The Problem with Exemplars

Years ago while working on new curriculum, I spent a great deal of time with colleagues collecting and identifying exemplary work. Usually attached to rubric, these artifacts were intended to showcase the highest quality of work and present students with something to aim for. We often would reference these with students to the point where these became more than guides but the ultimate goal. It’s one the problems with rubrics. But it’s not just within curriculum where exemplars can be an issue, it happens all the time.

There’s no question that exemplars can be useful and even motivating. But often they are unattainable or perhaps not even desirable.

Let me share a few examples.

In Curriculum:

While I believe showing examples of quality work can be useful, many students immediately shut down when they perceive too great a gap between their current ability and what is deemed exemplary. I’m certainly not against the use of high quality exemplars but caution against too few examples as well as a lack of scaffolding to see where incremental success can be found. In addition, the power comes when the student decides what they want their work to be.

In my pre-service courses I have my students set up blogs. They want to know what a good blog post should look like. While I tried using rubrics in the past, I switched to using guidelines or considerations.  As well I ask my students to seek out their own examples of what they wanted their blogs to look like and become. After collecting these, we’re better able to see the range of what constitutes quality and meaning and expand our definitions of exemplary.

 In Teachers:

The term “rock star educator” is often a playful, affectionate term applied to teachers doing interesting and sometimes extraordinary things in the classroom. Yet as someone who worked in a district with many who fit this moniker, they can be very intimidating and off putting to others either not interested or willing to adopt their colleagues enthusiasm and passion. I realized that while for some, they were inspiring, for others it was best they found their passion independently. Constant reminders of how great teacher x was often created more barriers.

While I’m all for leaders acknowledging and highlighting the work of teachers, they need to pay close attention to who and what they are highlighting. Diversity, in this case is more than a political consideration, it serves to welcome and applaud the range of greatness that exists in every school and district. It takes someone actively seeking out things they may not always notice or value but understand that so many teachers are doing great things big and small.  The goal is is to create a culture of gratitude but also one of innovation.

In Students

While we all want what’s best for students, there’s a strong trend of late that “best” = changing the world. “You can change the world” “Be the change” “Make a difference” All these sentiments and mantras are pretty prevalent in education today. I don’t recall ever getting this message in my own K-12 days. I think they are powerful and important messages of hope and empowerment. But like any good idea, there is a danger that I don’t think some are considering.

Not every kid needs to change the world. Not every kid will invent something that changes lives. For some of our students, simply finding some peace and confidence to survive another day is enough. For others, building a life and a family is a worthy goal. I worry about kids uninterested in these sentiments. I don’t think it’s always because their apathetic or immature I think for some this is not how they see their lives unfolding.  Asking and expecting them to change the world can be overwhelming and perhaps even deflating.

The hope of digital and access means that everyone can have a voice and the potential for empowering anyone to make a difference exists. That said, nothing is for everyone and while we might get excited over We Day events and TED talks, not everyone can and should. We need to be careful not to unintentionally send a message out that alienates the very people we are charged with teaching.

If indeed we believe in differentiation, we need to differentiate our expectations and goals and realize that they may have different aspirations. Exposing them to all the possibilities is the exciting and rewarding work of a K-12 education. Allowing them to choose their path is the promise of a democratic society. It’s our job to ask the question, “How do you want to live?” but it’s their job to answer it.

So I’ll continue to seek exemplars and when the time is right, share them and seek feedback. At the same time I’m looking for others examples of “great” and as an educator, work to make sense and meaning of these and apply it as broadly and to as many as possible without my own bias of what is great becoming an impediment. I’m happy to start a conversation about what is great but I can’t be the only voice.