Living and Learning with Risk: Against Rubrics and Grades. How "Ungrading" Allowed My Students to Try Some New Things
I gave my students freedom to write (present) what they learned however they wanted. They were terrified; how could they get an A without a rubric??--and then they reveled in it. We took risks together, and learned together.
In this essay I will--NO! PLEASE NO! MY EYES ARE ALREADY SKIPPING THIS SENTENCE!--I will argue that....
Ok. I lied.
I'm not going to write a 5-paragraph essay.
I'm not going to introduce, summarize, re-state, and conclude.
I'm not following a recipe.
I'm not following a rubric.
I'm not just doing what I know is safe.
And maybe I'll fail, crash, burn, end up in a swamp.
This past semester I tried "ungrading" in both my college classes. I explained about extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. I emphasized that I wanted my students to learn, to focus on what we were doing. I also encouraged them to try new forms of presentation--blog posts, podcasts, infographics, movies, photo essays. Unlike the wonderful ideas in Starr Sackstein's Hacking Assessment (which I discovered in August, just before the semester began, and which did give me the courage to try this experiment) designed for high school, I did not give my students rubrics for their assignments.
I wanted them to make their learning their own. I wanted them to figure out how to present their ideas in ways that made sense for what they had to communicate.
I wanted them to try things, even new things, and to be okay with those genres even if they had not mastered them.
And they did it.
In one class I got first-time-ever podcasts. Maybe they were ten minutes long, rather than an optimally short and pithy statement, but I applauded the creators' courage. I got movies. I got Prezis and PowerPoints and PictoCharts, Public Service Announcements and blog posts (some basically essays but posted online) and diaries. Students who considered themselves "uncreative" started to understand that there were options available to them that they had never considered.
In my other class I got investigations into language and identity, observations, interviews, analyses of their own and their peers' and strangers' experience, presented in all kinds of ways.
Sometimes students asked for, nearly begged for, a rubric. What do you want? I always replied with What do YOU want?
Isn't school about pleasing the teacher? About fulfilling the minimum? About doing the safe thing to get the A? Isn't it all about satisfying the requirements? Isn't it about the Game of School?
Students recognized--in my Anthropology of Childhood and Education, it was part of the course--that they were addicted to knowing how long something should be (had to be), how many pages the teacher wanted, when they could stop. When nobody told them how long was long enough, they were a little uncertain, and wrote a little more.
In the end--and I'll write more about this, because I don't feel done, though the convention for a blog post is that it is short--I deem the experiment a great success. I had students enjoy taking a little risk. There were students who began to find this work fun. Several students said they enjoyed some of the work so much they forgot it was for school.
That's all I've ever wanted for my students--to have the work matter to them, not to me--and if at least a few of them found it at least a few times this semester, then this was a wild and smashing success.
I took a risk so that they could take a risk.
And isn't that what we're here to do?
Not to bore ourselves and our readers with lame formulaic school-only writing assignments.
If we fail, let's do it with poetry and pizzazz, okay?