Rubrics are Bull****

Whenever George comes to town he likes to challenge me.  He will deliberately poses BIG questions and then happily debate the answer with me for a while… sometimes a long while!  He’ll say things to force me to think, to challenge my practice.  I’m never sure if he means it all but it’s always a good, healthy debate 😉    I LOVE it!   This visit he did this on two occasions.  The first was after the Flinders Uni Day on October 29th.  Whilst eating a pizza and sipping a well deserved iced chocolate (yom), he started to talk to me about what my vision of a school was.  If I could start from scratch what would it look like? How would it be different to today?  This quickly evolved to a conversation about the point of assessment and a bold statement from him that “Rubrics are Bullshit”.

That’s when my brain exploded…

I spend an awful lot of time thinking about enhancing learning and teaching.  Most of the time, I do so with the remit of integrating some kind of technology into the classroom.  This means that I have reflected, countless times, on my own teaching methodologies, style and pedagogies.  I’ve  continued to play around with these ideas so that they meet the needs of each and every students I teach.  I whole heartedly believe in a student centered, personalised learning environment and I will always fight to safe guard that.

What I find hard is not defining the goal that the students are trying to meet whilst in my classroom.  George seemed to be suggesting that by not defining an outcome we could expect more learning to occur. Unexpected, creative learning that was not limited by boundaries and guidelines.  He considered a rubric (or specification to my UK friends) to be the most restrictive form possible.  Believing that they capped a students potential.  “What happens when they reach an A?” he asked is that the end? Do they sit back and stop learning?”

No. Not in my experience. I’ve never worked with a specification that limited a student and if it did. I’d move them up to the next level.  That’s the world I’m used to working in.  It’s not the experience that I have had in Australia that’s informing these thoughts- granted –  but it is most certainly the way I was taught to teach in the UK.  I am used to the idea that grades are not explicitly linked to age but to ability and talent.  If an 11 year old is already (and this would be exceptional) working at an A* grade in GCSE (16 year old) then they should be allowed to show that, to sit that paper and start their A Level.

In fact,  I grew up in that world myself.  I was once considered to be quite a talented musician.  As A result, I completed my GCSE in Music in one year instead of two and then did my As Level in Music a year early.  That was (and is) the way it works.  There is always another level to meet.  It doesn’t matter what age you are. It doesn’t matter what job you do. That’s the way the world works.  Targets, levels, promotions etc.  All of these things require flexibility and creativity on behalf of the leaders.

How did my music teacher achieve this with me?  How did she clear a personalised path for me to tread?  Through stringent evidence based, assessment processes, through people setting me goals to reach and through my feeling the success of achieving each and every one of them.  At least, in music! She personalised lessons for me. Set me tasks and told me to get on with it.  She trusted that I could. She was my mentor, not my teacher.  I spent most of the lessons in the practice room – getting on with it. Writing compositions, completing coursework etc.  None of this individualised learning was ever hampered by a rubric. I was encouraged and guided by it because I could use it to guide me, to help me to understand what it was I needed to achieve (and what I was required to demonstrate to get the grade I wanted) this meant that my teacher was able to mentor me rather than force me to follow the same path as my peers.  Mentor me, let me get on with it and guide me when I went wrong.  I was very fortunate really.

Of course, there were other subjects (Maths i’m afraid) where that simply never happened for me.  Now I am a teacher I know why… Because I was taught the same way by my teacher as she taught all the other kids in top set and I shouldn’t have been taught in that way, or in that set!  She didn’t personalise teaching to meet my learning needs. She had a jolly text book with titles at the top of the page like  “Pythagoras Theorem”. It would have an example of how to solve the problem that the top of the page and I would happily answer all the questions, on that same page, correctly.  However, I had no idea WHY i was doing what I was doing, HOW it worked, How to apply it and so, when it was exam time and the question read “Bob has his ladder against the wall…” I couldn’t work out how I was meant to solve the problem of the safest distance for his ladder from the base of that wall.   She was probably teaching TOO the rubric rather than using it as a tool to support, encourage and help me to grow. Rubrics, as a result, did nothing for me except tell me I was failing.  Surely, though, if the teacher had reflected a little more she might have worked out why? And used the information to support me? That wasn’t the rubrics fault….

I wasn’t bad at everything in Maths… Not really.  If she had focused on the parts of a rubric in which I could achieve and praised me for that she might have given me a little bit of confidence to attempt to tackle other, weaker areas with a different outlook.  As it is, maths used to terrify me so much that, when asked to cover a maths lesson, i’d beg the coordinator to swap me onto something – anything – else.    My brain used to freeze at the mere mention of maths, fear was a massive barrier for me.  I had to teach myself OUT of that.

Rubrics at Work - Using Excel to close analyse pupil data

Rubrics at Work – Using Excel to close analyse pupil data

In my time as a teacher I have tried to remember this experience.  To strive to use rubrics (specifications) creatively, helpfully, to empower my students in the way I was empowered by my music teacher.  I have  even gone so far as to create automated Macros for my mark book which work out which Assessment Objectives are being covered in each GCSE English Questions and then calculates (using a traffic light system) which areas my students are showing strength and weakness within.  my year 11 students (final year of GCSE) found this really helpful to guide their revision and further study)  This has then helped to shape the lesson objectives, homework tasks, style of learning and teaching etc empowering and facilitating deeper learning opportunities for my students.

What George seemed to be suggesting to me was that we do away with learning objectives, with curriculum with assessment and we just see what happens.  Maybe it’s because of the way I was trained (and indeed taught myself), maybe it’s a cultural thing? I don’t know.  It is important to me that my students know what they are trying to achieve, what their goal is, and that they can measure themselves against that goal in a reflective way.  In a way which builds confidence and inspires them to keep working hard.

I think “Rubrics are Bull***”  if they are poorly written, are limiting, are not written in a manner which helps students to see where they’re at and what they need to do next and MOST Importantly are not used by the teacher as a way to reflect upon the learning in their classroom and how to enhance it.

NAPLAN results are an interesting one in that regard. I’m sure I wrote on here about how, having listened to the Keynote from last year’s SAETA conference it became clear that schools are not always asked to evaluate their results, to consider what they suggest about learning and teaching and to take action as a result.  What is the point of an assessment if it is not used to inform future practice? This is something I’m really glad we touch on with our Secondary students at Flinders when looking at Critical Numeracy – from an assessment perspective.  Those tests can be powerful tools if we work with them cleverly.  That’s possibly another post though! One that would involve a conversation about the assessment of the Australian Curriculum too.

I was given rubrics/specifications by the people who wrote the curriculum (the equivalent of ACARA).  We didnt’ have to write them because they were used nationally so that a true picture could be formed across all who used them.  That gave me more time to consider how to make these little documents work for my students. How I could use the information they gave me to enhance learning and teaching.

 

Lesson Rationale evidencing use of assessment data

Lesson Rationale from a lesson obeservation – evidencing use of assessment data

 

Do I think “Rubrics are bull****” Not if they’re used creatively to empower and to guide learning and teaching. NO.

Do I think they stifle creativity? NO.  I use the data and information that my rubrics provide to collect information that helps inform my practice and make me a creative teacher who creates opportunities where I can give my students the chance to “figure it out” in the same way I did with my Music GCSE and A level.  It gives us a guide, a goal and a sense of achievement.

What are your thoughts? How do you use rubrics? Do they fit into the classroom of the future?  Am I giving a really, British, Secondary School view here? I’d love to hear your opinions.  George? 😉

 

 

Comments

  • George Couros
    Reply

    Rubrics have a place in a classroom but will they get people to a transformative level? Many kids learn the “system” of school and do what they need to get the mark that they want. Is this learning or doing what you need to do to get to the next level?

    Here is a post I wrote on the notion of mindset:

    http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/1903

    I will go back at a couple of questions here for you…Where is the rubric for this blog? Do you learn here? Did you start with a rubric?

    What about for the innovative things that you do creating apps, different things to help teachers? Rubric?

    You are learning effectively and doing some amazing things without the use of a rubric. How do we get kids to that point?

  • George Couros
    Reply

    Rubrics have a place in a classroom but will they get people to a transformative level? Many kids learn the “system” of school and do what they need to get the mark that they want. Is this learning or doing what you need to do to get to the next level?

    Here is a post I wrote on the notion of mindset:

    http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/1903

    I will go back at a couple of questions here for you…Where is the rubric for this blog? Do you learn here? Did you start with a rubric?

    What about for the innovative things that you do creating apps, different things to help teachers? Rubric?

    You are learning effectively and doing some amazing things without the use of a rubric. How do we get kids to that point?

  • Trevor Hinchliffe
    Reply

    Hi! Interesting reflection, and I wholeheartedly agree you about the power of rubrics. Regardless of our occupation – whether it is student, educator, artist, bricklayer, whatever – if we want to improve, we have to have a way of measuring our success. Rubrics give our students the language to describe the steps to success in mastering a skill set, and allow them to plot their own progress.

    In replying to your blog, George Couros asked the question on how we get the kids to the point where they are learning without the use of a rubric like you are with your effective learning. I would argue that you are using a rubric – an internalised one, which over many years of working as an active learner has been developed to guide your reflections. You had a professional discussion, which left you asking questions. You related these thoughts to your own experiences. Now you are seeking feedback from others through this post. Next, you will be looking to apply your new thoughts your context, or to a new context. Sounds very rubric-y to me, almost based on something like SOLO Taxonomy.

    Students need to be taught the skills of becoming an effective learner. So how do we get kids to the point where they are learning without the use of a rubric? Ironically, we do it by using a rubric that teaches them the language of mastery; teaches them the skill of self-reported grading, until they become proficient to the point that this rubric isn’t written on paper, but is embedded in thinking. Alongside this, students also need to be taught the skills in goal-setting, so that when they do “reach the end of the rubric” for a particular skill set, they have the ability to identify their next piece of critical learning.

    Thanks again for the read – it really got me thinking!

    • George Couros

      Hey Trevor,

      Interesting comment…at the beginning you talk about different professions using a rubrics. Do they really use a typical 3 or 4 point scale rubric or something similar to “you can” or “you can’t” assessment (whether paper or informal)? I both understand the use of rubrics but we always talk about “outside the box”, does that help when we start with the box?

      I love this video by Barry Schwartz on “Practical Wisdom”; do we work with our students to be wise? Would a rubrics teach them that?

      http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_using_our_practical_wisdom.html

      It is nice to read comments like yours and Selena’s that are wanting kids to get to the next level. Makes me so proud to be connected with educators that want more from kids than simply teaching the curriculum.

  • Trevor Hinchliffe
    Reply

    Hi! Interesting reflection, and I wholeheartedly agree you about the power of rubrics. Regardless of our occupation – whether it is student, educator, artist, bricklayer, whatever – if we want to improve, we have to have a way of measuring our success. Rubrics give our students the language to describe the steps to success in mastering a skill set, and allow them to plot their own progress.

    In replying to your blog, George Couros asked the question on how we get the kids to the point where they are learning without the use of a rubric like you are with your effective learning. I would argue that you are using a rubric – an internalised one, which over many years of working as an active learner has been developed to guide your reflections. You had a professional discussion, which left you asking questions. You related these thoughts to your own experiences. Now you are seeking feedback from others through this post. Next, you will be looking to apply your new thoughts your context, or to a new context. Sounds very rubric-y to me, almost based on something like SOLO Taxonomy.

    Students need to be taught the skills of becoming an effective learner. So how do we get kids to the point where they are learning without the use of a rubric? Ironically, we do it by using a rubric that teaches them the language of mastery; teaches them the skill of self-reported grading, until they become proficient to the point that this rubric isn’t written on paper, but is embedded in thinking. Alongside this, students also need to be taught the skills in goal-setting, so that when they do “reach the end of the rubric” for a particular skill set, they have the ability to identify their next piece of critical learning.

    Thanks again for the read – it really got me thinking!

    • George Couros

      Hey Trevor,

      Interesting comment…at the beginning you talk about different professions using a rubrics. Do they really use a typical 3 or 4 point scale rubric or something similar to “you can” or “you can’t” assessment (whether paper or informal)? I both understand the use of rubrics but we always talk about “outside the box”, does that help when we start with the box?

      I love this video by Barry Schwartz on “Practical Wisdom”; do we work with our students to be wise? Would a rubrics teach them that?

      http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_using_our_practical_wisdom.html

      It is nice to read comments like yours and Selena’s that are wanting kids to get to the next level. Makes me so proud to be connected with educators that want more from kids than simply teaching the curriculum.

  • Selena Woodward
    Reply

    Thank you both for your comments. Trevor, your sentiments echo exactly what I was going to say in response to George. In a way, I do have a rubric for all of the projects I am working on. It’s not written down but I do review and consider what I write as I write my apps, my posts, my book. I have a clear objective and I try to meet it. My grade, I guess, comes back to me through how popular the post is and through comments I see on Facebook, Twitter and on the blog. Or, in the case of the book and app (through app purchases and reviews). I certainly do get assessed and receive feedback on everything I produce and as a result I am aware of what I feel needs to be done.

    As you also say Trevor, the blog post forms just part of the learning process. It’s not really the “final assessment” those happen when I use what I have learnt through reflection to inform the way I teach. That will be judged by my students, their grades and possibly through observation (and subsequent grading – against a rubric) of my professional practice.

    I have an internal rubric. I learnt how to learn and now I practice it everyday. You’re right. This is a skill that does need to be taught.

    • George Couros

      So did your “internal rubric” come from using one in school? Or did you teach that to yourselves? I seem to learn fine on my own and never saw a “rubric” my entire time in school. I doubt that you, as a student, used one in school. What got you to that point?

      • Selena Woodward

        I’m afraid that rubrics were everywhere!! lol That’s the British School system through and through. Levels, sub levels.. etc. I, just like my students, had to be able to say what level I was, why and how I got to the next level. If I couldn’t tell an inspector that – and show that I knew how and why I was progressing my teacher would have been in trouble! I guess I’ve always had rubrics to use and standards/expectations to meet. That’s how I learnt to assess myself. That’s what I meant about how this might be a cultural thing. I’ve always HAD rubrics it was more a case of making sure they were used for good not evil… as it were! 😉

  • Selena Woodward
    Reply

    Thank you both for your comments. Trevor, your sentiments echo exactly what I was going to say in response to George. In a way, I do have a rubric for all of the projects I am working on. It’s not written down but I do review and consider what I write as I write my apps, my posts, my book. I have a clear objective and I try to meet it. My grade, I guess, comes back to me through how popular the post is and through comments I see on Facebook, Twitter and on the blog. Or, in the case of the book and app (through app purchases and reviews). I certainly do get assessed and receive feedback on everything I produce and as a result I am aware of what I feel needs to be done.

    As you also say Trevor, the blog post forms just part of the learning process. It’s not really the “final assessment” those happen when I use what I have learnt through reflection to inform the way I teach. That will be judged by my students, their grades and possibly through observation (and subsequent grading – against a rubric) of my professional practice.

    I have an internal rubric. I learnt how to learn and now I practice it everyday. You’re right. This is a skill that does need to be taught.

    • George Couros

      So did your “internal rubric” come from using one in school? Or did you teach that to yourselves? I seem to learn fine on my own and never saw a “rubric” my entire time in school. I doubt that you, as a student, used one in school. What got you to that point?

      • Selena Woodward

        I’m afraid that rubrics were everywhere!! lol That’s the British School system through and through. Levels, sub levels.. etc. I, just like my students, had to be able to say what level I was, why and how I got to the next level. If I couldn’t tell an inspector that – and show that I knew how and why I was progressing my teacher would have been in trouble! I guess I’ve always had rubrics to use and standards/expectations to meet. That’s how I learnt to assess myself. That’s what I meant about how this might be a cultural thing. I’ve always HAD rubrics it was more a case of making sure they were used for good not evil… as it were! 😉

  • Cruz Izu
    Reply

    if you don’t use a rubric, you are good at self-reflection, goal setting and self-assessment. Top students are normally like that. They will do a good job with rubric or not.

    I understand your resistance to use rubrics that force students to do things they have not discovered themselves, and fill sometimes like a “ticking the box” exercise. On the other hand, you may use rubrics to allow students to set their goals and move beyond the pass/fail level. For example, if you have 5 criteria you may ask them to do one at the top level (A) , 2 at the credit level and 2 at the pass level (or even let them fail one). So they have a choice of what to do really well and they are also aware of the different levels of performance.

    Alternative you can make a class exercise to define the rubric with their input.

    • Selena Woodward

      I think you’re right Cruz. It’s not the rubric that is the problem.. It’s how you use it 🙂

  • Cruz Izu
    Reply

    if you don’t use a rubric, you are good at self-reflection, goal setting and self-assessment. Top students are normally like that. They will do a good job with rubric or not.

    I understand your resistance to use rubrics that force students to do things they have not discovered themselves, and fill sometimes like a “ticking the box” exercise. On the other hand, you may use rubrics to allow students to set their goals and move beyond the pass/fail level. For example, if you have 5 criteria you may ask them to do one at the top level (A) , 2 at the credit level and 2 at the pass level (or even let them fail one). So they have a choice of what to do really well and they are also aware of the different levels of performance.

    Alternative you can make a class exercise to define the rubric with their input.

    • Selena Woodward

      I think you’re right Cruz. It’s not the rubric that is the problem.. It’s how you use it 🙂