To Rubric or Not To Rubric? Should that be the Question?

In Apollo 13, the movie, there is a scene where the scientists on the ground are trying to solve a problem that the astronauts in space are  The scientists have specific parameters of the problem, and are given the same resources that the astronauts have to solve the problem (Thanks to 4cDesign for providing this clip, via Youtube):


I suspect that if the scientists broke up into two different groups, they would have come up with two different solutions; three different groups, three different solutions. That is not to say that some of their solutions would be wrong. On the contrary, there are probably many different solutions to this problem.  As long as they all work, one is not more correct than another (although there may be better solutions).

My classroom looks much like this scene, sometimes much to my students' chagrin.  When we study a new issue, concept, era or problem in History, I usually introduce it like this clip.  Of course, I first ensure that my students are ready to tackle such problems.  We spend a lot of time working on essential, foundational skill:  reading comprehension, critical analysis of primary sources, questioning, and acquiring background knowledge of the important historical facts. So, when my students are asked to apply what they have learned, they are ready, much like the NASA scientists.

The good news is that my students are usually eager to jump in and try to solve historical problems, much like the scientists in the movie, (after the requisite complaining and consternation).  Because it is essential for my students to experience trial and error, while on their way to an acceptable solution, I do not provide them with specific, step by step instructions or a detailed rubric.  In fact, a rubric in my class includes the ultimate goal (in other words, the essential question, or the problem to be analyzed) and a due date.  I may have some required elements, like a tech tool for presentation, a 3-5 page explanation (with citations) of their work, and a reflection at the end, but even those elements can limit their thinking.

I have found that students will come up with many different solutions, when given the opportunity to think creatively.  In my experience, a rubric quashes creative, independent thought.  In my experience, a rubric produces multiple look-alike solutions. In my experience, a rubric ensures that students do not reach for the stars since they work the problem by checking off the required boxes rather than forging their own solutions. 

When I have provided a rubric, students do the work that is required of them, and nothing more.  When I introduce a problem or an issue to investigate, without further direction, students are more thoughtful in their approach.  Without an itemized rubric, I get to see what my students have learned, their thought-processes, and their creativity or special talents.  When students' work product is controlled through my rubric, I see only my own solutions or perspective reflected in the work product. 

When I give my students the latitude to work the problem on their own, I give them the opportunity to grow and to understand the issues more deeply than if I give them the blueprint to a solution. When I give my students problems with nothing but an ultimate goal, they produce excellent, creative and successful work, much like the NASA scientists in the clip.

As with all things, teaching and learning is a process.  Comments?  Suggestions?



I like rubrics, and here's why. They are as flexible as the person who is using them, and they stop teachers from caring too much about certain things and/or from being too influenced by preconceptions of the student. A rubric for a project doesn't have to say, for example, "includes 4 definitions and 8 images," but instead could say "material is thoroughly explained and aesthetically pleasing/visually represented." This gives the students and teacher maximum flexibility while providing some guidelines (like in your Apollo example "astronauts must be able to breathe" would be the end parameter, how the achieve that matters less). It can also stop teachers from placing too much emphasis on certain aspects of a project (sometimes without us realizing it). For example, when i had students write a research paper, I really wanted them to focus on having 1: enough sources, 2: good quality sources, 3: proper citations and bibliography, and 4: Analysis of source materials. As such, I created a rubric that weighted these more heavily than other criteria (creativity, spelling/grammar, style). I found that, as a reader, I cared more about style and thought I was overly swayed (and more likely to reward) a well-written paper than one that was poorly written, but made a better attempt to analyze the source materials. So my feeling is, go ahead and rubric. It's a good tool when well used. It can be as flexible as you can be, so spend some time and create a good one, it will keep on giving back to you and your students.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I tend to agree with your idea of a rubric, one that is quite open ended, and that has necessary or required elements, but is not nitpicky. The detailed, step-by-step rubrics are ones that I avoid.

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