How Do You Measure the Spark of Creativity?

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in deciding a pornography case, famously said of obscene material, “I know it when I see it.” Wisely, Justice Stewart declined to create a rubric delineating all the acts that would qualify as pornographic, as the document itself might become as lewd as the material it was intended to assess.

Tim Clifford Tim Clifford

As an English teacher, I know a good essay “when I see it.” Nevertheless, rubrics can be of great help not only in grading but also in collecting data to evaluate student progress. When planning a unit, I often work on the rubric first; setting goals in advance facilitates planning.

Creating an effective rubric is no easy chore. If there are too many teaching points on it, students will be confused or overwhelmed with the seeming enormity and complexity of the task. Too few teaching points leads to an oversimplified rubric that fails to challenge students or adequately assess their progress.

Where rubrics often fail is in recognizing exemplary writing. Frequently, I get one of those “I knew it was great writing when I saw it” essays that fails to make the grade on my rubric.

If I ask my students to begin their essays with a definition, let us say, and instead a student chooses to begin with an insightful quote that illuminates and informs the entire essay, I have a dilemma on my hands. Do I follow the rubric to the letter and penalize the student for not showing mastery of the skill I taught, or do I reward the excellence and innovation of the writing itself?

What I usually do in such a case is give full credit and praise the writing, while pointing out, in a separate “Comments” section, that the task was not met.

I could, of course, create longer rubrics that attempt to cover every eventuality, but such beasts would probably be too thick to attach to a student’s paper without leaning my full weight upon the stapler. And even with such a rubric, it’s inevitable that some students would still come up with things I never anticipated, because great writing is nuanced, complex and much larger than the sum of the component parts of any rubric humans could devise.

This is essentially my complaint about the Danielson framework that will now form the basis of teacher observations in New York State. It features a beast of a rubric that has all the stapler-bending properties mentioned above, coupled with the daunting task of somehow reducing “good teaching” to its component parts so that it can be quantified and evaluated.

The version I found on the New York State Education Department Web site consists of a whopping 54 pages of rubrics, examples and explanations.

It breaks teaching down into four “domains”: Planning and Preparation, Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities. These are further divided into “elements,” of which there are 22.

Each element then lists criteria by which the teacher will be judged as Unsatisfactory, Basic, Proficient or Distinguished. For example, here is what a teacher must do to be considered Distinguished on the very first entry on the rubric, 1A: Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy:

Teacher displays extensive knowledge of the important concepts in the discipline and how these relate both to one another and to other disciplines. Teacher’s plans and practice reflect understanding of prerequisite relationships among topics and concepts and a link to necessary cognitive structures by students to ensure understanding. Teacher’s plans and practice reflect familiarity with a wide range of effective pedagogical approaches in the discipline, anticipating student misconceptions. (Page 2 of 54)

That’s only 1A. There are 21 more elements.

In my view, this rubric is far too complicated to be of real use. I don’t think it’s possible to design and execute a lesson, or even a series of lessons, that would touch on all the elements required to deem a teacher Distinguished. I doubt Charlotte Danielson could do it, either. What this framework does is create anxiety for teachers who try to meet all 22 “elements” in the span of a 45-minute lesson, day in and day out.

Some days, it’s a triumph to get a reluctant reader to open a book, an E.S.L. student to speak, or a child with behavior problems to sit still and listen. I doubt there’s a teacher in New York who drives home with a smile, thinking, “Today, I hit 17 of the elements in Danielson!” but there are many who smile at the realization that they reached a child who seemed unreachable. That’s not something that can be measured, but it’s what real teaching is all about.

That’s not to say I don’t believe in accountability. I do. It’s my contention, however, that we need simpler rubrics that give teachers the latitude to practice their craft as they know best. We can always throw in a “Comments” section for items not covered by the rubric.

Great teaching, like great writing, is nuanced, complex and much larger than the sum of its parts. Good principals and administrators “know it when they see it.”

When we try to lay all the parts of good teaching bare on the dissection table and slice, dice, poke, and prod them, we don’t help create art -- we create something obscene.

Justice Stewart would not approve.