Top Chef and Education

First off, Happy New Year everyone!

Over this winter break, I spent most of one day binge watching Top Chef, the reality cooking competition, and as I watched I couldn’t help but think of schools and teaching.  The episode that really led me down this path was Restaurant Wars.  For those of you who don’t know the show, a variety of chefs are competing for the title of Top Chef and during one episode each season, the chefs split into two teams and have to conceptualize and open a restaurant in 1 day.

This competition lead me to think about assessment and rubrics.  At the end of the episode, the judges choose one winning restaurant.  They don’t do this with a specific rubric (at least none that we as TV viewers see).  Judges comments focus on the taste and presentation of the food, the service at the front of the house, the decor and atmosphere, overall teamwork amongst other things.  Obviously these elements essentially make up a rubric for each restaurant.  The thing that the judges ask each other at the end is: “which restaurant delivered a better experience?”  And that’s the question that led me to think about rubrics and judgements.

In education, we are continually rewriting rubrics to recatergorize and reweight.  We drive ourselves crazy as educators trying to write these perfectly detailed rubrics breaking down each potential element into categories in order to better assess our students to make fair and valid judgements.  But we never ask: “Did this piece of work (essay, speech, project, etc.) deliver the experience it is supposed to?  Did it achieve its desired impact?

I just finished grading a stack of argumentative essays.  I used the rubric to assess the essay’s claim, its development, coherence, etc., but I never really assessed whether or not the essay was actually convincing.  The rubric doesn’t have an area for this.   In Top Chef the judges can sit there and tell the chefs that their food wasn’t good or the service at the restaurant was exemplary, but that doesn’t really tell the chefs if their restaurant overall was any good.

I teach public speaking as well and two of the assigned speeches are a sales pitch and a persuasive speech.  After everyone delivers their sales pitch, I always ask the class if anyone went out to buy a product that their classmate was selling.  If you convinced your classmate to purchase something, then it was surely an effective sales pitch.  If I were the student, I would think of that as much better feedback than the rubric from the teacher.

I’m not entirely sure how to go about doing this, but it seems to me that discussing impact and intended results might be worth the conversation and help make rubrics more meaningful.  I certainly don’t believe we should scrap rubrics altogether–in fact, I am a huge supporter of rubrics, but rubrics shouldn’t be just about justifying a grade; instead we should be focused on how we can improve feedback to our students.  We can make better rubrics.

So is this rigorous?

I have a confession.  Many people in education aren’t going to like this, but here it goes.  I don’t like  “rigor.”  I’m not ready to say the word needs to be kicked out of all educational circles, but I immediately get annoyed when someone mentions rigor.  Why?  Because we can’t seem to figure out what it actually means.

Rigor is the word du jour in education these days.  In blogs, on Twitter, in meetings, all over the place, somebody is discussing rigor.  Are the standards rigorous?  Is common core rigorous?  We need to make sure our rubrics have rigor.  Make sure the rigor is increasing from 9th grade through 12th grade.  The clarion call is clear: MORE RIGOR!!

So what does rigor actually mean?  Educate people are saying it all the time.  Educational leaders love it.  So what is it?  My perception is that most people use it as synonymous with difficulty or being “harder.”  I would argue that that should not be the goal.  Is writing a 15 page paper harder than writing a 5 page paper?  Probably.  Does that mean it is a better task?  Not necessarily.  Is having high school students read Shakespeare a difficult task?  Yes.  Is it rigorous?  Maybe.

I’d say that rigor isn’t about making things harder or longer for students.  It isn’t about giving more homework.  It is about creating engaging and challenging tasks that are appropriate for those particular students.

One particular instance comes to mind in which I was questioned on the rigor of my teaching.  I teach low level seniors.  Many of them read at or below an 8th grade reading level, and many of them have IEP’s.  They also present a number of discipline challenges in my class and out of it.  In our British literature studies we study the Arthurian Legend.  I decided to show them The Sword in the Stone–the Disney cartoon.  Is this rigorous?  Well no, but neither is watching any other movie.  Watching a movie isn’t challenging in any way.  What they did after watching the film was rigorous because it both engaged them and challenged them.  After watching the movie, they had to connect the movie’s idea of the Arthurian Legend to the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Le Morte D’Arthur.  Trying to connect these three pieces to form a coherent whole and then making an argument as to which piece best exemplifies the Arthurian Legend challenged those students greatly.  It also engaged them.

As a caveat, please notice that I speak only of a task as a rigorous task.  Can we really define standards (Common Core or otherwise) as rigorous?  I’d say not really.  Two teachers can take the same standards and ask students to do completely different tasks with them–one very rigorous and one not at all.  The standard itself isn’t rigorous.  The same thing can be said for a rubric. Is one rubric more rigorous than another?  Not really.  The task that the rubric is intended to help assess must be rigorous.  A learning assessment can be rigorous as can an assessment, assuming we’re defining rigorous as challenging and engaging.

Of course all that I speak of  is only true if we can come to a shared definition of rigor.  Perhaps educators would be well served by trying to hash this out before proceeding.

rubric concerns

Yesterday, we had an early release day due to voting.  As a department, we spent the majority of our 3.5 hours together discussing our plan to formulate common rubrics for all our argumentative, informational, and narrative writing.  The idea (I think?) is that we would be able to use these rubrics for any writing assignment that falls into one of these major categories and people in other departments could also use these rubrics in their class.

This is where I start having a problem.  For a rubric to be a valid form of feedback for students, it has to actually match the assignment.  One can’t simply take any old rubric and slap it on any assignment and expect that the rubric will give the student worthwhile feedback.

Now I add the caveat that I am a huge support of rubrics, but only when they are done correctly.  For a rubric to be worthwhile at all, it must provide some sort of meaningful feedback, right?  Well, for that feedback to be meaningful, a rubric cannot be so generic that it simply can apply to any assessment, right?  Grant Wiggins describes this beautifully in his (somewhat lengthy) blog post: where he defines rubrics very clearly as: “It summarizes what a range of concrete works looks like as reflections of a complex performance goal” I don’t see how this can be done when a rubric is so generic that it can apply to just about any assessment.

When I raise this concern, many people tell me that I need to just “tweak” the rubric to match the assessment.  OK, but if the point (well, one of them anyway) of us all creating and using this rubric is to ensure fair and consistent grading, doesn’t that negate the purpose. Then again, creating a rubric that is so generic that anyone can interpret it any way they want isn’t isn’t fair or consistent either.

As teachers and schools think about creating rubrics, we must use caution.  I truly believe rubrics are wonderful tools for students to learn, but I also truly believe that is only possible if rubrics are done thoughtfully.  Unfortunately, I worry that many teachers, departments, and schools are using rubrics poorly.