When reading textbooks some start with the headings, others with the pictures. As for me, I start with the brackets. This week we’re studying assessment, and I’d be quietly doing so now if I’d skipped over the parentheses. But this, from O’Donnell et al’s Educational Psychology: “(The word rubric comes from religious writings, in which headings, notes and commentary were frequently written in red ink. Rubric has the same root as the word ruby.)” How marvellous is that?

It’s actually heartening that “rubrics” contain an etymological absurdity, because as a student I find them somewhat absurd – not headings, notes and commentary, but the elaborate grids used to show the ways in which work will be marked which take their name (absurdly) from a colour of medieval ink.


Or maybe it’s not so absurd. I’ve observed classes in which descriptions of a mark range have been read aloud as if intoned from a liturgy, their distinctions as mysterious as a sacred riddle. “The discussion includes some links” is sound, ” the discussion demonstrates evidence” is better, but “the discussion is underpinned” is really getting there, topped only by “the discussion synthesises.” Go!

Ironically, these misnamed tools are designed to support literacy. Instead, reading them diverts class time from decoding texts other than the rubric itself, as student questions become more and more preoccupied by assessment. Even the readable ones tend toward conformism, guiding students to like responses that get the highest marks. The more elaborate the rubric, the more precisely it dictates. (We’re almost back at liturgy again. Perhaps, disturbingly, rubrics aren’t misnamed.)

Recently I received feedback on a lesson plan that I’d submitted for assessment. Basically the lesson was great, but at the expense of a subheading given prominence in the rubric – and marked in red ink.


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