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March 1, 2019
Vol. 61
No. 3

Will Design Thinking Kill the Rubric?

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Figuring out creative ways to assess design thinking is an opportunity to rethink assessment as a whole.

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Instructional Strategies
"Will Design Thinking Kill the Rubric?" asked a teacher during a recent professional development session. It's not an entirely surprising question, considering the way in which teachers are often expected to incorporate new strategies or methodologies into existing frameworks and protocols. Although design thinking is being more widely adopted by schools, there are a lot of unanswered questions about assessment: How do you assess an end product that is undefined? Do you assess the process or the end product?

Start Here

Let's tackle the rubric question first. A rubric is simply a scoring tool that lists criteria for projects, assignments, or other pieces of work. Rubrics can be used to assess the final product, the process (including the skills and phases of design thinking) by which the product was developed, or both. Students and teachers can use rubrics to evaluate work both for reflection and for grading. The best rubrics describe attainable outcomes and are progressive, descriptive, and understandable.
Rubrics from the Stanford d.school and the Henry Ford Learning Institute can be used as a starting place.

Where It Gets Tricky

Assessment procedures in most schools value the product over the process because final products are so much easier to assess. Yet, assessing only the final products ignores important learning. Aren't students learning even if mistakes are made and the final product doesn't hit the highest mark on the rubric? Should students have an opportunity to process the feedback from the rubric, iterate their product, and try again? What if we shifted from using rubrics as a "one and done" grade to using rubrics to help students understand how to improve their skills?

Get Innovative

At Trinity School, an elementary school in Atlanta, Ga., teacher-developed "learning progressions" answer the design thinking versus assessment question and also empower students to self-assess their design thinking skills. Much like Google maps, learning progressions orient students to their current place in the learning process and provide ideas on next steps to guide them to their destination. See the table on this page for examples of learning progressions on problem solving, perseverance, and empathy (and find more progression examples here).

Learning Progressions

Problem Solving and Perseverance

Empathy

Level 1: I can show at least one attempt to investigate or solve the task. Level 2: I can ask questions to clarify the problem, keep working when things aren't going well, and try again. Level 3: I can make sense of tasks and persevere in solving them. Level 4: I can find a second or third solution and describe how the pathways to these solutions relate.Level 1: I can ask questions that guide a user to a solution. Level 2: I can ask questions about specific events to gather data about the "most memorable" or "last time." Level 3: I can ask "Why?" and prompt with "Tell me more about …" in response to a user's story. Level 4: I can listen and take notes to follow the user in search of deeper meaning.
Jill Gough, director of teaching and learning at Trinity, has been leading her team to develop learning progressions for years. She clarifies that one of the biggest differences between rubrics and learning progressions is ownership of learning. Most rubrics are created by an evaluator and tell students what to do and how they will be evaluated. Learning progressions are written as "I can …" statements in order to empower students to own their learning and build on the skills they already have.
If you want to give more specific feedback to students, try the single-point rubric created by Cult of Pedagogy's Jennifer Gonzalez. Different from the analytic rubric, a single-point rubric includes three columns: a single column of traits down the center describing the learning target, an open column to the left for space to give feedback on things that still need work, and an open column on the right to comment on where the student exceeded the expectation. A single-point rubric is a great tool for assessing specific skills or practices and can easily be created by students, as well.
There is still progress to be made in assessing design thinking. Laura McBain and her team at the Stanford d. school are exploring how to assess competencies like collaboration and communication during a design thinking project. They created the Deeper Learning Puzzle Bus, a hands-on collaborative problem-solving experience that draws on the popularity of escape rooms to teach deeper learning skills while also trying to figure out how to assess these skills.

Keep It Authentic

Design thinking is about dispositions and mindsets, with various levels of understanding, application, and integration. Because the process is messy, it's helpful to separate skills, practices, and mindsets as you assess. Skills and practices are observable and lend themselves to rubric development, while mindsets are part of a more reflective process with growth to be assessed by the learner. However you proceed, keep in mind that assessments should contribute to design thinking in authentic ways.
If our goal is to create and nurture independent learners, then we have to create different conditions for learning. Figuring out creative ways to assess design thinking will help us rethink assessment more broadly. And just maybe, we can use design thinking to solve the wicked problem of how to best assess the skills that matter most.

Alyssa Gallagher co-leads BTS Spark in North America, helping school leaders across the United States and Canada access leadership coaching and professional development. Alyssa combines experience of school leadership and school district administration with expertise in leadership development. She spent 20 years in the U.S. public education K–12 sector, filling many roles, including teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent. Under Alyssa’s guidance, Los Altos School District (California) became a nationally recognized leader in educational innovation, and her work was featured on CNN and by Forbes, Wired, The Economist, and 60 Minutes. Alyssa has coauthored two ASCD books: Design Thinking for School Leaders (2018) and Design Thinking in Play (2020).

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