In the good old days, teachers assigned students to write a summary of Huckleberry Finn. With no further instructions, students dutifully wrote up their summary and turned it in on Friday. The following Friday, they received their paper back, covered in red ink fixing their spelling errors with a note at the end, “Good job Billy. Think about voice. B+”
At some point, perhaps after watching Billy crumple up that paper and toss it in the trash, teachers began to think that there must be a better way to help students produce higher quality work, which after all, is the whole idea. The idea of a rubric was born.
Rubrics are better than the good old days, because through a rubric, teachers outline clear expectations of what is expected across multiple dimensions of the work. It’s not just reducing the entire assignment to a 78 out of 100. Teachers provide descriptive statements of what makes for an effective presentation in terms of clear speaking voice, helpful visuals, posture, correct information, and so on.
Yet after years of wading through rubrics where every item has almost one hundred identical words, differentiated only by “Student always… Student often… Student sometimes…” some of us have begun to feel that there must be a better way.
About five years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Ron Berger, the man Howard Fuller calls “one of the most remarkable teachers in America today,” who helped me understand the power of showing students models of what we want. I have seen how models help students produce higher quality work, which after all, is the whole idea.
But when I describe this approach to others, I have been stunned by the ferocity of the criticisms. “It kills student creativity!” “They just copy the model; they don’t learn to do it for themselves!”
These critics raise an excellent question: is merely reproducing others work a good way to learn how to do something? I think of examples from my own life.
As a physics major, writing does not always come easily to me. When I attended the University of California, Santa Barbara to earn a master’s degree in Education, I was asked to write like an academic. But I didn’t really know how to write like an academic. My first attempts were clumsy and stilted. The main idea, as far as I could tell, seemed to be, “Write in such a way as to obfuscate what you are actually trying to say.” In the meantime, I was reading hundreds of academic papers. Over time, as I read more and more professional academics, I began to get the idea. Over the course of my degree, my writing steadily improved, perhaps partially from feedback from my professors, but mostly I believe because I imitated the style of other educational researchers.
I have played basketball from early childhood up to and including my still regular 4:30 am game on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I was a basketball coach for fifteen years, coaching boys and girls from kindergarten through college. A conversation with Ron Berger helped me understand the difference between rubrics and models when it comes to basketball.
Imagine the basketball coach fresh from a workshop, her mind full of new ideas about assessment. “I need to be clear with my players about what is expected of them,” she remembers. “I should create a rubric!”
|Jump stops||When coming to a stop while dribbling the basketball, the player occasionally picks up both feet while the ball is still in the air and then lands with both feet simultaneously while at the same time grabbing the ball with both hands.||When coming to a stop while dribbling the basketball, the player often picks up both feet while the ball is still in the air and then lands with both feet simultaneously while at the same time grabbing the ball with both hands.||When coming to a stop while dribbling the basketball, the player always picks up both feet while the ball is still in the air and then lands with both feet simultaneously while at the same time grabbing the ball with both hands.|
Having passed out the rubric to her players, she sends them home to do their homework confident that the players will quickly learn how to effectively execute the jump stop. She looks forward to their first game.
The example is absurd on its face. No coach would ever do this. This is because the coach wants her players to get better at basketball. And this wouldn’t be the best way to teach a student how to jump stop. Instead, the coach would show her players what an expert jump stop looks like. Then she would have her students practice doing it exactly the way that she did. When they didn’t do it quite right, she would say, “Watch me!” She would demonstrate again. Through a process of repeatedly modeling the jump stop and giving players a chance to copy her, the coach helps her players learn how to successfully execute the jump stop.
I took piano and trumpet lessons as a child, where I learned how to play the notes on the page. For the past year, I have been learning how to play jazz music from a most unconventional piano teacher.
Recently, I was having trouble playing the following piece of music.
In measure two, I wasn’t exactly sure how to play the rhythm of the descending E flat, D, C, A. I asked my piano teacher. He could have done what my old band director in middle school used to do, which was rap his music stand with his baton while yelling at me “one e and a, two e and a!” Instead he said, “Sometimes it’s easier just to show you.” He sat down at the piano and played the part for me. “Ahhh!” I said.
Of course, in the meantime, I continue to get better at reading music by sight and counting out the melody line. But sometimes, it’s easier just to listen to a model.
What about creativity? Jazz music, if anything, is about creativity, improvisation, and doing it as it has never been done before. “It comes from within you,” my piano teacher exhorts. “What do you want to say?” “Nothing,” I think sadly.
So I continue to plunk out my boring solos, and yet each week they get a little better. Why do they get better? I am obsessed with jazz. I listen exclusively to jazz 88 in the car. To my wife’s chagrin, we only listen to internet jazz stations over dinner. Sounds of Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and Fats Waller fill my head. I labor to imitate these jazz greats and mostly I try to copy what my music teacher does. I have started videotaping him each week so I can pore over his solos and try to put a few of his moves into my playing. I don’t know that I will become a jazz master, but I do know that in the past two weeks, I have begun humming to myself as I walk around school. I am starting to think of something to say.
Rubrics have a place and have value. To be clear, teachers should provide clear guidelines of what is expected of students, and rubrics are one way to do so. In particular, working with students to co-develop what is expected of them can be a particularly effective technique. But beyond rubrics, even more important are models. If the point is for students to produce high quality work, then we need to show our students examples of what we are looking for. Their own individuality and creativity will follow.
Think through your own life. Have you ever learned by imitating a master? By following their model? Please comment below.