Monday, April 30, 2012

What We Are Talking About When We Talk About Rubrics

School on Bergstrasse, Berlin by Raymond Leggott

Last night I was involved in a twitter discussion about learning, even though the topic was about rubrics. Here's a link to parts of the exchange. Have a look.

Cartesian Ways of Knowing

When we talk about rubrics I wondered what the term is place holding? What's beneath the term? What are we really talking about when we take/make sides about rubrics?

Beneath the talk about rubrics is a larger discussion about what it means to learn.  Rubrics are inherently Cartesian in that they qualify and at times even quantify what is meant to be learned, who the learner is and is not, and how the thing to be learned is defined. David Kettel in Cartesian Habits and the 'Radical Line' of Inquiry defines Cartesian thinking as :
a particular spatial image rules our imagination. This is the image of ourselves as looking on at the knowing subject as in every instance a determinate reality set among the realities of the world. This image offers a picture of the act of knowing, of the knowing subject, and of what is known, as such. Our habitual reliance on this image lies at the heart of Cartesian thinking.
When this image rules our imagination we habitually conceive the act of knowing in a particular way. We picture an individual knowing subject before us on the one hand, and something (or someone) real known on the other hand, and the act of knowing as putting the former in touch with the latter.
Alongside any rubric is a determinate reality where the intention of outcomes has been predetermined.  Rubrics serve to connect the knowing subject with the intended learning. Every state assessment for children and teens that I have seen comes with a set of rubrics in which an authority has predetermined learner outcome.  By providing schools and learners with these rubrics it is the intention to put the former in touch with what is to be known. When I was a professor I was required to create a set of rubrics for a capstone course I taught as part of NCATE accreditation.  I could not do it and others in the department codified my work in order to complete the NCATE process.  I could not create rubrics as I occasion learning, I do not cause it.  This is a fundamental truth and one that  allows me to understand rubrics as that which obfuscates deep learning, regardless of the ascribed quality. Once the rubric existed it served to codify what the subject was to know.  My goal was to create with the learners experiences they might dwell in and out of that (and other things I simply could not account) meaning would be made. In this manner, learning was far more nomadic.

Knowmadic Learner
Knowmadic Learner (M.A. Reilly, 1/2012)

So what does it mean to occasion as opposed to cause?  Occasioning is about creating space for experiences in which learners exercise their will, desire, interest, passion, ambivalence and begin to name/codify what they are composing. Within such play-work, tacit ways of knowing are embodied. Thomas and Brown (2011) contrast explicit and tacit dimensions of knowing:
Explicit knowledge, as we have seen, lends itself well to the process of teaching—that is, transferring knowledge from one person to another. You teach and I learn. But tacit knowledge, which grows through personal experience and experimentation, is not transferrable—you can’t teach it to me, though I can still learn it. The reason for the difference is that learning tacit knowledge happens not only in the brain, but also in the body, through all our senses (Kindle Locations 1012-1015).
Rubrics codify explicit knowledge even when the authors attempt to represent tacit dimensions--for once codification occurs, the tacit is removed and what is left is another's explicit knowledge. To develop tacit knowledge, indwelling is required.  Thomas and Brown (2011) explain that indwelling becomes
an embodied set of practices that are both constantly changing and evolving yet also central to the definition of inquiry. The more we engage with the process of asking questions, the more we tend to engage with the tacit dimension of knowledge. Indwelling is the set of practices we use and develop to find and make connections among the tacit dimensions of things. It is the set of experiences from which we are able to develop our hunches and sense of intuition (Kindle Locations 1145-1149).
Rubrics limit hunches, intuition as they situate the learner as one who looks from outside, not from within.   Kettel nicely summarizes indwelling by explaining how Polanyi's account of tacit dimension of knowledge counters Cartesian definition of knowledge in the following three ways:
  1. We can no longer view ourselves as knowing subjects. Our awareness of ourselves as subjects cannot be focal, but rather remains always subsidiary; we know ourselves in our indwelling.
  2. We cannot view that which is known apart from the act in which it is known personally, for it is hidden apart from this act. It emerges from hiddenness precisely within personal knowledge, in the hints and clues which spur personal inquiry towards such knowledge and which find unexpected confirmations.
  3. We cannot step back from the knowing subject and that which is known into a wider space from which to view them. Rather our self-placement is one of immersion in experience through which hidden meaning invites us in ‘exciting intimations’, engrossing and beguiling us, and evincing from us a passionate effort responsibly to understand. Within this experience-filled ‘space’ and through responsiveness, we come to knowledge through indwelling. Such knowledge cannot be viewed from a wider space; rather such knowledge itself represents the space which we indwell and fill. Indeed, Polanyi suggests that our personal being itself may be thought in such terms: our knowing and being, he says, are co-extensive.
Knowing from within requires indwelling and offers distinctly unique vantage points as these are determined by the viewer.  No matter how I try as  a teacher or parent, I simply cannot create another person's indwelling.  At best, I can co-create conditions (through play, experimentation, embodiment, choice, equality) with a learner in which s/he might dwell and through discussion, space and time come to codify some of those experiences.  I can also observe the indwellings that learners create without my permission (all the better) and begin to record what they codify. 

The type of learning I am describing is never neat, or ordered to external specifications. It does not fit inside a rubric as the patterns that emerge are ones that can only be named from within the dwelling space.  In thinking about knowing and problems, Polanyi (1969) writes:
the efforts of perception are evoked by scattered features of raw experience suggesting the presence of a hidden pattern which will make sense of the experience. Such a suggestion, if it is true, is itself knowledge, the kind of foreknowledge we call a good problem. Problems are the goad and guide of all intellectual effort, which harass and beguile us into the search for an ever deeper understanding of things. The knowledge of a true problem is indeed a paradigm of all knowing. For all knowing is always a tension alerted by largely unspecifiable clues and directed by them towards a focus at which we sense the presence of a thing - a thing that, like a problem, embodies the clues on which we rely for attending to it (p. 117).

Rubrics oddly obscure patterns, as they substitute codified knowledge for experience. There are no unspecifiable clues that a learner comes to find as the thinking and the box in which the learner must play have been predetermined. 

Works Cited

Kettel, David. Cartesian Habits and the 'Radical Line' of Inquiry.

Polanyi, Michael. (1969). ‘Knowing and Being’, in Polanyi, Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi, ed. Marjorie Green. Routledge.
Thomas, Douglas; Seely Brown, John (2011-03-12). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. CreateSpace. Kindle Edition.


  1. I read this and I think "yes!" and "exactly!" -- especially the observation that not only do rubrics inhibit hunches and the unexpected from emerging, but also that educators might be well served to strive for co-creating conditions, perhaps to inspire dispositions that inspire further, continued, and inspired knowmadic dwelling?

    1. Yes. Occasioning is a strong methodology. Knowmadic dwelling is indwelling. What makes this challenging is shifting educational emphasis from privileging a common set of explicit knowledge bits to privileging learning and the desire and competence to learn. These are different.

  2. nice Mary Ann.

    in our research, we found that even a person making their own rubric/curriculum can be compromising.

    via - what you keep teaching me.. about the nomadic nature of intense/useful/alive learning. even our own boxes.. no?

    1. I think we make our own rubric often out of 'felt' necessity. I think about this as I consider psychoanalysis and the need at times to distance ourselves from the tacit. Our own boxes are always that hardest to see, name. An important reminder.

  3. Mary Ann,

    Wonderfully thoughtful post! Ater constructing a rather lengthy response, I thought it was more appropriate as a blog post than a comment-- I hope you agree. (


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