Re-imagining rubrics

I am a Twitter junkie. I do a great deal of professional learning, and even more so, professional wondering, through this medium. Lately, I have noticed an increase in negative “press” for rubrics from people whom I greatly admire. This has led me to reconsider our division’s decision to create rubrics for every outcome in the renewed Saskatchewan curricula (these rubrics can be viewed at http://curriculum.nesd.ca/).

I understand the arguments against rubrics: They are too prescriptive, they are too general, they are too compartmentalized, they over-simplify the learning potential of outcomes, to name a few. There are certainly examples of all of the above inside classrooms and on the world wide web – we used many of these examples when we were first discussing building rubrics with teachers in our division. Rubrics are intended to clarify the learning continuum of certain understandings and skills (outcomes). It is not easy to capture learning using any tool and rubrics are no exception. Learning is messy, complicated and exponential. However, I will propose that many arguments are not necessarily about rubrics – they are about prescribing curricular outcomes as well. Furthermore, rubrics are often created for “assignments” or “texts” as opposed to understanding and skills. This makes this debate as complex as learning itself.

So, when I reconsider rubrics, I have to first re-clarify the purpose they hold. My belief is that one of the best ways to begin to facilitate learning is to clarify the purpose behind the learning experience (which is, ideally, directly connected to learning outcomes). To be clear, this learning experience can take a multitude of forms: inquiry, small group work, independent composition and creation, problem-based learning, play-based learning…the list is endless. However, in order for a teacher to help students imagine new ways of understanding, processing and applying their learning, they have to be clear about these possibilities themselves. This requires a significant amount of pre-thinking. Certainly, this is the premise behind planning but I still contend that when I used to plan “in the olden days” I spent a great deal of time thinking about what students would be doing and not nearly enough time thinking about why they would be doing it and what they would be learning. I mention all of this because I know that the rubrics we have created in our division and the four levels we assess and report on are based on a solid understanding of the potential learning proposed by each outcome. This took a great deal of time, collaboration and engagement in Stage One of Understanding by Design but we could not have created the rubrics we did without this process.

I will propose that our rubrics are different from other rubrics. I will propose that our rubrics are not subjective, nor are they prescriptive. If they are, then we adjust them (because like students, we are learning.) I think there is a misunderstanding and even over-simplification of what rubrics could represent.Perhaps, the best way to explain my thinking is to share the metaphor we have developed to explain our rubrics.

We came up with this metaphor because we sensed a misunderstanding about what our rubrics meant. The shape of rubrics (ie. their physical manifestation) is perhaps the greatest barrier to understanding. Rubrics are boxes divided into four equal parts (in most cases – we have willingly adjusted the size of columns to fit the content. Ours are not equal anymore.) When people see four equal parts, they think things like: 1, 2, 3, 4 or 25%, 50%, 75%, 100% or…well, you get the picture. Based on this assumption, the two boxes below half must mean less than half and the two above must mean more than half. This has not sat well with many people (parents, teachers, students), so educators have added boxes (six, ten) in hopes of making this judgement less dramatic. Here lies one of the most primary misconceptions.

Rubrics don’t have to be this way. In fact, I think adding levels is similar to our attachment to percentages – we want to be able to report levels of understanding (fair enough) and compare the learners with each other in their degree of learning (hmmm…okay, if this is our job…). However, when we do this, sometimes we do another thing in conjunction – we leave it at that; we quit. In other words, this is where this student is…and my work is done here. Our rubrics were a re-imagining of this paradigm. I believe we committed to a philosophical stance (that not everyone buys into, but this is another discussion…) that our role as educators is to help students learn the grade level outcomes…and if they don’t, then we adjust instruction and try again.

Let me explain the metaphor:

Imagine learning as a journey. Start with a door – we will call this the outcome (or standard) door. This door is the door that students are being asked to walk through. To walk through this door, a person has to be able to do specific skills and understand specific concepts. They must be able to place their own hand on the door , turn the door knob and walk through independently. We, as educators, do our very best to prepare students to walk through the outcome door but, in the end, we need them to be able to do it alone. This is our goal and the Fully Meeting Grade Level Outcomes level on our rubrics.

Door

In front of the door is a hallway. This is the “Hallway of Learning.” It is why schools exist, because this is where all of our good work happens. This is where we formatively assess and offer feedback. This is where we scaffold and differentiate. Sometimes we hold a student’s hand as we lead them down the hallway. Other times, students are almost at the door and are ready to be released to try to open the door. This hallway is where the fun happens and there is no shame in being here. In fact, it is a celebration because it means we are learning. On our rubrics, this is called Mostly Meeting Grade Level Outcomes.

Hall

At the end of the hallway is a set of stairs. These are the “Readiness Stairs” and some students are on these stairs and approaching the hallway. This means they need to build some skills and knowledge that make them ready and able to enter the hallway. This is where greater scaffolds and RtI interventions may be happening. This is where front-ending vocabulary and practicing basic skills may be occuring. It is vital to know when students are on these stairs because it equips educators with the ability to provide the needed supports. If students are in the hallway and haven’t been able to climb the stairs, then they are likely struggling and/ or disengaged. We call this level Not Yet Meeting Grade Level Outcomes.

Stairs

The last level is the one beyond the door, once students have opened it on their own. This is the landscape of Fully Meeting Grade Level Outcomes with Enriched Understanding. This level means students have walked through the outcome door and are ready to explore the vistas beyond. These landscapes are exponential. They can mean any kind of learning for students. This landscape does not mean “doing more of the same.” It means “doing different and exploring further.” It also does not mean moving onto the next grade’s outcomes (although we have to remember that these outcomes are pretty broad and impossible to avoid – and why would we if the students are interested in learning?) There is no set road a student has to travel when they are travelling through this landscape. Learning can continue in so many ways and this should be embraced.

Landscape

This metaphor is intended to show that our rubrics are not about point tallying. They are not about “kinda good, more good, really good and super good” (unhelpful qualifiers). They are about identifying learning needs and opening up learning opportunities. They are about carefully considering the outcomes and imagining what the learning looks like in a broad sense. They are about helping both teachers and students identify where learning is occurring and where it could go next. They are about offering very specific and timely feedback and opportunities for enrichment when they should occur (when needed) as opposed to when they were occurring (when you are done all your work). They are about helping teachers and students be able to analyze learning in the moment as opposed to after something is handed in.

I have been called an idealist and I own that label but I think rubrics can be helpful and specific while, at the same time, invite creativity, open exploration and enjoyment for both teachers and students. I think rubrics can be re-imagined and after reconsidering them, I still believe they help students learn and help teachers to help students do this very important thing.

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3 thoughts on “Re-imagining rubrics

  1. I agree with you Katie–the true value of rubrics is in their potential to help teachers and students clarify the learning intentions–they aren’t about scoring. Unfortunately, as long as we hold to the antiquated notion of giving a percentage for every piece of student work, we get stuck in this conversation.

    • Katie,

      Why are rubrics square? Why the linear approach to feedback. As we asses, do we not move non-linearly? If we continue to only view things in a linear feedbackfashion, do we not limit where we can go. Why not a circle with the outcome(s) in the middle?
      Although I like the metaphor, it limits knowing to a linear trajectory and as David Weinberger points out, knowledge is no longer available in just one linear fashion but from multiple entry points and is much more miscellaneous than we present it. Although the rubrics are indeed very good, they are limited by their construction as we tend to continue to view the learning of students to be starting at the stairs or in the hall or at the door or when if combined with other knowledge and an experience of the students choosing, may indeed move the student to a different part of the corridor metaphor because it allows the student a greater part of the process.
      So the rubrics created are, indeed, well constructed for a linear process. Maybe, however, we might begin to vision learning less linearly which might then free us for the need to “grade” them and, instead, allow them to demonstrate understanding through multiple experiences.

      • I agree. The linear quality of rubrics has a limiting factor. I think, if I am being honest, that it was accepted “language” for assessment discourse and so we went that way because it was so much better than the non-descriptive “magic math” we had been doing. We renewed all our curriculum at every grade level in every subject provincially and wanted to really engage in discussion about learning as movement and not static. We created 2500 rubrics and that is where we rest. We are still embedded in hearty discussions about the essence of learning and your point is well taken. We just aren’t there yet…but learning continues in many ways and I remain ever hopeful that we keep asking these questions in education.

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