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June 2, 2008 / Ben Chun

No Rubric?

Teaching a different subject leads to a dramatically different experience. In my limited view, I think mathematics might be the most different from all the other traditional core subjects. I’m starting to get a sense of what some of the other subjects are like (for a teacher) through collaboration with colleagues and through the technology classes that I teach. This year, I’ve pushed a little tiny bit into what it’s like to teach writing. It’s hard. I can much better imagine the challenges that come with teaching a text and asking students to analyze it. So I read this post by Konrad Glogowski with some interest, because tackles the problem head on:

[T]hey know very well that I’m an expert – even if I don’t see myself as one. Therefore, they are absolutely convinced that they cannot contribute anything to the discussion that I don’t already know … So, I often try to start conversations and create activities that are just as challenging for me as they are for them. This calls for quite a bit of creativity and forces me to abandon tried and tested lesson plans.

No one can take issue with that, right? Check out his post to read about the project, because I think it’s a great prompt. It could have been an interesting post if left at just a description of the project. But for me that was just the opener. Here’s the twist at the conclusion and the potential controversy:

[T]he best thing about this was that there was no rubric or evaluation sheet. Why? Because when you listen to student soundtracks for The Diary of a Young Girl and the music works, the music fits, you just know the students did a great job … and they do too – not because they received a rubric with a high mark, but because their work emerged from meaningful conversations with each other and the teacher.

I think that a few years ago when I was starting out as a math teacher, I would not have been able to understand or accept this. No rubric? No evaluation sheet? No criteria? Meaningful conversations are great, but how do you measure them? There’s a real push to put a metric on everything and align it all to a standard, but often the ways and even things that people learn aren’t amenable to that. Except in math. And engineering.

Now I’m not going to suddenly take a rabidly anti-standards or anti-testing stance here, but just pointing out that I see some of the emotional source, the genuine and respectable educational source, of those positions. As a teacher, I still feel like I need some kind of external source for measuring the performance of students in an “objective” way. I know that we humans, try as we might, are all biased and emotional and have limited memories and those are only some of the reasons to keep a gradebook with numbers in it if you’re going to have more than 20 students in your whole life at a time.

But here’s a reminder that those numbers, themselves, are not the point of what we do. They are a tool. Sometimes it’s useful to put down the tool in order to see what else can happen.

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