Let me start by saying that this post reflects nothing more than my opinion as a working full-time classroom teacher. This is not a piece of educational theory, it isn't some policy report, and it certainly isn't some measure that I expect teachers to adopt immediately.
It's just the way I see things.
And the way I see things is like this: a rubric is an insult both to the intelligence and creativity of a student.
Last night, way too late perhaps, I got sucked into a Twitter discussion about rubrics. Arguments for and against were put forth and examples were given. This morning, the Twitter chatter continued as I heard about individual teachers' feelings for and against rubrics as well as situations where state education boards demand rubrics. And something that keeps coming up is the idea that rubrics are a) transparent and b) objective.
And I would argue that neither is true. (Add: 10:59AM EST -- Or rather, the former isn't true and the latter is of questionable relation to reality let alone the purposes of education).
First of all on the issue of transparency. Most rubrics come in one of two varieties. Either they are extremely didactic in a step-by-step hold-your-hand IKEA instruction manual sort of way or they are touchy-feely rubbish where you get a '1' for 'not demonstrating significant understanding' but a '5' for 'demonstrating unique depth and content mastery'. Rubrics of the latter variety are meant to satisfy the political needs of institutionalized learning, while rubrics of the former are theoretical expressions of teaching to the lowest common denominator.
What does any of this have to do with 'transparency'? Looks to me like it has everything to do with a dog-and-pony show. In these situations, the rubrics come off as more an insurance policy so the teacher scores well in an observation than anything else. And the argument may be made that this sort of rubric helps the student understand what it is that the teacher wants... which brings us to my next criticism.
I don't want students to do 'what I want'. I don't want students to follow 'objective' rules. In fact, that's entirely the type of behavior I'm trying to break my students out of.
For twelve years, we condition students to follow rules. We teach them that if you do A, B, C, and D, then you will make the grade. We give them rubrics so that they can check off that they did A, B, C, and D and we assign grades and we call this education.
Who are we fooling?
I should step back a moment to give some context. I'm not some guy talking out the side of his mouth about this stuff. I understand exactly how rubrics work. I've twice worked on committees designing rubrics. I understand that on the surface, it appears -- and even seems to make some sense -- that rubrics would be the best option. After all, what's the alternative? Just telling the student you want a project done and not giving any guidance?
And I think that actually is the red herring.
The red herring is that rubrics are helping the student learn. I'd argue that rubrics -- if anything -- are teaching the students that education is just a matter of completing tasks on a checklist. I'd argue that rubrics are teaching students that if they complete the tasks as stated, they should expect success.
Except life doesn't work like that.
Life is more complicated. Could you imagine Socrates handing Euthyphro a rubric? I think it's far more likely that rubrics would have been the butt of Aristophanes' jokes: another example of how sophists con folks into thinking they understand things.
To the Greeks, the rubric would have been a device used by a teacher to demonstrate to others that the teacher's students 'got it'. Unfortunately, it wouldn't have had anything to do with whether or not the students actually 'got it'.
And so we raise a generation of kids who don't have the ability to deal with ambiguity. We raise a generation of kids who expect success for pleasing the teacher. We raise a generation of kids who don't want to take creative risks because those risks aren't going to improve their 'grade'.
I write this post at risk of sounding polemical. In fact, that's not my purpose, but I understand how my tone could trigger that response. What I'd really like to come out of this is a challenge to teachers to find more authentic ways to assess your students. Ways to connect, not via a mass-produced one-size-fits-all rubric, but by individualized 1 to 1 attention. Ways to share in the learning process in a communal and ongoing way, rather than by having students demonstrate 'understanding' by jumping through hoops and checking off items on a checklist. Ways to express to students that life is more complicated than a rubric and that success in life is not so easily defined.
Otherwise, I think we do our students a disservice. We set them up to engage with a world where more and more as this century progresses we are turning away from the old models of rubrics and other forms of so-called 'objectivity'.
There are numerous checklists that must be filled out before any given race. The cars themselves must meet dozens of requirements. On paper, everything has to be A+. Yet only one race car is going to cross that finish line first.
In other words, meeting the requirements of the rubric doesn't in any way ensure success. Yet, our students are conditioned to think otherwise.
So, what to do?
Well... let your students play in class. Give them open-ended assignments with no possible correct answer and no single conceivable way to get the assignment done. Don't explain things to your students, rather talk to them and allow what they say to teach them how they think. Teach your content through conversation whether f2f or online. Teach your content through trust. And don't give your students a list of things that suggests what you want, rather allow your students to figure out what it is that they want.
Because, in the end, this is about them learning. It's not about us proving why we gave a particular grade.
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