Standardisation is like making good bread

Some were like rock, and others looked squashed in the middle. It was the first attempt of a middle school class at making bread as part of their unit focusing on the concepts of precision and ratio, and they were disappointed at not having succeeded at translating these concepts into action during the bread-making session.

As the baking trays with the range of failed bread sat cooling on the cooking station counters, the math teacher asked, “What do you think happened?”

A beat passed while the students quickly thought. Then their thinking came alive for us in the toasty air of the cooking studio.

“My group didn’t measure accurately.”

“Maybe not enough yeast.”

“Maybe the water was too hot when I mixed it with the yeast.”

“Didn’t really follow directions on the recipe.

“I need to calculate the ratio from the 20 people recipe to the two-people recipe.”

“Too much liquid.”

“Not enough salt.”

“We were slow and didn’t bake it long enough.”

“Oven was not at the right temperature.”

The math teacher listened to the responses, paused and then asked, “Can we go back and take a look at the rubric again?”

The students flipped binders to the one-pager rubric. Pairs erupted into conversation about the task specific clarifications.

“The outer crust needs to show a range of color from dark to golden. It should be crispy and evenly thick throughout. That’s because of kneading. Or oven temperature.”

“Bread should bounce back when we press on it with a finger. Why is our bread collapsed.”

“It should have a smell like milk but not vinegar. No bitterness. Can’t really taste this, it’s like a rock.”

Walking around the student groups now animatedly talking about their criteria for good bread, the teacher heard them shift their talk to setting new goals.

Their statements started with phrases like “Next time,…,” “Maybe we should divide the work and time it better by…,” “We need to improve how we calculate…” and “We need to convert volume to weight…”

The math teacher didn’t have to instruct the students to set some new goals for the next baking session. But he did tell them that their next batch of bread would have tasters, some of their teachers and other students. 

“Will we know how many? We have to adjust our ratios in the recipe.”

“Is there going to be an exemplar for the tasters? Mr. J will you bake an exemplar?”

“How do the tasters know what the highest level is if we don’t have an exemplar?”

“Will you show them the rubric too?”

Bread-making in math was a great interdisciplinary link to a unit inquiring into the concepts of quality and choice, for these same students in Language and literature.

From this retelling we can see that these students understood the connection between the descriptions of success (criteria) and performance (how they achieved the descriptions of success).

We can see this from their comments and questions, and we can see this in the process they used to launch into goal setting as soon as they had quickly reflected on the outcomes of their performance. 

When the students went back to the rubric which described what success looked and felt like, they immediately connected this to the actions they might take to improve the outcomes.

When the teacher announced that there would be an authentic audience of tasters for the bread, the students asked questions that revealed their understanding of the standardisation of quality that both producer and audiences share, in order for the assessment of performance to be truly authentic. The students’ questions also provided guidance to the teacher on potential revisions to the task-specific clarifications that students needed to succeed in the next iteration of their performance.

Why this story is an illustration of the presence of standardisation

Standardisation is a process by which a group can come to agreement on interpretations of what quality looks like, given a set of criteria.

The process of standardisation is ongoing. The goals of this process are:

  • To arrive at a shared understanding of criteria as descriptors of success
  • To arrive at a shared understanding of how the tasks teachers design match the judgments of quality (criteria) that will ultimately result from application of the criteria to task performances
  • To apply the criteria with reliability and validity.

When we standardise collaboratively as a faculty, we are ensuring that our students and ourselves can count on how we interpret criteria levels of achievement when these are awarded to student work.

When we want our students to know how to achieve success in a task, we supply task specific clarifications, guidance on what success looks like for a particular task. It might also help students to gain a shared understanding of the criteria because students have to interpret the criteria for themselves as they produce the outcomes. This is where two important classroom processes come in: deconstruction of exemplars and guided use of assessment tools by the all users of these.

Deconstruction of exemplars

What makes a performance or product the highest achievement of criteria? What makes something an exemplary achievement of specific qualities? A discussion or mini-workshop inquiring into what makes exemplars high quality performances or products is a task that can be done collaboratively with students or adult groups. This ensures the shared understanding of criteria which is central to standardisation.

Guided use of assessment tools

The assumed knowledge of how to use the assessment criteria serves confusion. Yes, teachers know how to read a rubric or create one. Assuming that the quality described in the subject criteria is interpreted in the same way by each person is not an assumption that works for clarity of process.

We might find in a group of six teachers that there are six interpretations of what this descriptor means:

“The student consistently makes appropriate deductions when solving challenging problems in a variety of contexts including unfamiliar situations” (MYP Mathematics subject guide, 2015).

Besides, we might find six different answers to each of these quality-focussed questions:

  • What does ‘consistently’ mean to you?
  • What is ‘appropriate’?
  • What is ‘challenging’?
  • What is a ‘variety of contexts’?
  • What is an ‘unfamiliar situation’?

The process of standardisation helps teachers and students share understanding of what the criteria mean to them, in their particular context.

Like making good bread, where accuracy and precision and interpretations of quality are so important to achieve an exemplar, so too our process of collaborating on assessment practices create exemplars of learning in the ways teachers and students use assessment criteria to improve performance.

What are some of your burning questions around the standardisation process? Share them in the comments.

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    Author: alavina

    Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at

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