I tried to write a bit about "Criteria" a while ago, but I stopped short. My head was full and I just wanted to publish the post and put it behind me. I couldn't seem to put my thoughts into words. But it's still on my mind so I'm going to give it a shot again.
The criteria line-of-thought is largely to do with my thoughts in response to Peter Coffin's "Meritocracy" video, embedded below.
The video generally highlights the arbitrary nature of "criteria" and the ways we arbitrarily create criteria and credit those who subsequently meet said criteria. In that video, he works carefully around politics and popular culture.
But when I think about criteria, I think about education. I've been teaching for... 13 years or so now, largely in English. Despite most people's impression of English as a "literature" and "composition" field, ultimately English courses are literacy courses, no matter what level we're working at. One's ability to be literate dictates their success in English.
But literacy, on its own, is not easy to assess. I tend to say it's "slushy," insofar as there's something thick and murky about pinning a number to one's ability to read and write. This creates the classic English problem: there's no simple "right or wrong answer" in most of what we do in an English class. So how do we assess and evaluate something so slushy?
We use criteria. Whenever I've attended a professional development workshop, or taken a pedagogy course, they've drilled the need to "make criteria clear" in order to make it "authentic." "Make it clear to your students how you intend to mark them, and the specific things you'll look for in your assessment and evaluation. Then students will know what they need to do to succeed." And for years I've stood by this. I've done my best to make my criteria clear.
Oftentimes, I use rubrics. Some rubrics are charts that describe different aspects of something and allow a teacher to easily tally a score—3/4 for style, 2/4 for content, etc.; some rubrics are simple numbers with explanations, like the BC Ministry of Education's 6-point scoring guide for the recently abandoned English final examinations. I often adapt these official rubrics for my own assignments in an effort to "standardize" my evaluation. In the words of some of the courses I took for education in University, this helps make evaluation more "authentic." I have spent countless hours creating rubrics over the years, just trying, trying to make them work.
But no matter how "authentic" and "standardized" I try to make my evaluation, no matter how much time I put into it, "authentic" marking is a myth. The appeal to authenticity is always problematic and does not stand up to scrutiny. And if the foundation of authenticity is problematic, the scaffolding—rubrics, criteria, etc.—crumbles. If authenticity doesn't work, neither do the rubrics and methods that we've used to achieve that authenticity.
Authenticity is a myth that most of us educators fall for because it's easy. Rubrics, under the guise of authenticity, cover our butts from scrutiny. When we use a rubric and share it with the students, it decreases the chance that people will question what we're doing. Students will feel stupid if they don't get it, and parents will feel justified in blaming the student for not meeting expectations. "They gave you the criteria! Why didn't you succeed? What are you, lazy?" No one has the time or will to go through a rubric and see whether it works, so we can lean heavily on them.
Recently, there's been a drive to make sure student expectations are written in student-friendly language. Fair enough. It's good when students can understand what they're doing, But student-friendly language doesn't make marking more legitimate. If we're assessing something artificial, the results will be artificial as well. Education gurus say "don't just give the rubric—give feedback," because feedback is what helps students move forward.
So why do the rubric at all? Why create a bunch of criteria that will create artificial results? I don't see the reason for all this criteria anymore. In English class, I don't see any evidence that students learn from it. Why bother then?
This year, despite the amount of work it leaves me, I've moved away from rubrics. I'm getting students to write in MLA format so I can write all over their work, and I'm giving written comments at the end. My assessment for larger, edited assignments is essentially some comments and a general letter grade, a letter I can translate to a number in the marks. I feel like I'm remembering more about the students' writing and thinking, and they have a little more to respond to. And the unity in using MLA format for submissions works as the levelled playing field. I don't have to play the authenticity card anymore because there's no rubric to appeal to: what matters is "did your work improve" and "what can you do o make it better." That's it.
No more artificial, mythical criteria; no more box-creating, ridiculous rubrics.
For now. Until I need to cover my butt.
By the way, I think a lot of the drive towards rubrics and whatnot stems from the forces of "21st Century Education," which essentially posits that students will need to be creative tech users in order to succeed in the future we're creating. I've often liked the incentives of 21st Century Education—the job skills, the focus on creativity, the praise of malleability—but I've often found it problematic as well.
21st Century Learning is a corporate-capital-driven program that has perpetuated itself under the banner of "preparing young people for an uncertain future." But it's always, always a corporate future. But I've never been able to put my concerns into words.
I started reading B.J. Mendelson's Privacy. He's got the beginnings of it in a throwaway line right near the beginning of the book:
Corporations have snuck their way into education up here in Canada too.
What I find most insidious about it is this: they've been able to sneak in by rebuilding the framework altogether through all this 21st Century Education stuff. And here we are, trying to make an assembly line that will essentially feed the pop Capitalist system.
And in that system, the Silicon Valley tech leader is king. And the more we lean in this direction, the more we cater to those Silicon Valley Values.
Just look through the "Framework for 21st Century Education." It's essentially a Silicon Valley resumé.
Just some food for thought.
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