T Sale's Blog

Thursday, April 03, 2008

What's it all about, Alfie?

I just read Alfie Kohn’s article “The Trouble with Rubrics,” and while I haven’t decided to what extent I agree or disagree with him, the article has sparked a series of thoughts that began with anger and ended with a rather liberating realization. The anger I felt was similar to that engendered by nutritionists who seem to contradict themselves every few years. (Eat lots of pasta – it’s good for you! Oh, wait, we meant whole grain pasta; that white linguini you’ve been scarfing down for ten years is playing havoc with your blood sugar!) Where was Kohn fifteen years ago, when we all embraced rubrics as a powerful tool for evaluating writing and giving our students feedback? Where was he when the Six Trait Writing boom swept through language arts departments from Bangor to Bakersfield and insinuated itself into the CSAP test evaluation process? Surely it didn’t take Kohn this long to decide that rubrics are bad. Did he decide to sit on this knowledge for a while just to mess with us? The maddening thing is, he makes some good points about how rubrics can limit expression, but why wait until now to point this out? Every time an article like this comes along, I despair of ever seeing educational reform succeed. No wonder parents and politicians don’t trust us; every few years we change our minds, and everything we believed in is debunked. Fifteen years ago LPS embarked upon criterion-based graduation requirements, manifested as Direction 2000 at a certain purple-and-gold sister school. Then, the “back-to-basics” school board assumed power, and Direction 2000 was no more. Now, Governor Ritter is ramming through his own version of criterion-based learning. Plus ca change…

At times I find all this back-and-forth especially frustrating, because I thought that by this point in my career, I would know something, have some things figured out. More and more, 21C sessions and articles like Kohn’s make me think of an old Firesign Theater record I have (yes, record, vinyl record), titled Everything You Know is Wrong. How right they were. (I mean, Pluto used to be a planet.) I have to admit, my first inclination was to say, “A pox on you, Alfie Kohn! Why are you telling me this when I will probably teach only a few more years? Why should I abandon a tool that seems to have served me (and my students) well for so long? I declare myself impervious to change! I’m too close to the end! I can just keep on going with what I have and the momentum will carry me through…”


But some of what Kohn said made sense. The more I think about it, the more I wonder about rubrics. Maybe they have been limiting students’ thinking with their left-brained orderliness. (I can’t help thinking Daniel Pink would love Kohn’s article. Just outsource the rubrics and the essays to India, he’d say, and concentrate on creating more creative writing prompts, or, better yet, get the students to create their own.) Meanwhile, in our PLCs, we’re all about rubrics. We’re all about “common assessments” and fitting students into a slot so we can quantify their learning, so we can collect “data,” so we can modify the rubrics, so we can collect more data, and so it goes. Who would dare to side with Kohn at this point and question the slowly growing beast that fascinates us so on occasional Wednesday mornings? Who would be bold enough not only to stop using rubrics (and argue against their use on common assessments), but also, say, grade assignments on a 9 point scale and, rather than posting overall grades, have students derive and justify their own grades? Who would be willing to acknowledge that the evaluation of an essay is based on his own individual judgment and experience with writing, rather than on a list of “murky” adjectives on a rubric?

And here’s where the liberating thought occurs. If I decide that Kohn is right, what have I got to lose by trying to evaluate writing in a different way? If the goal is truly to re-form education, maybe we need to try some outlandish measures, even at a bastion of excellence such as The University on Dry Creek. And it’s not the young, probationary firebrand who needs to shake the tree of knowledge; it’s the seasoned, soon-to-be-superannuated codger. The best time to try new things is in the evening. What’s the worst that could happen – that they’d ask you to retire and not have to get up at 5:30 every morning?


  • At Sun Apr 06, 07:41:00 PM 2008, Blogger Karl Fisch said…

    Fifteen years ago Alfie was thinking - and writing - mostly about competition and rewards. I'm sure if he had known we were wondering about rubrics he would've tried to get to them sooner. Better late than never, I guess.

    I wonder, though, if "common assessment" has to equate with "rubric"? I don't think it does. I think common assessment means (to me) that there is a core set of essential understandings and that we should all (that's the common part) assess (that's the assessment part) how well our students are understanding them (not in an effort to grade them, but in an effort to deepen and further their understandings). Easier said than done, I know.

    I myself wonder, of course, if there even is a core set of essential understandings and, if there is, how do we determine them and are they unchanging or malleable? But at the moment I'm willing to suspend my wonder and assume that there is, and that we can more or less agree on them (as long as we limit ourselves to "essential" meaning few, not "essential" meaning 127 of them).

    At this point I'm not sure if shaking is what the tree of knowledge needs, although some pruning might be in order. Mostly I think we should be worried that perhaps we can't see the forest for the tree(s) . . .

  • At Tue Apr 08, 07:23:00 AM 2008, Blogger lgaffney said…

    I found frustrations in this article too, Terry, but for different reasons. I agree with Kohn when he says "We have to do more than reconsider rubrics. We have to reassess the whole enterprise of assessment, the goal being to make sure it's consistent with the reason we go into teaching in the first place". I noticed, however, that the article ended there without offering a viable solution.
    I don't think anyone in education, including me, the Queen of Rubrics, would argue that rubrics are a solution for students' obsession with grades. To deduce them, however, to "a tool to promote standardization, to turn teachers into grading machines or at least allow them to pretend that what they are doing is exact and objective" (Kohn)does not give us rubric-users enough credit. We don't use rubrics for us, we use them for kids, to help make our learning objectives more transparent. Keeping this important objective in mind, I don't think anyone could argue that rubrics allow students to focus more on the grade than, say, simply writing "B" and some comments on a paper does. To me, this is the "gotcha" method of grading to which Kohn refers, the method where we do not make our learning objectives clear but evaluate our students on the premise that they do.
    Again, I am not saying rubrics are the answer. It is not, however, rubrics that are the problem, but rather our students' indoctrinated obsession with grades.


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