Creative negotiated rubrics

The role of rubrics in teaching is not up for debate. Complex tasks need to be analyzed by categories and clear criteria. However, I have found that they sometimes become little more than checklist of instructions on how to complete a task rather than tools for understanding, reflection, and assessment.

My solution is to use blank rubrics. You might think that a blank rubric isn’t a rubric at all, and you would be correct if the purpose of the rubric were only to evaluate a learning artifact. If the rubric itself is a learning tool, then a blank rubric is a rich opportunity for discussion and critical evaluation.

Peer assessment with negotiated rubric criteria
Summative assessment tasks, in particular, benefit from this type of rubric. The categories have been in focus throughout the unit, and have usually been assessed in a more prescribed manner in a previous task. As a summative assessment task should be an opportunity for students to exercise choice and creativity in how they present their understanding, it would be impractical to create specific criteria that could apply to any artifact.

Assessment as learning

Students work in groups to experience a peer’s presentation of their learning and discuss the success of the artifact according to each category. They agree on a score and write in the appropriate boxes the specific elements that support their evaluation.
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The assessments are completed in groups of three or four, so every presenter receives at least six separate rubrics which have been completed in this manner. The results are always honest and accurate, especially when averaged and analyzed in detail.
When assessments seem mistaken or vary notably from the norm, a problem that often occurs when a group hasn’t focused or applied enough thought to their findings, a teachable moment to review the categories and criteria arises.
I have observed that students enhance their conceptual understandings of a unit immensely through this process of peer assessment with creative negotiated rubrics.
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Student Survey analysis 2016

This year, my Student Survey results held few surprises (link to view last year’s Student survey analysis). Items directly related to me, such as ‘My teacher cares about me’, were positive. Generally, 70-80% of students answered ‘usually’ with very few, most often only one student, answering ‘no’.

Listening to students

One surprise was the response to the statement, ‘My teacher listens to me.’, to which 48% of my students think I only ‘sometimes’ listen to them. Slightly baffled, I reflected on my practice and identified a few of my behaviors that could lead to this result.

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First, as a rule, I ignore students when they suddenly shout across the classroom, begin asking a question without saying ‘excuse me’ or otherwise catching my attention, and especially interrupt other students. I can easily understand how a child could perceive that I am not listening to them because in some cases, I intentionally don’t listen in order to cultivate a culture in the classroom of politeness.

Of students who responded ‘sometimes’ or ‘no’, their overall average response was only 69% positive, meaning that those who responded negatively to this item were also negative to most of the other items. Of those who don’t feel that I ‘usually’ listen to them, 69% also don’t feel free to ask and answer questions, a tenuous correlation.

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As a simple action plan, I would follow the steps below.

1 Observe if and when I don’t listen to students.
2 Make more explicit that I sometimes ignore students speaking to me if they are acting disrespectfully or impolitely.
3 Reinforce our classroom essential agreement – which was composed, synthesized, and signed by all of the students – about being Open-minded Communicators.

We are Open-Minded Communicators.

We have a right to share our opinions and feelings.

We have a responsibility to show respect by listening and practicing empathy.

I would also note that of all of the classes I have taught in nine years, this is by far the most needy. During any written assessment, there is a constant queue at my desk and barrages of hands in the air asking for help. My email box is also consistently populated by emails from students asking to send PDFs of lost homework and other requests for favors which I politely decline. It is possible that their concept of the role of a teacher is significantly different than mine.

Choice and agency

A difference in expectations might illuminate another perplexing survey item result to the statement, ‘My teacher allows me to demonstrate my understanding in various ways.’

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For their first unit Summative Assessment Task, students had the instruction to ‘Present your research findings in an appropriate medium of your choice (written report, video, poster, dance, cooking, etc).’

Almost everyone in the class chose to do an oral presentation with a poster or PowerPoint for visual support. The remaining two students submitted written reports. Although this may only be a case of carefully reading and following instructions, I feel justified in being somewhat annoyed.

Respect and classroom behavior

I was shocked to discover their responses to the statement, ‘Students are respectful to each other in my class.’

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Only two students think that their peers ‘usually’ treat each other with respect, and almost a quarter feel that their class is always disrespectful. The same holds true for their perceptions of classroom behavior.

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When I asked if anyone wanted to learn in a class like the one shown above, no one responded.

I have discussed these results with my grade level team, administration, and the precious grade teachers. All assured me that the students’ feelings about their community are absolutely about complex social dynamics. In brief, this class has too many ‘alphas’ and not enough empathy. This is a case study to test my ability to cultivate social and emotional intelligence. And a fair and timely challenge it is.

A future post will detail the reflection and data informed action plan I have set into motion to help this learning community to become more Caring.

I would certainly appreciate anecdotes and suggestions that might more brightly illuminate a path forward.

‘Level up’ transdisciplinary skills

In the IB Primary years program, ‘Transdisciplinary skills’ play a critical role in planning, teaching, and assessing student learning. However, they are not often explicitly taught and when they are, it is usually in an isolated manner. For example, one might teach a mini lesson about ‘gather data’ as part of a unit of inquiry.

To reinforce the transdisciplinary nature of the skills and provide more opportunities for students to reflect and discuss them together, I designed a slightly gamified system.

Each skill is posted on the wall with an eight by one square grid underneath.

Each square represents a level. Every Friday, students are invited to nominate a skill to ‘level up’ and support their choice with examples from the week. For instance, a student could suggest that we have increased our ‘organizing data’ skill by learning how to use a new type of graph.

Each colored box represents a brief class reflection and discussion of a particular way to practice a skill.



The learning around this simple chart in barely ten minutes per week has been incredible, and occasionally students comment during class that we are practicing a certain skill.

Another benefit is that as our skill levels grow, it becomes more difficult to achieve higher levels. In the photo above, ‘Listening’ is at level seven with only one space to go. Many nominations have been made, but I have had to politely decline and explain that to achieve the final level of Listening, a new innovation will need to be discovered. I’m holding out for some expression of active listening, questioning or paraphrasing to improve clarity and understanding in communication.

Our skills reflection routine, for its minimal investment of time and materials, has provided opportunities to explore the nuances of each skill and highlight the importance of applying them in diverse contexts.

Perhaps before the end of the school year, we will finally level up the elusive Metacognition.