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Assessment, Opinion, Promising Practices

Drawing our Rubrics with Dotted Lines

On what is NOT captured by our assessment and evaluation processes

I don’t think that I would be revealing any secrets if I told you that my mother has always been a better baker than a cook. Even to this day, she will call me when it comes to cooking the Sunday roast, but no one in the family—and I mean no one—can hold a candle to her butter tarts or rhubarb pie. 

As a child, my ears were keenly-tuned to all sounds associated with baking: mixing bowls being stealthily removed from cupboards, the special flour sifter with the red wooden handle, the electric mixer—these were all cues to drop what I was doing and head to the kitchen to investigate. Sometimes, my curiosity would be rewarded with the chance to act as “batter taster”. But mostly it was all about the opportunity to watch Mom effortlessly (and without a recipe in front of her) mix, blend and knead to perfection!

I was always amazed at how efficiently she was able to work. She didn’t like wasting anything. In fact, some of my favourite treats were the ones that were created with the extra dough, filling and icing sugar that Mom collected prior to clean-up. These would be molded into no particular shape, tossed in the oven and put on a plate to cool. For Mom this, no doubt, resonated with the way that she was brought up, born as she was in post-depression/pre-WWII Hamilton. For me, however, there was something creative about her ability to see the potential in what wasn’t used as part of the main recipe.

These images came back to me last weekend, inspired by a couple of seemingly unrelated experiences. First, this past Sunday was Mother’s Day, and I always enjoy sharing these “growing up” stories with my own children. But these memories enabled a second type of connection.

There were two occasions in the past week where I was asked to make use of an assessement/evaluation rubric to, on the one hand, evaluate performances at a Battle of the Bands competition and, on the other, to help my seven year-old son prepare for an upcoming culminating task at school. (I realize how far apart these strands of thought might seem!)

In both “rubric” cases, I experienced a certain level of frustration, not because of what I was being asked to look at in terms of student performance. As rubrics go, both were clear, concise and well-constructed. 

My frustration came from what might be missed if I focused only on the descriptions in the rubric categories. What subtleties or nuances in a particular musical performance might be filtered out? What do I do with the fact that the drummer had a unique way of holding the band together? What might my son’s teacher miss about his enthusiasm for a particular part of the assignment? What happens with the connections that he was able to make with other elements of his life? How do we account for the “spaces” that exist in between levels on the rubric?

I realize that these are not new questions. People have been asking them ever since the use of rubrics came into vogue in the mid-90’s. And, hopefully, we won’t stop asking them. To be sure, the idea of clearly defining for students, educators and parents what quality performance looks and sounds like has pushed the conversation on assessment forward a great deal.

At the same time, howevever, I’ve allowed these questions to bump up against my reading of Stuart Kauffman and, in particular, his work on emergence. The wonderful quote with which I ended my last entry resonates:

Not only do we not know what will happen, we often don’t even know what can happen.

Granted, Kauffman is talking about much larger systems than our classrooms and schools. But I think that there are some parallels that might be helpful in pushing our thinking a little. Just as we are, slowly but surely, being forced to admit that classical physics doesn’t hold all of the answers (or questions) when we start talking about the universe in terms of complexity, I also wonder whether we need to start attending to the fact that there is a lot more than can happen in the learning lives of our students when we loosen up the boundaries set by our curriculum expectations, our success criteria and, yes, our rubrics. 

How do we hold true to the importance and value of establishing performance standards and criteria for our students while, at the same time, being aware of the wonderful things may be filtered out of our assessment and evaluation processes? How do we ensure that our efforts to inspire and guide our students do not become a type of cookie cutter template that leaves lots of good stuff on the baker’s table? How can we use more dotted lines to draw our rubrics, opening our assessment processes up to what can happen

Are we ready for that? Are you already doing that? I would love to hear your stories! 

Meet the Expert

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voiceED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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