Monday, June 7, 2010

Rubrics - the predetermined space

When school becomes more about following instructions and less about intellectual discovery, kids feel like this little girl on the bike.

Rubrics do this too.

We may like how rubrics provide students with such a clear and concise vision for what we expect, but it is rather ironic that their strength is also their weakness.

The dangerous thing about taping a square on the floor, providing students with a detailed rubric or giving explicit instructions is the kids might actually only do what they are told and simply follow what we ask them to do.

Do you create or remove predetermined spaces?


  1. If you are interesting in engaging in a dialogue about rubrics, I would be delighted to be the other side of that conversation. This post on rubrics concerns me on a couple of levels. First, it implies that rubrics are only written by teachers for students when in fact, students are often a part of process. Second, a rubric isn't about explicit instructions. That's the role of checklists or directions. Third, it challenges for me, the fundamental role of the education system. If, as you seem to be implying, students should spend their time free of expectations of quality or explanations of what to work toward, what makes a teacher different than a babysitter who encourages discovery?

  2. Jennifer, would you be interested in writing a guest blog post on this topic for my blog?

  3. And yes, Jennifer, I am challenging the fundamental role of the education system. The factory model is dying. The teacher as the dispenser of information is obsolete.

    We must rethink the role of standardization and impliment far more personalization. Rubrics tend to be relics of the old.

  4. I would be happy to write a guest post - let me pull together some things. I'm also drafting a response for my blog/wiki.

    Regarding the role of the teacher I think you're putting words in my mouth/posting. It's not an either/or situation. Rubrics are no more a relic of the old than are pencils.

    I am struggling with how expectations fit into your view and go back to the question I asked before. If the adult isn't providing the students with guidance around expectations and quality/goals, than what makes that adult fundamentally different than a camp counselor/babysitter?

  5. I learned more from my camp counselors and babysitters than many of my teachers.

    In fact, I advocate every teacher first be a successful camp counselor.

    Rubrics might be useful as a way to get someone started, but to make someone adhere to a form if better learning can take place without it seems silly; why be married to it?

    My experience with rubrics shows me they are weak, need constant tweaking, don't account for details, and are, at best, mere guidance, IMHO.

    Joe is on to something....

  6. I've tried them and have never been a fan of rubrics. Honestly, at this point the only time I use them is when an admin strongly suggests it. Personally, I see students taking a rubric and using it to figure out how little work they can do and still pass. Not all, but many students shoot straight for the "B" level and some for the "C" level because that's the amount of work they feel like doing, and I've already outlined for them exactly what they need to do for that grade (and of course, what they DON'T need to do).

    Before I used rubrics, honestly grading was more of a surprise. That sounds a little cruel to some people, but I noticed across the board that students always stepped up their game because they had no clue what they might get if they slacked. They generally put their best work and attempts out there with the hope that it was good enough or an A (usually it was, or at least a B).

  7. Bad rubrics are bad but many times, things are being called rubrics when they are not, in fact, rubrics. If a document contains a list of items that students need to accomplish a task, it's not a rubric - it's a checklist. This will not change, regardless of how many documents are called rubrics and posted online.

    Rubrics are a tool for communicating expectations - which has nothing to do with grades. The challenge we have is discussing the role of rubrics and not interlopers - I'll try and address that in a blog post.

  8. The analogy that I use for rubrics is more like a map. You don't just tell someone "My house is here. Get here." You give them directions that will lead to success or arrival at a destination. If we don't 1. give kids a target and 2. give them the steps that will lead to them hitting that target, we are not giving them the ingredients for success. It's not the rubric that doesn't allow for creativity; it's the assignment. A good assignment will encompass ways for students to showcase different strong points.

  9. Boundaries and limits are necessary for learning, however rubrics may or may not be useful for learning. The game of chess is chess because of its limits. The limits create room of creativity and innovation. It is okay to create a new game. I agree with @TFT that rubrics are sometimes good for starting and are often time ill made. I am a fan of limits and those that push limits. Can an term paper break the limits of the rubric? sure, but it better do it in a way that creates a new game...not just an excuse for deconstruction. If students/teachers are positioning themselves are co-creators of their discipline--I am not sure why they would stand for it to be uneditable--the issue is not rubric, but what teachers and students think is possible.

  10. Until I really learned what a rubric should be and saw the power of students writing learning targets in their own words and using it to reflect upon their work - I probably would have landed in the anti-rubric camp. As Jennifer says, I think many things are coined "rubric" when really they are something else. And sometimes - they really are just bad rubrics. I like what Johnathan says about what limits and the possibilities that teachers and students see as well as Teri's analogy. Let's not automatically blame the rubric but look to see where the real limitations to learning are.

  11. Interesting discussion here. I look forward to Jennifer's response and perhaps some exemplars of good rubrics. I am doing a reading assessment this week (go figure) and it has something of a rubric for assessing. I suspect it is a checklist with the limitations Joe is pointing out. For example, if memory serves me right, it specifies the number of acceptable responses in one case. It identifies incomplete sentences as not meeting the benchmark. Obviously, reading comprehension is not tied to answering in grammatical sentences. The writing rubrics associated with Traits is more general and less constricting.

    I appreciate Joe's critical stance. We need it. I generally approve of rubrics. Students need both guidelines and the chance to break free of them.

  12. I finished my BA back in 1990, so I'd never heard of a rubric until I went to Ed School for my credential 7 years ago. There, I was given a rubric for every assignment, and I hated them for their rigidity and for making getting an A too damned easy. Until I read this post, I've never been able to put my finger on exactly why it is that I hate them so very, very much. You just nailed it.

    I don't use them as a teacher, either. I want my kids to be creative, not to spend all their time trying to give me exactly what I they think I want. With a rubric, there are no unexpected turns leading to surprise learning.

  13. Great post Joe. I've learned a lot from you in following you on Twitter these past few months. My attitude used to be more about creating the best learning experiences for students given the confines of what currently exists, feeling this was more productive than wishing for changes in a system I didn't believe was changeable. I'm starting to believe, however, that our education system is ready for this change, and that I must speak up and advocate for change for everyone's benefit.

    All this said, saying rubrics are 'good' or 'bad' is like saying technology does or does not help students learn or that teachers do or do not make a difference. I look forward to Jennifer's post, as I believe in many aspects of what rubrics CAN be - communicating with students about what good learning looks like and about co-creating shared expectations for assessment with students beforehand instead of surprising them with a meaningless grade afterward.

  14. Rubrics are too often used by teachers as a justification to degrade and de-grade students. After all, the rubric told the kid what the expectations were and they just didn't read carefully enough. It acts as a kind of "I told you so".

  15. This post on my seventh grade blog marked the end of rubrics in our middle school program. The most beautiful part: the lengthy quote came from a student's blog.

  16. I've always thought that we should treat students the way we would like to be treated.
    In my own graduate work, I have had teachers who gave rubrics and those who did not.
    My most frustrating experience was with one who did not. I am an adult. I am intellectually curious and intrinsically motivated, and I never felt like I had a real handle on the major project we were assigned. Conversely,I had a teacher who gave an extensive rubric that literally made me work harder than anything else in my graduate work. That "A" was not too easy to get, but I knew how to get it. I disagree that there can't be "surprise learning" within a rubric. I learned vast amount sbout myself and my research.
    I got the same grade on both projects, so this is not a sour grapes issue, but the educational experience was greatly different.

  17. I used to use rubrics regularly. At 1st, I would create them & then I'd gradually include the students in the process of creating them. This is what I've discovered: children do the bare minimum. Even when I had put the highest expectation 1st. Rubrics & expectations are not synonymous. Some people say that you can't assess without a rubric. I disagree.

  18. Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

  19. If you want to use rubrics, but avoid the bare minimum approach look at the way Rick Wormeli suggests using them:

    On your rubric only list the criteria for the highest level achievement. Give specifics for it, and only that level. List the other levels at the bottom of the rubric in a simple list of numbers.

    If the student performs below the highest level circle the level they reached, circle the criteria they need to improve and talk to them about how to improve the work.

    This way they do not know what to shoot for, saving the highest level, and are encouraged to continuously improve the product and their learning. It works like a charm. A lot of kids that would settle for a lower level are actually compelled to hit the higher mark.

  20. Interesting!Now I will never looked at any rubric the same way again.

  21. Joe - As always, it was a pleasure to negotiate rubrics with you again today. I tried to address some of the concerns you've raised about rubrics on my wiki, and happy to continue the conversation.
    Quality Rubrics Wiki


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