The Tools of Transfer: Quality

Without a doubt, one of the major purposes (narratives) of schools is to develop in students an understanding of and ability to create quality; we want the leaders of tomorrow to have the ability to fabricate a better world than the one we currently inhabit.

Of course, quality alone is a hard concept to define fully. How do we teach kids a concept so fluid as to have a definition this vague:

    1. the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.

    “an improvement in product quality”

    1. a distinctive attribute or characteristic possessed by someone or something.

    “he shows strong leadership qualities”

Perhaps we should just have every student read Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance… that should certainly clear things up for them!

Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ‘quality’ cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct.

Beyond the fluidity of the definition of quality to begin with, contemporary students are further confused by the fact that the world we now inhabit is dominated by labor opportunities that are intellectualized (philosophic, shall we say?) rather than physical. Matthew Crawford offers the following description in his work, Shop Class as Soul Craft:

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.

Crawford’s words frame our dilemma in quite dire terms; while I personally would love for every school to have a required shop class, the fact that it’s difficult to explain the characteristics of quality in much of the work in the contemporary world, and that learning to implicitly sense quality is an arduous undertaking (possibly without conclusion) will remain true for the future that I can foresee.

So what’s an educator to do? Well, currently the best practice that we use is to use a set of tools in the classroom to transmit an understanding of quality to students: among those are Rubrics, Task Descriptions, Criteria Lists, and Models. It’s worth taking some time to understand how each of these tools is currently used, and when an educator may choose to use them in different ways or not use them at all.

First and foremost, let’s make clear that this suite of tools is just that: a suite. ‘One tool to rule them all’ is quite emphatically not the case here. A Task Description may also be called a project description – it is the place where the logistics of an assignment are disseminated to students. Logistics may include timelines or due dates, learning targets from the assignment, and a Criteria List.

The idea of a Criteria List is an important one, though mainly as a distinction from a Rubric as the two are often confused by educators. A Criteria List is where a student can view what components of the assignment must be present in order for the assignment to receive credit. A missing component of a criteria list, therefore, results in an ‘Incomplete’ grade, not an ‘F.’ For example, a criteria for a five-paragraph essay is that the essay has five paragraphs – if a student wrote four, they don’t get docked one letter grade, they receive an ‘Incomplete’ because they didn’t complete the assignment! It is important for educators to distinguish between these requirements, lest the Vonnegut quote “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country,” become true for the class that we implicitly taught the acceptableness of finishing 80% of the job (my mind jumps to that class being my auto mechanic… ).

A Rubric serves to tackle the mess that is assigning subjectively sliding scales to the idea of quality, and Models serve to make apparent what a high quality example of the product looks like – to expand the perception of what types of thinking and methods of conveying information are possible.

The major challenge with Rubrics and Models comes into play when we begin to ask what we want our students to be able to do. Do we want them to become adept at following instructions ‘to the T,’ or would we prefer they have the ability to take a loosely defined project that no one has ever completed before and run with it to create quality? Well, we probably want both… right? So as educators, we may want to be explicit with our goals for each and every assignment, at the very least to ourselves if not to our students. We may want to have a broader scale ‘scope and sequence’ and ‘release of responsibility’ planned out for a student’s K-12 career where, as students reach higher levels of development and maturity, we lean towards having them take a project and ‘run with it’ rather than following instructions exactly, which is more a reflection of did they actually do what they were asked to do, or practice what they were asked to do enough that they made the skill implicit.

Since Rubrics and Models are simply ways of teaching, let’s think of them as analogous to teaching a subject like Grammar. The ultimate goal of teaching Grammar is to develop skills within students so they may be able to communicate complex ideas through the use of written word. In reaching this goal, we tend to start with intellectualizing the components of quality in writing – for example, we put up posters in our rooms of nouns, pronouns, conjunctions, adverbs, etcetera. This process of intellectualizing a sentence is helpful, but not the only thing we need; after all, when you write (whether an email or a novel) do you break down every sentence you are writing into its basic grammatical components? Of course not! You have made your definitions of high-quality writing (including the necessary grammatical components) implicit, subconscious. The implicit nature of your understanding of quality writing allows you to focus on the content of the writing and expressing it concisely, effectively, or creatively.

How did you develop that implicit knowledge of quality? I would gander that you gained it from three sources: the intellectualizing of grammatical constructs (studying and identifying use-cases for pronouns, adverbs, semicolons, and commas), practicing those skills, and through reading well-written books.

Well, Rubrics are like grammatical constructs, and Models are like reading a Postman book (am I showing the cards of personal bias too strongly?). Rubrics intellectualize the components of quality, and the point is that when our students are two months into their first job, there will be no Rubric (or grammar posters on the wall), but that doesn’t make them useless now. It also doesn’t mean that it’s safe to always give rubrics – it just means that they are useful in the creation of implicit knowledge of quality, but they won’t be around forever. Similarly to grammar rules, if we have students use Rubrics to self-assess the intellectualized components of quality in their work consistently when developing skills, they will hopefully be able to create their own rubric for a project they do Junior or Senior year of High School that completely matches the expectations we had for them. Proof that this construct is working without me providing any commentary on it is that every single one of my projects includes a ‘Self-Assessment’ section in the write-up, and it’s very rare that I disagree with a grade that students gives themselves in this section – they know how they are going to do, because they understand quality and know how much effort they put in towards attaining it!

Models act similarly to Rubrics, but provide students with a more implicit understanding of quality than intellectualized. The same fear for Models exists among educators, that if we provide them then students will simply copy them and take on a ‘check-box’ sort of mentality rather than creating quality for themselves. However, we all learn on our endless quest for quality from Models – whether I am reading my favorite Postman book or watching a basketball player’s perfect free-throw form to improve mine. So long as the Model is appropriate (for example, use models from a different assignment than the one you are giving out…), the students learn to do it right (or similarly) by practicing the implementation of the skill with their own flair. I might learn about the use of a semi-colon from reading Postman, but clearly my writing is not the same as his (oh, if only it was… ) because I work on integrating the skill I learned from him into what I’m able to do, but can’t completely remove my own pre-existing ‘flare.’ Similarly, when I give a model of a mathematics project that solves the key question using a color-coding drawing and a table, if the student who sees it uses that skill to solve her project with her own flare and interpretation, I call it a win.

The examples above are ‘work-shown’ sections of write-ups from my class. The first two are from a model that I showed my class before assigning them ‘Around King Arthur’s Table,’ and the second two are one student’s resulting work on that project.

So when should we begin using Rubrics, Models, and the rest of the suite, and when should we wean students off of them? The answer is, as you might expect, elusive to me. I don’t know. But I do believe that the discussion of the purpose of and scope/sequence for these tools needs to be had amongst every educational team so that we are making decisions about our use of these tools consciously, and the purpose should also be introduced to students age-appropriately.

I would like to note that throughout this discussion, I made no mention of oft-discussed details of Rubrics: what formatting should be standard?, should grades be lined up from low to high or high to low?, should descriptors be listed in each box, or only for the high grade and the other boxes interpreted? Here, I will refer to Postman when asking ‘what type of Public does education create?,’ to which he responds “the answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools. The right answer depends on two things, and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.” So too with Rubrics – the details are secondary to the shared understanding of their purpose and scope amongst your educational team.

If you haven’t already, this means you need to get to that challenging, messy, but important work. So get on it!

Crawford, M. B. (2009). Shop class as soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work. New York: Penguin Press.
Google Dictionary, [Accessed 4/11/2018]
Pirsig, R. M. (1974). Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: An inquiry into values. New York: Morrow.

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