How VALUE Reminded Me to Love Learning

In 1981, I graduated from a large, sports-driven public high school in rural East Tennessee. I was a straight-A student who ate lunch in the bathroom of the band building and found sanctuary in the library, where I sat between stacks to read Agatha Christie novels or random entries in Encyclopedia Britannica.

But as miserable as my social experience was, I loved school more than anything in the world.

I loved my English and language classes. I loved copying and recopying Latin declensions, selecting different pens for each iteration. I loved writing complex sentences in German, taking delight in flinging verbal prefixes when the construction called for such linguistic violence.

But, most of all, I loved tests. 

Tests were not, for me, a high-stakes enterprise that exerted a disproportionate influence on my academic and personal life. They were activities of certainty that reinforced the one thing I knew to be true: I was good at school.

So, I never left school. I went to the University of Tennessee, then moved to Los Angeles to get my PhD. I became an English teacher in an independent college preparatory school.

My new high school students were inquisitive, energetic, curious, and voluble, but few to none were interested in a direct trajectory from high school to dissertation. And most of them hated tests. 

So, in the sometimes tortured early years of my teaching, I made scores of mistakes in both pedagogy and classroom management. But, at the same time, I began to meet students not as candidates aspiring to grow into shadow versions of me, but as wildly interesting individuals whose skills and interests were entirely their own. I focused more on dialogue and discussion; I expanded the test by involving student choice, feedback, and peer review; and I began looking for more effective (and less stressful) ways to evaluate and encourage students’ critical and creative thinking, ability to communicate clearly in a variety of modes and genres, and intellectual engagement with literature and the world of ideas. I started to wonder about the big-picture learning outcomes that were critical not only in my English courses, but also in calculus, in sculpture, in computer programming, or in theater.

This is where AAC&U’s VALUE (VALID Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Assessment) rubrics come in. I stumbled across them one afternoon when looking for scoring guidelines that would help me rework the final research paper assignment in World Literature Honors, our post-AP senior English class.

This is just what I have been searching for, I thought. Once again, I was wrong. I had discovered a resource that went far beyond the bolstering of a single assignment. The VALUE rubrics, with their clear delineation of proficiency benchmarks that span disciplines, show that effective teaching must draw upon and encourage the complex range of rather miraculous abilities of the human mind.

The rubrics not only communicate ideal learning goals for the undergraduate college student, but also contain multiple standards that can be adapted for high school students, who, in my experience, learn most effectively—even joyfully—when given direction, encouragement, support, and a clear explanation of why they are doing what they are doing. The rubrics’ articulation of practical and intellectual skills, as well as their breadth of learning outcomes, helps me more effectively describe the relevance of my students’ work.

Since my discovery of the AAC&U materials, I have adapted their framing language and rubric dimensions into assignments and assessments to complement my curricular goals. By thinking about the larger categories of skills that underlie student performance in individual tasks, I’ve also been able to tell students, much more explicitly, what they do well. By doing this, I can help the video games wizard who claims she is “terrible” at English see that her critical thinking is leading her to generate fascinating commentary on the relationship between imagery, syntax, and rhetorical impact in Claudius’s opening soliloquy in Hamlet. The aspiring novelist who shies away from STEM can understand how his gift of creative thinking, and his bent for finding innovative approaches to solving problems, can be applied to his AP Physics work. As students leave the twelfth grade and matriculate to college and university study, these are the skills—and the self-awareness—that will support their academic success and, I hope, their joy of learning.

None of us knows exactly what our classrooms will look or feel like this fall. I’m taking online classes on remote teaching, examining my curriculum to focus on the essentials, and reviewing my Zoom disasters from last spring so I don’t repeat my blunders. While I’m scared, I’m not falling apart in anxious anticipation of a calamitous semester. Instead, I’m trying to follow the spirit of the AAC&U Creative Thinking VALUE Rubric, which explains that inventive thinking “pushes beyond . . . boundaries in new, unique, or atypical recombinations, uncovering or critically perceiving new syntheses and using or recognizing creative risk-taking to achieve a solution.”

This reminds me that I’m still a student.

And I still love school.

Video Discussion with a K–12 Educator’s Perspective on Rubrics


Amanda Clarke is the William Turner Levy Endowed Chair for Inspired Teaching at Viewpoint School in Calabasas, California.

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