Let The Learning Boil Over



“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” T.S. Eliot

I know, its a very eye-catching and thought provoking image to open up this post with isn’t it?

It all started with a conversation I was part of at ConnectEd Canada in Calgary with George Couros, and a small group of people as we prepared for a session. We were talking about rubrics, and George brought up that he wasn’t a fan as they can put limits on the learning, innovation and creativity. He talked about how the top end/side of a rubric puts a stop to where the learning could go. The more I thought about it, the more I thought he was right. While I am not a big rubric user, I am not against them either. Some people there were big supporters of rubrics, and as George’s session took place, the topic came up organically again, and some people really defended the use of rubrics.

That was more than a month ago, yet the conversation stuck with me. I started discussing rubrics with a few teachers at my school, and the more we talked the more the conversation kept coming back to a pot. Yes, a pot. The kind you cook things in. The metaphor that seemed to work best, when talking with my co-workers, was that of a pot on a stove:

potwlidWhen we think of a rubric that has an end point for learning, we are talking about a pot with lid on it. The learning is contained, and limited to the “pot” that it exists in. It doesn’t matter if the rubric is co-created with students, or comes directly from the teacher, if it has an endpoint, it can limit the learning. Maybe this picture would help:

Rubric Pot

Our final area on our rubric, marked here in green ends up being as far as most students will aspire to go with their learning. Unless some very deliberate teaching has been done, or the student is keen to push themselves further, the rubric says “This is far enough”. We know this happens all the time, we have all heard students ask “Is this good enough?”, and this has to be what we try to avoid.

So what if we take away that last line of our rubric? The one that puts a “lid” on “Excellence” or “Mastery” or whatever is at the top of your rubric. What if we take the lid off the pot and ensure that our students don’t ever feel like we are putting limits on where their learning could go?

Rubric Pot 2Maybe they take their mastery of writing persuasive essays to convince their local politician to stand up for the rights of child workers in another country. Maybe they take their excellence in understanding aerodynamics and build their own hovercraft. Wherever their learning, creativity and innovation might take them, I don’t know, but I do know one thing is certain, we don’t want to be the ones limiting where that might be.

“Good Enough” is learning for someone else, and we don’t want our students to simply aim for something that is not going to challenge them, or has no meaning to them. Thanks to George for this, and the first quote, as they seem to be right on the mark:

“Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss, but because they aim too low and hit.” Les Brown

So let’s continue to do everything we can to let the learning boil over, even it is simply ensuring our message is clear by making a simple change to the rubrics we use for assessment.


New Tasks and Old Tools

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by State Library of Victoria Collections
I have been thinking about this for the better part of a week now, and today I finally feel ready to share.

The school I work in has been named as one of the most innovative schools in Canada and does a lot of great work in the areas of personalized learning, differentiated instruction, and inquiry. I am on twitter all the time learning and sharing with other educators from the province of Alberta who are doing amazing things in these areas as well. The push is on from our government to focus on success for all students and collaborative learning. They use words like engagement, transformation and vision. They speak to the idea of 21st century learning and the need to provide our students with the skills necessary for their futures.

It’s great to see this kind of progress, and the way educators are out there moving the system forward, one classroom, school or division at a time. So why then are we using old tools to assess the new ways we educate?

In planning with my Gr. 8 team we discussed a number of ways we could change our assessment, including doing away with final exams and replacing them with final learning experiences, where students could show us the process skills they have developed and meet the competencies that their curriculum requires. Stations, learning portfolios, learning challenges, the list of alternatives can be numerous. Then the point was brought up that we had a responsibility to ensure that our Gr. 8 students were ready for the Provincial Achievement Test in Gr. 9, and that if we don’t test them, they won’t be ready.

This was a valid point, as our Gr. 9 students DO have to write Provincial Achievement tests, but it doesn’t make it right. In fact, this is so wrong. Our government wants us to move forward, but then wants to assess our students, and our schools using an old assessment tool. How can this possibly be ok?

What are the characteristics 21st century learning requires of our students?

Collaboration and Leadership: There is nothing collaborative about a pencil and paper assessment, in fact, this takes away from the message that this is important. Whether intended or not, the test is a competitive measuring device for schools and school jurisdictions province wide. While we as educators still share, and aren’t worried about helping others succeed, it is about the message the government is sending by having these assessments.

Creativity and Innovation: How are these tests in any way a measure of innovation? These tests are the assessment for regurgitated memorization, which is not part of innovation. And what about so called “Innovative Schools”? If a school does what is right, and ventures away from the this type of learning, they may create critical-thinking students, they may foster creativity and they may inspire a collaborative work environment and STILL may not do well on this test. Who cares!? We know what is right, but with these assessments, we may have that same school facing criticism from their division, the media or from the public because of the inane value we give these tests.

Lifelong Learning: Let’s be honest, these tests are about cramming until the day of the test and nothing more. This does not inspire lifelong learning and it does not motivate teachers to support the idea with their students. Its about one year learning and that is all.

This is what our government has developed and provided us as a model for educating 21st century learners:

I wonder how can this image be consistent with what we are doing now? I don’t see where these tests fit into this graphic.

Yesterday on twitter I read a tweet by Joe Bower, a man who always keeps me on my toes because of the way he challenges our current practices, that said this:


“Differentiated instruction can not be authentic without differentiated assessment”


This got me thinking that the same kind of statement can be made for 21st Century Learning:


21st Century education can not be realized without 21st Century assessment


Now since I am not the type of person to complain and not provide ideas for a solution, here’s mine. Let’s take those dedicated and bright minds that go in every year to create these Achievement Tests and let’s instead have them create learning experiences/opportunities/challenges for our kids. Make them week long activities that incorporate collaboration and critical thinking, that require communication amongst their teams and creative/innovative ideas to complete. Hopefully these tasks can touch on all core curricula while also addressing ideas of social responsibility and ethical citizenship. These are the kind of things we are asking teachers to aspire to every day in their classrooms, so why not aspire to this goal in our assessment as well.

I am not going to take a horse and carriage in the Indy 500 just like I am not going to feel comfortable assessing my students with a dated exam. I want to see the same leaders who are looking for 21st century educating from our teachers also provide 21st century assessments, if they are providing any at all.