Where Discipline Relates to Rigor and Cognitive Complexity

It is possible to create a class that’s both orderly and rigorous

By Scott Sterling

Many educators believe that pedagogy and classroom management are mutually exclusive, but that’s not the case at all. You can micromanage every aspect of classroom life without ever engaging or challenging a single child. Conversely, you can present good, rigorous content without ruling with an iron fist.

Those with a more holistic pedagogical approach understand that rigor requires a symbiotic relationship with classroom discipline (and vice versa). Many students aren’t as disruptive when they are being challenged intellectually, but how do we foster those relationships?

The orderly classroom

In his new book, 20 Disciplinary Strategies for Working With Challenging Students, Dr. William N. Bender starts with a discussion of how classroom climate can affect disciplinary practice. Dr. Bender breaks down class climate like this:

“Class climate issues involve such questions as

  • Are students and teachers happy to be in the classroom?
  • Do all students seem to be enjoying themselves?
  • Are academics and social learning stressed in a positive way?
  • Does everyone in the class feel valued?
  • Do all students feel that they can contribute meaningfully?”


Consider a setting in which those questions are answered in the negative. How likely are students to be engaging in rigorous activity?

Rigor requires trust: the teacher must trust in the student’s ability, and the student must trust that the teacher wouldn’t set the student up for failure. This also applies in the workplace, at home, and anywhere else requiring interpersonal relationships.

You might be wondering how to improve those aspects of class climate. Positivity goes a long way, but for more concrete strategies, both holistic and targeted at certain situations, check out 20 Disciplinary Strategies for Working With Challenging Students from the Learning Sciences bookstore.

The rigorous classroom

People who aren’t teachers often assume that disruptive students are simply acting out to avoid work. In reality, many of them are acting out because the work they’re doing isn’t sufficiently challenging them. This is why a focus on rigor and cognitively complex tasks can help alleviate some classroom discipline issues—but keep in mind that rigor is not just the act of keeping kids busy.

Rigor is the meeting of complexity and autonomy; it’s not drilling and killing. Although numerous strategies can be used to enhance rigor, many thought leaders have become proponents of project-based learning (PBL), which Dr. Bender discusses in relation to discipline:

In PBL classes, students’ choices drive the curriculum, not preset lesson plans or preplanned instructional units. Therefore, students in PBL classes … will be taking much more responsibility for their own education, and will be working much more independently. Of course, this does not mean that the students are wholly unsupervised; rather, the teacher’s role in PBL is simply facilitative in nature. In fact, one could even argue that in PBL, students may be getting more supervision because the teacher is spending much less time delivering instruction on new content.

In other words, a rigorous pedagogical approach, like PBL, generates engagement and responsibility. It’s hard to be disruptive in class when you’re busy—especially if you have partners depending on you.

Classroom discipline is perhaps the most written-about aspect of teaching. Although many strategies can help alleviate issues, some of the most effective are covered in Dr. Bender’s book. Check out 20 Disciplinary Strategies for Working With Challenging Students, now available at the Learning Sciences bookstore.

We believe that the most important thing a teacher or leader can do is to fuel each student’s passion for learning. When this is achieved, a lifetime of accomplishment becomes possible for that learner. Through partnerships with schools and districts throughout the country, we help educators and leadership transform each classroom into a powerful learning environment that prepares students for lasting success in school, the global workplace, and beyond. Our vision for the future is big and bright, and we love helping schools get there. Learn more about Learning Sciences International.

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