Purposes, Objectives, Goals, Rubrics, ack!

This is all about discomfort. Mine.

In Jason Buell’s post, he reported on an ASCD virtual conference. I’m so glad he did, because I’m afraid that if I had been there, I would have come off the rails. And I would have felt guilty.

I know I’m not alone among teachers that I have a hard time remembering the difference between goals and objectives, but I suspect that I AM alone in that among teachers that I respect. Somehow, even though I can get behind the vocab and the changes to day-to-day teaching practices that speakers are trying to promote, keeping track of the details and distinctions eludes me.

Which is embarrassing because for many years I was the consultant, creating vocabulary and rubrics and systems, and speaking to teachers about how to improve their day-to-day teaching. I was passionate about the spectrum of tasks that run from exercises to problems to investigations (circa 1988) and the four-fold thingy that adorned the 1992 California Framework (whose four central ideas I cannot remember, let me grab that old Framework from the shelf…), ah yes, mathematically powerful students (remember mathematical power?) use mathematical thinking, mathematical tools and techniques, mathematical ideas, and communication.

Anyway, in Jason’s post I was doing fine until—because I’m so passionate about modeling—I clicked on the link for a modeling and purpose rubric and got that churning feeling in my stomach whenever I have to open a Word doc—no! not that! —whenever I see a big chart with four or five columns with earnest, similar-but-meaningfully-different chunks of narrowly-set text that shouts rubric!

rubric graphic

At this point, when I recovered my composure enough to read a little, I discovered that of course we have a vocabulary collision: I’m interested in the kind of modeling that’s a mathematical practice in the once-new Core Standards, but this is from the S part of ASCD, not the CD part, and we’re talking about the teaching practice of modeling for students rather than the modeling that’s using mathematics to represent and understand something in the real world.

When I calmed down, I tried a different link in the same post for “Gradual Release of Responsibility” which has the excellent acronym GRR, and was taken to a post in John Golden’s “Math Hombre” blog, where (without reading anything) I saw this graphic:

gradual-release graphic

And even without reading the surrounding text or even the little text in the graphic itself, I could grok the main point: we do all of this, and move from left to right gradually. This is a good reminder about how to plan a year or plan an individual lesson, and how to make a decision about a “teacher move” I might make, for example, actually decide on the fly whether to answer a student’s question or not.

Whereas I’m really not going to look at that rubric in order to see how to prepare a lesson. It may indeed be good for supervisors to help them as they observe me. But it is, though its vocabulary and style, removed from instructional decisions. For example: if I got a 3-Proficient on “The essential lesson elements of guided, collaborative, and independent tasks accurately reflect the established purpose,” and I wanted to get a 4-Exemplary, I’d be hard pressed to know what it would mean that “All tasks that students actually complete throughout the lesson reflect the content and language purposes.” In fairness, I might be able to parse that temporarily, while I was sitting down with an observer, but the sentence is so packed with requirements that I would not be able to hold them all in my mind when I plan the next lesson. (Not most tasks, all tasks. Not tasks they have begun, only tasks they complete. Not only tasks at the end, but all tasks throughout the lesson. Not just content, but content and language.)

What do I make of this?

First, I have some pathetic form of ADD where I gravitate towards a simple graphic rather than making the effort to read and understand text. After a career of making nuanced suggestions, I love the quick visual slogan. There is something noble in this, but it’s also deeply troubling.

But (and this may be the main point) I wonder: how and when does a good idea morph from being useful into being a system that is too hard for me to apply?

And let me add a related post-script: when does Dan Meyer’s excellent trope on perplexity become Perplexity™ the brand? I worry that the advent of perplexity scores is a dangerous step along that road.

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Published by

Tim Erickson

Math-science ed freelancer and sometime math teacher. In 2014–15, at Mills College in Oakland, California.

2 thoughts on “Purposes, Objectives, Goals, Rubrics, ack!”

  1. No Tim – you are not alone. For my part I sometimes wonder if the name “School of Education” is not an oxymoron. Even all the detailed lesson plans we are supposed to be preparing are so much wasted time. Moltke once said “No war plan survives contact with the enemy” and while students are NOT the enemy, the aphorism does apply in teh classroom.

  2. If you give good people the job of coming up with rules and procedures they will work diligently to complete the task and write heartfelt words on the subject. That doesn’t mean it should be followed in detail. Usually these ideas are written but not tested thoroughly and backed up with examples and statistics showing they really work. To me, successful teaching involves passion about the subject from the teacher, flexibility to go where the student’s mind is wandering, and can best be evaluated by whether or not the students are engaged. Trying to codify the teaching process is like trying to make religious rules to live by, the exceptions out number the ordinary and following rules blindly leads at best to formulaic boredom and at worst to things like the crusades.

    Rules should be taken as suggestions and guidelines but the proof of good teaching only comes out years later but I think we can recognize it happening pretty clearly if we keep our minds and hearts open.

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