

My first instinct was to look at the problem from the perspective fields like math and science (simply due to my own background).

In classroom texts it is not uncommon to find a sort of artificial rigor that was created to meet a list of criteria, as opposed to lessons rooted in true fundamental understanding and applicability.  The focus is not on a meaningful “why”, a reason we want students to learn something; it is rooted in lists and box-checking, which are themselves rooted in standards that have as much basis in perception and political agendas as they do in actual learning.

Box-checking driven learning has a high probability of being guilty of false rigour.    So that’s one warning signal, easily found, but it’s only a starting point.

What else comes into play?

We may not be experts on a given topic, but we can take what we know about expertise and use it as a guide.

A while back I wrote:

chalkboard equation“If I’m really, really good at, let’s say, math, then I may not have to stop and think about quadratic equations because I intuitively grasp them; but if asked, I clearly explain (in simple terms) why they have the solutions they have. If I am merely good at arithmetic, I can show you how to solve the equations (just by plugging numbers into the formulas) which might look like expertise to a novice, but is really just mechanics; in that case I know it works but don’t fully grasp why or how.  A lot of false rigour works the same way.

Simon Bostock countered these thoughts with the insight that being able to break concepts down into their component parts may (will) not work for all domains:

“I’m not sure true experts can always unpick and unpick. I think it depends, rather, on the domain.

Maths and physics are inherently unpickable, and the reputation of Feynman as a teacher, therefore, shines. Science depends on the principles of proof and peer-review so being a teacher (ie explaining stuff and testing that it’s been understood) is essentially the same as science. [Warning: massive over-simplification!!!]

But things like medicine, art and computer programming just have to work. We don’t necessarily care how the surgeon genius or the does-the-work-of-a-hundred programmer work. And we certainly don’t trouble them to explain themselves. In many cases, they probably couldn’t because it’s doubtful they’re aware of how they do it themselves – my feeling is that they’re drawing from as-yet-unnamed disciplines, and you can’t unpick things you can’t name” And he’s absolutely right about this…

Different fields having differing degrees of inherent “unpickability”. I can see in the case of, say, a violinist – they can ‘unpick’ the details of technique and tone production, but as far as (for lack of a better word) artistry – well that’s a personal thing, that’s not so readily broken down.  But then again, in that case, I would put the expectations of instructional rigor on the technical aspects, and not assign it to the area of personal expression or artistry.   But we still do need to look at what constitutes rigour (or at least expertise) in topics that are not inherently disectable.

The Role of Narratives

I was helping someone with a technical problem which they were grinding through it rather mechanically, without any real understanding (I could recognize this as I’ve been in the same situation).  I took a comparable problem and broke it down into logical components, but did so within the context of a narrative about the physical reality which the equations were describing.  The same person later was able to discuss another problem with me in terms of meaning, rather than mere mechanics.  They had crossed a threshold, perhaps not into expertise, but at least onto the path that leads there.

Expertise goes beyond merely breaking down a problem into component parts, it’s deeply tied into a narrative.  Real rigour has a narrative rooted in truth;  artificial rigour’s narrative is not entirely so – it looks almost like the truth, but on closer examination the narrative of artificial rigour is either rooted in superficial function, not understanding; or is rooted in fallacy.

We see artificial rigour in this guise in a lot of modern math curricula where elementary texts proclaim sub-sections to be “Algebra” when, in fact, the students do not have sufficient intuitive grasp of numeric relations for there to be any meaning to the work.    It looks like 8 year olds are ‘grokking’ algebraic concepts, but they do not truly do so because their mind is so filled with painful, tedious mechanics so they haven’t the mental energy left to grasp the intuitive connections.

The real narrative is one that shows mastery (and rigour), describing not “what is done” but “what it means”.

For non-techinical areas like Simon’s examples of music or surgery there are two layers.  There is the mechanical aspect of the work, and then there is, for lack of a better word, “artistry’.    If I am a reasonably capable technical musician, I can follow along and imitate styles and variations by talented musicians, but I don’t have the internal grasp to create my own riffs.  To an outsider on the right day from the right angle I might look like I know a bit, but really i’m just a reflection of those who do.  An expert would know that pretty much right off, for someone else it might take some closer scrutiny over a bit of time to realize I can’t really improv like a pro.  A non-expert might not be sufficiently interested to notice.

violinFor ‘unpickables’ (to use SImon’s term), expertise and rigour reveal themselves not imitation but in creation.  The expert surgeon does not exactly mimic his peers, nor does Itzhak Perlman imitate other violinists; they may learn and absorb what other experts do on a technical level, but from that understanding, they can create.  So the teacher of these subjects does not provide rigour through mere mechanics, but through fostering the learner’s innate understanding, challenging it, stretching it. Where Do We Go From Here?

It seems virtually impossible to separate a discussion of rigour from a discussion of expertise.  But it is possible for a non-expert in the field to keep a weather eye out for warning signs.

Artificial rigour tends to lean on the smoke and mirrors of a quick grind through the mechanical motions; this is a common feature of learning based on box-checking agendas.

Box-checking as a concept provides a bit of a compass star to to another indicator – the antithesis to box checking is  understanding, and understanding often reveals itself in meaningful narratives (as opposed to snake-oil style narratives; substance rather than a sales pitch).  Real  experts can create meaningful illustrations, applications, and narrative; false rigour  can only ape what it has heard or seen.

Another measure of artificial rigor is that it tends to make one “feel” good (accomplished, affirmed….).   It is very appealing. Real rigour requires hard work. A bit like climbing a mountain: it may be pleasing in a deep gut level, but it doesn’t come easily or quickly.

I would love to have found a simple check-list (you know, like the box-checking discussed above) to help a novice identify real rigour when they see it.   But then again maybe that’s the point: if you are a novice it’s time to start asking around and finding experts.

The best I can offer is an invitation to continue the discussion.  I still have a lot to learn.


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