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.
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.
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? 😉