On many occasions I've labored over word choice, lusted after the perfect sound and connotation, pausing publication and missing deadlines, even when the word seemed of little value in the grand scheme of the text. So maybe I'm biased... but I find it painful when words, especially those critical to the topic, are carelessly tossed out to an eager audience from a perceived expert. A result lost in translation I could let go, eventually, but too often real harm can be done when we are not precise with our words and their definitions. After all, the lure or perception is stronger than that of reality. In education, where practice is shifting in directions far from the norm, clear communication is critical. Without it, the much-needed growth of our profession runs the risk of stalling out or moving backwards due to fear and misunderstanding.
Last week, at the NAGC conference in Indianapolis, I attended a session about failure and resiliency. The audience, a mix of educators and parents. The presenter had a background in counseling, and offered great resources in this domain. The lecture shifted into discussion, and the presenter made an off-hand comment about how rubrics are bad for kids. As my work in the standards-based movement focused heavily on effective use of mastery or performance level rubrics, I followed this strand with rapt attention. It became apparent quickly that what she was repeatedly calling a rubric was really a product descriptor, scoring guide, or checklist indicating for the student what elements, like a title page or number of paragraph and resources, needed to be included in an assignment in order to meet the requirements. As she spoke of the evils of rubrics on a student's motivation, heads were nodding in agreement. I imagined the fuel gathering in each to combat those crazy teachers and administrators who are not doing it like my teachers did, and felt the misunderstanding spread without clarification of what a rubric is.
I opted to clarify. "What you're describing isn't a rubric as currently defined. It's a product descriptor. These are two different things with different purposes. An evaluation or expectation of product quality, detailed in a product descriptor, should be separate from an assessment of the performance level or mastery of standards, described in a rubric." Silence was followed by a very brief acknowledgement by the presenter, "Oh my gosh, you are so right," and then a complete change in topic. Two different understandings of rubrics probably walked out of that session: fellow educators who recognized the distinction between rubrics and other scoring guides, and parents now more confused about what a rubric is and is not than before. I can only hope all present feel a stronger conviction to seek clarification of word meaning in the future.
When we encounter words we don't completely understand, a surface application of context clues without critical reading/analysis leaves us content to think we know enough of what a word means by way of applied synonyms. In reality, the subtle relationship of language and audience and purpose means we often know just enough to not know anything at all, but believe there is nothing further to understand.
by Erin Croley
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