I just read a very thought-provoking post from Mary Ann Reilly at Between the By-Road and the Main Road.  What began as a comment spilled out to a blog post, so I hope she will pardon me for directing traffic over here.  Mary Ann and I were part of a larger Twitter discussion on Sunday night about the value of rubrics, which I believe began with this tweet by Jabiz Raisdana. The conversation revolved around the value of rubrics and Mary Ann’s post measures rubrics in contrast to Cartesian thinking, and observes their limitations on experiential and intuitive learning. 

I am always searching for that space where learning and assessment comfortably intertwine.  The learning environment Mary Ann describes is idyllic.  And, remarkably, I do believe I’ve had moments when I created these conditions and witnessed it in my classroom. It’s in those moments when I step back and realize that I am learning with my students, rather than perpetuating the relationship of “knowing subject to intended learner.”  I agree, as she so eloquently described, that learning is inherently experiential and it is not owned unless it’s internalized.  We cannot impose the desire to learn on students, nor can we force them to develop indwelling (which, Mary Ann explains, leads to “knowing from within”).  

I claim that there is no such thing as pure objectivity in instruction or assessment, whether it is a limitless environment of boundless choices or a checklist of discrete tasks.  Creating conditions of any kind guides students in one direction or another. The question is: at what point is learning optimized for the most valuable and accurate assessment; and at what point is assessment limiting the optimization of learning?  This question tugs at me the most, reminding me how difficult it is to find this intersection- the one where students’ internal reward equals (or surpasses) the grade and they are motivated to do it all over again. 

However, measurement of said learning remains a salient question. I don’t want to make excuses for a flawed system, but unless society embraces multi-age classrooms and radically altered systems of evaluation,  I believe that rubrics remain a valuable assessment tool; in fact, rubrics may be the best way, within the current system, to move toward the conditions Mary Ann describes.  At the end of the day, students’ processes and conclusions fall on a spectrum representing varying depths of inter and intrapersonal engagement and it is the teachers role to report on it.

I agree that a checklist approach, based on steps and acquisition of factual knowledge can inhibit intuition and creative expression of learning.  Yet rubrics that focus on depth of skills to build critical thinking can allow the flexibility necessary to create indwelling.  Admittedly, I’ve used both.  And I do think that a scaffold approach, one which guides students from a prescriptive structure to one that engenders more internally driven analysis can work.  The key, as we discussed in our twitter discussion, is to design the rubric to guide rather than prescribe and use it to have conversations with students about their process.  Because I value experiential learning, I also value rubric-revision.  A good rubric is one that changes each and every time it is used– possibly during the process.  It both encourages and responds to student inquiry.  It points in a direction, not to a path.  And it allows the student to develop thinking and produce work that surpass expectations.

Thanks to Mary Ann for the opportunity to think through some things that have weighed on my mind for some time.  And as I wrap this up and contemplate the value of all I have learned in the last 24 hours, I must admit… there was no rubric.