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July 18, 2018

Exploring the Power of Rubrics

Courtney Reynolds, Senior Learning Designer

Rubrics are a powerful tool for continuous feedback and enabling student agency. Senior Learning Designer Courtney Reynolds shares how rubrics can transform a classroom.

A few years ago, just after the book Wonder was published, my upper elementary students and I became infatuated with quotes of the day. Taking a cue from Mr. Browne’s Precepts, we began incorporating a daily quote into our morning meeting routine. Each morning, a student would share a quote and we would reflect on its meaning in our mindfulness journals. One quote catalyzed such a powerful conversation that we decided to frame it and hang it prominently on our wall: Don’t go with the flow, be the flow.

Lab and partner school educators share the books that are inspiring them.

Flow, Interrupted

When my students dissected this quote, they began to understand the duality of confidence and humility and the balance between purpose and open-mindedness. One student asked us to visualize a hiker reading a map: The hiker could follow the trail or venture off the beaten path—the choice was hers. What mattered most was that she had the agency to act and the path forward was within her locus of control.

Read more: VP of Learning Colleen Broderick discusses strategies to enable learner agency.

“Be the flow” became our mantra. It’s how my students reminded one another to own their true selves and model grace and compassion. It’s also how I reminded myself to create learning experiences that enabled students to find their own flow.

After hearing their personal interpretations of flow and reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, I defined a flow-inspiring learning experience as one in which students felt a clarity of purpose and could use feedback to inform their own trajectory. I posed two questions: When do my students have the opportunity to be the flow? And when is their flow interrupted? The answer to the second question popped into my mind immediately: during assessment.

Assessment can be a mystery, even for teachers. It’s such a mystery that in their call to action on formative assessment, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam referred to assessment—or more accurately the treatment of assessment in the classroom—as a black box. At the time Black and Wiliam published “Inside the Black Box,” educators and researchers were beginning to grapple with how feedback from assessments can be used for learning, and more importantly, how students could use it as learning.

Learn more: The benefits of continuous assessment over testing.

Formulating Rubrics

At AltSchool we are also exploring how students can use assessments to inform their own learning and reach a state of flow. In the fall of 2017, a cross-functional team of educators, engineers, and product designers set out to study the relationship between feedback and formative assessment. We entered into this study standing on the shoulders of giants; we knew from educational thought leaders like Black and Wiliam, Rick Stiggins, and John Hattie that feedback was an integral part of formative assessment. But we wanted to know how we could best ingrain learner-centered feedback and assessment into our classrooms and the design of our platform, which is also used in partner schools.

Read more about Our Vision for Lab Schools.

We used three questions we found in Hattie’s Visible Learning—Where am I going? Where am I now? What do I do next?—to ground the design of learner-centered feedback and assessment strategies. The “I” in each of those questions represents the student. For assessment to engender a sense of flow, students need a clear vision of what they want to achieve, an opportunity to use feedback to take stock of where they are, and the agency to take the next step. To provide students opportunity to ask and answer these questions, we turned to rubrics.

What Rubrics Look Like in the Classroom

Educators created analytic rubrics to help students zoom in on specific details, and general rubrics to help students build transferable competencies. At our Fort Mason campus, Upper Elementary Educator Kelsey Simpson co-created an analytic rubric with her students to support their study of geography. Students used leveled exemplars and clear criteria in each row of the rubric, such as “scale” and “geographic terms,” to assist in their analysis and self-assessment. With this rubric, students were able to monitor their own work and provide rich, descriptive feedback to their peers. The rubric became the students’ map; like the hiker who had the agency to find her best path, students used the rubric to unlock the mystery of their own learning.

Kelsey’s classroom is one of many classrooms in the AltSchool network exploring the power of rubrics. When I visit these classrooms I am struck by the ease with which students give each other feedback, and how alive the classrooms feel. The students in these classrooms have struck a balance between individuality and community; they know who they are and also act in service of others. Rubrics alone do not create this environment, but they are one piece of a larger strategy for creating learner-centered environments. As we explore this larger strategy, we continue to question, iterate, and innovate with the goal of helping all students find their individual flow.

VP of Learning Colleen Brodrick discusses the five elements of learner-centric education.
And learn more about our lab schools and our partner school program.

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