Dropping the Rubric & Setting The Bar

Trevor MacKenzie

Trevor MacKenzie is an award winning English teacher, Instructional Coach (focusing on inquiry and technology), and graduate student from Victoria, BC, Canada who believes that it is a magical time to be an educator.

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One question that I often receive about inquiry when sharing my passion for personalized learning is around assessment. When adopting an inquiry model colleagues want to know more about assessing Free Inquiry.

Free Inquiry is when learners select an inquiry focus, construct an essential question, plan their entire inquiry unit, and design and construct an artifact of learning. This is where educators have some hesitancies.

How can I assess so many unique performance tasks? How can I measure learners in a standardized manner when they are all completing dissimilar artifacts? How can I continue to empower learners when it comes to assessment?

These questions are completely valid. At its core the inquiry model is about personalization and supporting learners in taking more agency over their education. Yet traditional assessment practices do the opposite. We assess every learner using the same rubric. We strip learners of their voice when it comes to evaluating understanding and demonstrating what they set out to learn. And we use data to create criteria that shape the future opportunities for our learners.

In Free Inquiry I challenge my learners to co-create an assessment standard that they can use to self-assess, reflect, revise, and grow. This is a tremendously powerful process and one that, in my experience, has led to a deeper understanding of what defines excellent artifacts, how to help learners improve as they go, how to honour voice and choice in the inquiry classroom during assessment, and how to make sense of all of the unique inquiry artifacts we assess.

Co-creating an assessment standard calls for learners to research what excellence looks like with regards to their particular performance task. Learners spend time looking at a body of examples, a breadth of work that offers them the opportunity to assess other people’s attempt at engaging with their audience.

Learners identify adjectives and characteristics that they deem to be of value and add them to what we coin The Bar. The Bar is an assessment tool that we co-create to be used to assess the learner’s performance task. To further aid in this process I challenge learners to seek out a professional in the field of their artifact.

  • If the artifact has a writing focus, learners seek out a professional writer (or English teacher for that matter).
  • If the artifact has a focus in photography, learners seek out a professional photographer.
  • If the artifact is in 2-D art, videography, drama, a performance, a trade or vocation, or any other field or means, learners seek out a mentor or guide that they can interview with the goal of understanding what excellence looks like in their particular field.

They record these rich and incredibly meaningful terms and add them to The Bar, their own personal tally of what an excellent artifact looks like for them.

Once these two steps are completed we spend time together hashing out the rest of The Bar so each learner can begin to work towards this achievement. This meeting allows me to ensure that their assessment meets the standards of our course and grade level, a critical piece in marrying inquiry and our traditional educational structures. They use this document to self-assess as they go, make changes and revisions, and finally, complete a summative assessment when their inquiry unit is complete. It should be noted that at times particular artifacts force me to reach out to the professionals or mentors my learners had initially contacted.

A great example comes in the form of a choreographed dance piece from few years back that reflected symbolism across an anthology of poetry. The learner’s performance was beautiful and I could easily sense and pinpoint where symbolism was evident. However when trying to evaluate whether the performance included an arabesque, a pirouette, a plié, or a passé, I was stuck. I needed to call on our school’s dance instructor to help assess this unique performance task. Together (and with the learner) we were able to co-assess this extremely unique demonstration of understanding.

The Bar is an extremely powerful process for us all. The ownership over their learning and the connectedness to their understanding of their own artifact is awesome to witness. Further, there’s no settling for less than what they’ve set out to achieve. If they don’t meet this expectation their assessment will reflect this. There’s no fussing with a rubric that identifies less than excellence, a 6-point scale, or a letter grade structure. Learners possess the vocabulary and skill-set to reflect, review, and assess their own understanding.

How do you see using The Bar in your own classroom? Could you invite certain professionals into your classroom to aid in constructing The Bar as an exercise for your learners? Please leave a comment below!

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