Wednesday, April 25, 2012


(This the seventeenth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

I had it in mind to return to a subject I have written about before: the idea of Quality.  By way of introduction to the subject at hand, here's a quotation from a post I wrote four years ago:

There's a passage about midway through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which Pirsig identifies as being a defining moment in his thinking: He's visiting the building in which he spent the early part of his teaching career, and he recalls a colleague, Sarah, who "came trotting by with her watering pot...going from the corridor to her office, and she said "I hope you are teaching Quality to your students." This is a la-de-da, singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal." 

Much of the rest of the novel recounts Pirsig's pursuit of the what might be called the question of Quality: what it is, how you recognize it, how you produce it, how you teach it.

So that's the question I would like to return to today. It's been my observation that many classrooms the traditional (and understandable) focus on the teaching and learning of skills and procedures serves to marginalize what I have come to see as the more important consideration: is the work we are doing ultimately any good? If so, good for what? Good how? And who gets to make that determination?

In doing the work of school, whether a homework assignment or a paper or a project or a video, there are many kinds of quality to which a student might conceivably aspire: quality in thinking; quality in workmanship; quality in presentation and delivery; quality in terms of audience impact, of engagement and satisfaction, of lessons learned.

The problem is, teachers themselves do not generally, as a matter of course, make a point of discussing these quality options with students, nor do the students as matter of course make a point of targeting for themselves particular quality indicators, much less of assessing themselves on how nearly they approached their quality targets.

Some teachers, it's true, do use rubrics, and what is a rubric if not a listing of quality indicators? But generally the rubrics I see are a) more limited in their scope than even the very tentative list I assayed above, b) not usually customized to reflect the goals and inclinations of individual students and c) often internally inconsistent in terms of the choice and organization of categories and the relative weight assigned to each. 

One of the most popular and time-honored of rubrics, the so called "six trait" rubric for writing is a prime example of this organizational confusion. The six traits vary from version to version, but most of them have a list something like this: ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions. I'm not going to get into a deconstruction of that list, which would take far more time and energy than I have available right now, but consider, just for starters, these questions:

• Given that the presence or absence of an organizational plan and of the conventional use of words are observable "traits" of a piece of writing, which of the other four is categorically consistent with those two?

• What is an idea? Is it possible to write anything which is entirely devoid of ideas?

• What exactly does "voice" mean? How is it different, ultimately, from "word choice?"

• What is the difference between "word choice" and "sentence fluency?" Doesn't one determine the other? Why are they separate categories?

More importantly, what about other quality indicators like specificity or relevance or originality or emotional weight or breadth or depth? It's beyond me a fuzzy, hodge-podgy rubric like the "six trait rubric" became the default standard for quality discrimination with regard to writing in schools. And to the extent that the thinking in the rubric itself is wooly and approximate and categorically inconsistent, how can it help but send the message to students that the discipline of writing itself must necessarily be all of these things? 

Something else I don't like about rubrics, especially rubrics used in common in a class setting. If as a teacher you introduce them after the fact, the students can claim, with some justification, that they didn't know what they were going to be evaluated on before they did the work, and that the use of a rubric they had not anticipated is therefore unfair. On the other hand, if you introduce the rubric beforehand, it artificializes the work process in odd and potentially disturbing ways. Does any artist, does any writer, does any engineer or scientist or historian begin work on a project with a rubric in mind? Not in my experience. One begins the work with the goal of coming up with something good, something interesting, something satisfying, something of quality. It's helpful to know, in a general way, what your primary objectives are. But, as the proponents of the Design Thinking process tell us, it's important, in the early stages especially, to go broad, to try consider a lot of out-of-the-box ideas, and in fact to make mistakes, "failing forward," so that by failing earlier when the stakes are lower you wind up with a higher-quality product later on.

Which is not to say that a rubric cannot have its uses. I think that at some point in the process, it is important for students individually to identify and articulate what kinds of quality they hope to attain in their work, and to share that aspiration with their peers and with the teacher. That could easily take the form of a rubric. (Or not.) The point is, if I as a teacher know what a student is trying to accomplish, I'm in a much better position to give that student useful, targeted feedback in process than if I am working from a generic, one-size-fits-all rubric.

One last point: quality doesn't inhere simply and specifically in the work produced, or in the person doing the work. It has something to do with the interaction between the two, the way in which this particular work engages the best interests of this particular person at this particular time. As Pirsig says, "Quality couldn't be independently related with either the subject or the object, but could be found only in the relationship of the two with each other. It is the point at which subject and object meet."

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