Rubrics, Rubik’s

It always struck me as weird that EFL teachers, once they get trained, start using technical terminology that sounds silly. Like “Rubric”, which always meant “lesson” in the old days but now seems to be “ranking system” or “evaluation system”, especially one with explicit markers to measure competency level. Me, I’m growing fundamentally opposed to any non-crucial grading, since grades, as an arbitrary and artificial system of hierarchic ranking, mostly distract people from the more useful feedback they receive.

It’s a pragmatic objection as much as a philosophical one, here, since in my experience Korean students are conditioned to focus on grades to the exclusion of everything else even more than your average North American student. But even so, in the real world — both in Korea and elsewhere — the fact is that we do evaluate people. We evaluate competence and productivity, and we almost never rank effort for much. If a one armed person wants to master drumming, he needs to find a way to make up for the missing arm, and if that means taking off one shoe, then so be it. Effort and passion still need to translate to results. When those results are idiosyncratic, it’s not a bad thing: in fact, many competent people actively use their limitations to produce their work in a unique or more interesting — more successful — way.

Effort without results, in other words, counts for little. Results, however, are evaluated in three basic zones:

  • “Damn, that’s amazing!”
  • “Damn, that’s horrible!” and
  • A broad zone of, “Well, not bad, but it could be better” in between the former two responses.

Seeing people who are really good at something drives this home. For example, if you watch the section of the following clip, starting from about 2:04 in, you see some college guys who are frightening masters of the Rubik’s Cube:

That’s amazing, isn’t it? The amount of practice, concentration, and mastery involved is somewhat mind-blowing to me. (Though I’m not sure I understand why they dedicated it to mastering a toy, I’m still somehow undeniably impressed.)

Now, think about this: these guys didn’t master the Rubik’s Cube in a class. No besuited and bespectacled professor taught them how to solve a cube with their eyes covered. A few fanatics figured it out, theorized, modeled, and developed techniques, and then they taught each other. It’s unremarkable only because this kind of learning is amazingly common all around us. Skateboarders who can perform hair-raising stunts all learned them this way. Computer hackers also work in a (virtual, textualized) oral tradition of sorts. Musicians — the whole history of music as a human endeavour, as opposed to a ghettoed academic discipline that’s blind to the outside world and the majorituy of the music in it — has been a continuous series of transmission through these means.

Isn’t it curious that for things that matter relatively less, like how to play power chords on a guitar or pop a wheelie on a BMX bike, we wholeheartedly embrace the idea that learning should be from peers, unguided by apparent authorities, ungraded, and evaluated wholly on terms of ability — either you can do these things, or you can’t yet do them — and yet when it comes to things that matter more, like the ability to design a bridge or write competently in a foreign language, we have accepted a wholly bizarre and non-helpful system of ranking, grading, and categorizing degrees of success and failure — a system which is not designed in terms of facilitating improvement or spurring greater success, but instead of categorizing and ranking, period. And the sad thing is that grading systems, being unfortunately arbitrarily designed, one-size-fits all, presume that giving grades in itself is useful.

How come mastery seems to come not at all to those who focus on grades, and quite naturally to those who pursue ungraded skills, or who study a subject for the love of the subject (and for whom grades are an afterthought)? Considered this way, it seems to follow that grading systems very effectively interrupt the natural process of learning, divert student energies and attention from the subject of study and from natural self-evaluations and mutual-evaluations of mastery, and quite explicitly are the one thing that necessitates the presence of a teacher, invested with some kind of mystical authority, presence in the classroom.

(Not that teachers haven’t always existed, but the best are either guides, facilitators, or one’s already-fascinated and already-somewhat-skilled peers. When learning about something, it’s useful to have someone around who’s put in time mastering the subject. Teachers as a profession need not be discarded, though probably many individuals working as teachers do. But the model of teacher as source-of-knowledge, as arbiter-of-truth, and as authority-in-the-classroom needs to be dismantled if we’re to get past the more basic lesson of the classroom, which is that authoritarian structures are natural and necessary, and that the benefits of compliance with authority-figures and the systems they represent — uncritical acceptance of their strange institutional values and insistences — is good for you individually.)

Personally I would like it if I could declare all grading non-crucial, and instead give feedback all semester and then have students retake a class if their mastery is considered, by them or their peers, to be insufficient. One possibility is that I could do what my friend John does, and simply get students to grade themselves based on their own criteria. His experience is that the overwhelming majority of them, once you spell out the criteria for different grades and ask them to be honest, are quite reasonable, and perhaps even a little too tough on themselves. I think I may do that for midterms and final exams/projects, in fact: give students feedback and then have them fill out the grading form — a form with grading criteria spelled out explicitly — so that they can tell me what they honestly think they deserve. (Without any promise that this is what they’ll get, since some will be too tough on themselves and others will attempt to game the system.)

But as for the homework and assignments all the way along, for any class that’s not subject to a grading curve, what I’m going to do is simply give check-marks for completed homework. In classes like Public Speaking, it’s all about improving skills over a long process of development, and any successful acquisition of skills will be reflected in their midterm and final speeches.

Another thing I’m experimenting with is a changed setting for classes. My two evening classes this semester are very small, with only five students in them. (Partly because I’ve taught both of these courses previously at night so my previous night students can’t take anything with me this semester.) They’re in fact below the minimum number of students required for a course to he held, but for various reasons, the classes are being held anyway.

(One of the stranger reasons is that a student who went to do military service enrolled in classes and then never withdrew. I’ll never figure out why someone does this every semester. Is it just to have an excuse to come to school and say goodbye to their friends before departing? Is it required they enroll so that they can take a leave of absence from school for military service? Because it seems to skew registration numbers and you’d think there’d be a system in place by handle that. Well, you would if you were me, anyway.)

So anyway, I have these smaller classes, and they’re in fact small enough to meet with students in my office and have tea and talk things over in a more relaxed setting. I’m finding that students are mostly reacting well to it. They’re more comfortable, more eager and willing to talk, they open up more… and in that setting, they seem more willing to think creatively to grapple with the tasks I give them.

And that’s the last thing I’m doing, is conceiving of learning as a kind of task-fueled process. The normal model of, say, a writing class is that students are told, for some logic that is beyond their choice or reasoning, that now they’re going to write X. X could be a descriptive essay, it could be an argument for or against euthanasia, it be a Works Cited Page for an imaginary essay. The nice thing is that it’s pedagogically convenient for students to study and work on such-and-such a skill all at the same time because then a textbook can be used, and the teacher can harp on one or another thing and ignore all the other problems.

The problem with this is that it assumes students generally have the same problems. While this is sort-of true, I find that students actually have a whole range of different problems. Some of them are clueless as to how to use articles. Some of them have had their creativity amputated but can write solid sentences 90% of the time. Others are struggling with sentence structure but really know how to unpack an argument logically.

So in my writing class, I’m kind of refocusing them to work collaboratively — since most of them are going to be writing in a workplace setting that will require collaborative work, and since it lets them to share their abilities and compensate for one anothers’ weaknesses.

“How do you know they’re not piling the work onto one student in the group?”

I don’t, but my thinking is like this:

  1. The writing classes are too big for me to be reasonably expected to grade individual work more than a few times a semester. I tried that in past semesters and it burned me out. If the goal is to ensure higher-quality feedback and instruction, class sizes will be reduced. If Administration or students want that, they’ll make it happen.
  2. For the students who slack off and make others do all the work, they’ll learn nothing and when it comes time to do the individual assignments, their laziness will shine through. No number of checkmarks for homework completed by others will make up for the mess that their individual work will inevitably be.
  3. For the students who actually do their whole group’s work (willingly, no less, and without complaint to me — as so far only one student has complained about this), they reap the benefits of having done what are, in fact, not horribly demanding assignments to begin with. They learn more, and for those who still worry whether grades will reflect effort or ability, this will shine through in their more-heavily-weighted individual work, too.
  4. Finally, as a stopgap, I have a class blog in which everyone is expected to participate. There is no specified number of posts to be made in the semester, but rather, students are expected to make it a lively, interesting place to visit. Their blog mark will reflect whatever degree of effort they make to contribute to this goal, with the grading be relative and proportional within the group. (People who post interesting stuff and comments regularly get top marks, people who never post get a zero, and there’s a whole gamut in between.)

As in everything, you can lead a student to water, but you cannot make them drink. If a student does slack off, he or she will not learn. This should be painfully obvious by midterms, and fully evident in the kinds of products that students are producing by the end of semester. (And interestingly, a lot of the lowest-level and slacker students are actually self-sorting in this way. You’d think they’d be clever enough to force their way into groups with more dedication or English ability, but they don’t — they mostly join groups with people of roughly the same level of interest or ability. This means that.) The grades I’m required to give actually somewhat naturally flow from their own self-organization, as, most importantly, slackers love company that reinforces their attitudes and behaviour… and so do highly motivated students.

There’s one more thing about this kind of learning model, which is that I am trying to give students assignments that force them to create unusual final-products. The first assignment of the semester in my writing class was to create a demo of a tourism pamphlet for some place outside Korea, aimed at some segment of Korean tourists. (Yes, written in English, under the fiction that an American businessman is trying to drum up business from Korean tourists and will hire one group to do all his pamphlets in Korea for some exorbitant sum.)

The idea is that having students produce something other than “an essay” or “a descriptive paragraph” makes them stop and think about the things I’ve been telling them they need to consider. For a tourist pamphlet, it’s quite obvious how important it is to consider your audience, and one’s choice of details, and the kind of impact one wishes to have on the reader, all come into play for obvious reasons long before one begins writing. The pamphlets I’ve received are quite good, in fact, and what’s more, they show a level of creativity I’d not expected.

So I guess what I’m doing these days is trying to knock students out of that hypnotic pattern that takes hold of them once they walk into a classroom, once they are surrounded by the familiar structures of desk, of teacher preaching to students, of assignments that map roughly onto all the other assignments they’ve ever done before. The more I can break that, and make things unfamiliar, the more students’ conditioned responses to everything no longer even apply. That, to me, seems like the place where learning can actually happen.

Now, if only I could find a lounge somewhere on campus with couches and coffee tables and an instant coffee machine, and perhaps a soapbox conveniently tucked away for occasional use — I could also break the mold in which my conversation class seems somewhat trapped. (Though I am making up for it by assigning little products for the class to produce in small groups, with specific kinds of discussion being absolutely necessary in order for such production to occur.)

14 thoughts on “Rubrics, Rubik’s

  1. I’ve done pamphlets in the past and they are a great exercise. On tuesday a group project is due and students had the choice of two+ posters, 60-120 second video/radio/skit and it looks like several groups are going video based on the weekly learner journal. I’m pretty excited about tuesdays class.

    regarding the guys and the rubiks cubes, it comes down to time on task. One article that really influenced my thinking on language acquisition is not even about language acquisition. It’s about expertise and it was really easy to see the connection between hours put into an activity/skill and the subsequent level of expertise. It’s a really interesting article – google ericson and expertise. You’ll find all kinds of interesting stuff. I can’t remember if I wrote about it on my blog, but if you search the archives there’s probably something there as well.

  2. Hey, that’s cool. This semester’s final project in my media classes is an adaptation of a section of some piece of media to another form of media. They can adapt a comic book to a short film, a book to comic book, or either form to, say, radio drama. But considering your comment, I may get them to do bits of adaptation ahead of time, to get them used to the task. It seems wiser, to me.

    This Tuesday/Wednesday, we’re going to talk about copyright and remicing, and then on Thursday/Friday, they’re going to present their Koreanized/Sinicized (for the exchange students) versions of Superman in randomly assigned places/periods of history. After the presentations, we’re going to look at some trailer remixes and discuss them in terms of personal expression, copyright, and ownership of culture. (In simpler terms, of course.) Next week, I think a little more on copyright — I may crib a lecture from Lessig’s Free Culture — and then, I think, we’ll start in on V for Vendetta. The graphic novels should be in the week after that, on Thursday, so we’ll be in with lots of time to read.

    I’ll have a look for the Ericson and the article on expertise. Thanks for the reference.

  3. It’s fun, it’s cheap (relatively speaking, anyway), it’s portable, you can practice anywhere — what’s not to like about a Rubik’s cube?

    And – watch it. There are less immediate useful applications; once you figure out how the cube works, you can apply some of the skills you sharpened in figuring it out to other things. It always seemed to be the math geeks that really did well with the cubes; maybe being good with the cube is just some sort of indicator of other talents, and one that you can show off in competition more easily than the others.

    Of course, if you just memorize the book (there was a book, and I knew a couple of guys who just memorized it and didn’t really think about it), you don’t get so many of the benefits. My father would NOT let us have the book, period, until my sister was given one as a Christmas present by a well-meaning (but clueless about my father’s intent regarding our personal education) relative.

    I noticed in the video that the cubes that they were solving quickly were of the best looseness — you want it loose enough that it moves quickly, but not so loose that it falls apart if you do something just slightly wrong when you’re doing it quickly. (I have seen someone’s cube fall apart on him like that.)

    (My father showed me two techniques when I was in 6th grade, got a 2X2X2 cube and that made it easier for me to figure out the corner stuff; I don’t use the same method that most other cube-solvers use, I do something different. I bought myself a 5-cube on sale after Christmas, but haven’t taken it out of the box yet.)

    Scientific American had a column on the math of the thing at some point. I may have the issue with that article, not sure, but if you ask nicely, I may go dig through what I have and see if it’s there. (Wikipedia informs me that I’m looking for the March 1981 issue. The July 1982 issue was too late for when I remember my father reading it and trying to teach me the notation & graphing; I didn’t get the stuff on paper, but I “got” the cube-y goodness itself. Maybe I’ll get the notation, etc. now, it’s not as if I haven’t enjoyed reading Hofstadter since 1984….)

    OK, I’ll stop my cube babbling now. I may come back later.

  4. Wow. This reminds me very much of a discussion I had with a juggler, in which I learned that there are mathematical-based notation systems for juggling, too…

    I would be curious to know more, but I betcha I could google around, as well. I’ll let you know…

  5. Anything with a pattern can be broken down mathematically, one way or another.

    And knowing how to solve one puzzle gives you a tool if you find another that’s isomorphic, or even just shares some structural similarities.

    (The “physical analogies” section in the Wikipedia entry on “isomorphism” will help with an understanding of the word “isomorphic” if someone’s not familiar with it. Google “isomorphic” and that Wikipedia entry will be the first hit.)

  6. Julia,

    It makes sense, I was just surprised that someone had actually applied mathematics fo juggling. :) The discussion (on a subway from the regional Immigration office to the town where I live) was so fascinating that I resolved to write about a juggler character on an upcoming novel project.

  7. I know of a blog site where anything with more than 2 links gets automatically moderated. Might this be something similar?

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