Well, gentle reader, the school year is winding down for teachers and students alike and that got me thinking about education in general so I decided to share with you some of my thoughts on the subject by way of a paper I wrote for one of my education courses. I realize this is not my usual, entertaining subject matter, but there are just some days when you can't think of a good poop joke. It's on a topic that really bugs me being that it's an educational standard that I feel is doing a disservice to students. So if you care to, read on, and as always, my lips to yours.
One of the most useful tools in assessment in any discipline, a new teacher is often told, is a well-structured rubric. Rubrics make the job and the life of the teacher easier by saving time in grading, offering clearly defined objectives for students, and removing subjectivity from the assessment process. As author Maja Wilson (2006) notes, rubrics are widely hailed as a “best practice” in education (p. xxi). But are they the best practice for teaching students to be creative? Are they the best practice for engaging multiple intelligences and encouraging students to undergo meaningful, thoughtful, exploration of a given topic? The answer, particularly in writing, is no.
The main problem with the idea of rubrics is that their value is placed in standardizing student writing or more accurately, in the act of standardizing itself. Alfie Kohn (2006) notes that standardizing is admirable in the realm of manufactured goods such as electronics, but does little or nothing to assess a student's comprehension of ideas. Rubrics, he argues, standardize not only student output in writing but also teacher assessment of writing assignments. By removing the inherent human subjectivity in assessing writing, teachers are turned into “grading machines,” not taking into account the overall quality of a writing assignment, but rather only the sum of its parts.
Students, therefore, tend not to produce their most innovative material in writing assignments, ensuring, rather, that the checklists of the rubric, which often place as much or more emphasis on objective portions (spelling, grammar, formatting, etc.) than they do the quality of ideas presented, are met. Kohn cites a work by Linda Mabry whose research concluded that as a result, students who adhered to rubrics achieved higher scores, yet produced “more vacuous writing” (as cited in Kohn, 2006). The obvious inference here is that educators are now placing more emphasis on giving students as large of a probability of achieving a good grade as possible, without regard to the actual quality of the written work.
So if student writing has less quality when following the guidelines of a rubric, why then do educators hold them so dearly as useful educational tools? Wilson suggests that rubrics are alluring because they simplify and objectify that which is complex and subjective. Any English teacher has been though the messy debate of how to assign a grade to something that another teacher could read and grade quite differently, which therefore makes a subjective assignment much more difficult. Rubrics help to solve this issue. In addition, they neaten, for students, the messy task of writing and give organized guidelines to help them through it (2006). Kohn believes them to be a handy tool in justifying grades to parents (2006).
But perhaps the most enticing aspect of the rubric is that it helps to ensure conformity in the classroom; rubrics help teachers teach the same thing the same way to every student. This is the model of American education, one that Sir Kenneth Robinson describes as a “fast food” model (2010). This model of education standardizes the type and quality of education that each student will receive and how they will be assessed. However, Robinson argues that this is an outdated and overall useless model. It is based, he argues, on conformity and linearity and fails to cultivate creativity, passion and innovation in students (2010).
Robinson's solution to the current educational model, is to move away from a model based on (as Kohn also noted) industry and manufacturing, and move to an agricultural model (2010). Teachers of writing should therefore not be handing out an instruction manual for how to write a good, creative paper. To paraphrase Robinson, writing, after all, “is not a mechanical process, it is an organic process” and teachers need to instead of being the manufacturers of quality writing, creativity and innovation, be the “farmers” who cultivate it and provide the conditions around which these things can flourish (2010).
The first time I had ever heard (or remember hearing) the word, rubric, was my first year of teaching English. I had given a descriptive writing assignment which we had been discussing and practicing in class for a week. After giving the assignment, a student asked me when they'd be getting the rubric. It was a nearly automatic response from the student, suggesting that he had gotten used to using rubrics for all or nearly all of his academic career. I, obviously, was not. I had to look up “rubric” in the dictionary.
I was therefore somewhat opposed to the idea of rubrics in the beginning of my teaching career. However, the administration, in order to better be able to explain grades given on papers to parents (a struggle I endured numerous times my first year) “strongly encouraged” my compliance in using them. To my delight, I found that rubrics made my life easier. I stopped having the parent objections to my grades as much. Students generally had better scores on their papers. Grading was much faster and more efficient. However, I rarely received truly excellent writing from my students, the kind that blew me away my first year when I was astonished at how talented some of the students really were.
I realized that this is because I took away the exploratory part of writing from them. I recall one student who had been struggling with an assignment. I worked with her for a few days on it, finally writing down an outline for her and asking her to follow it. She tried, but she couldn't make the paper fit. She went home, threw out my suggestions and wrote the paper on her own, and it turned out to be much better than the suggestions I had given her. I honestly believe it's because she had to fight through it, and figure out the mystery of writing on her own.
And this to me is why we use rubrics. They're easy. They make the student's life easy. They don't have to struggle anymore. Teachers don't have to struggle anymore. And with students receiving good grades, parents obviously believe that their children are good writers. And everyone is happy. Except me. And I know how in the minority I am when it comes to my stance on rubrics.
It's hard to argue with better grades. Better grades mean more finely honed skills, and a larger talent pool. They mean more successful schools, and a higher likelihood of students going to college and being successful there and/or in their professional lives. But I disagree. We are giving grades now to that which is quantifiable, and looking less at that which is subjective. Better grades to me now mean “more able to meet checklists” than “innovative” or “creative, thought-provoking writer.”
With respect to my professor, I would like to look at the rubric for the assignment in which I am currently engaged. Out of a possible 120 points, only 30 points are dedicated to the actual content of the paper, i.e. the depth of thought presented. The rest is dedicated to the mundane: 30 points for having included a summary of the research, 10 points respectively for mechanics and format, and the rest for including such things as title pages, reference pages, and having enough sources. Based on the rubric I received, I could say nothing of value on the topic and still pass the assignment with a 75%. Though this is not the intention of my professor, nor do I believe this assignment to be an exercise in meeting checklist requirements, I did want have a real-life example to illustrate a point.
I believe that rubrics can be useful. I believe they are most useful for the student who is not a gifted writer and needs the guidelines to produce coherent, meaningful writing, but would otherwise be lost, but we cannot treat all students as if they are so. Rubrics do help prevent failure. What they insure in its place is mediocrity. By denying students the possibility of failing, we also deny them the possibility of excelling. Rubrics help to insure a lack of mistakes. They also insure that students do not learn from their mistakes. Instead, they head learning opportunities off at the pass, provide specific instructions on how to not screw up, and bestow benevolent grades on students who have not earned them, but could have if given the opportunity to fail and try, try again.
Kohn, A. (March, 2006). The Trouble with Rubrics. English Journal, vol. 95, no. 4. Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/rubrics.htm.
Mabry, L. (May, 1999). Writing to the Rubric: Lingering Effects of Traditional Standardized Testing on Direct Writing Assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 80.
Robinson, K. (February, 2010). Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the Learning Revolution! [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution.html. (2010, October 9).
Wilson, M. (2006). Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.