In their new book, Embedding Formative Assessment, Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy make a simple, interesting, and really useful suggestion. Instead of using a rubric to communicate expectations for a given piece of student writing, Wiliam and Leahy suggest using work samples, instead–ideally two or more.
“Rubrics,” they note, “rarely have the same meaning for students that they do for teachers.” This, I think, is really insightful. We describe the things a good writing assignment needs but the description is too abstract and students can’t really visualize what we mean or how to do it. For example a recently published rubric designed to help teachers ensure kids master Common Core expectations notes that “Style and Conventions” is one of the key performance standards in a narrative piece of writing. An “inadequate” essay “merely tells experiences, events, settings and/or characters.” A “proficient” one “uses words and phrases telling details and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, settings and/or characters.” So the difference is that a better essay uses sensory language and is vivid. But do students know what vivid language looks like? How to know when they see it or, more importantly, how to create it?
Instead Wiliam and Leahy suggests looking at student work, ideally two or more examples, and looking at the how–how are words made vivid? How are sensory details not only included but made effective in their inclusion—surely the addition of various sundry sensory details is not sufficient to make an essay strong. In fact, notes the ghost of Hemingway, they may make it worse.
I was struck by this advice in part because the technique of Show Call has been such a game changer in our classrooms, allowing us to embrace the power of the cognitive work students analyzing their peers’ written work do–it is specific, rigorous, focused–among the best things we do. Having seen that, the idea that the starting point for an assignment could be public work sampling-rather than the abstract rubrics we often use without even considering why–is especially compelling. And, of course, if you love your rubric there’s no reason you couldn’t use both work samples and rubrics to guide students through an assignment.