Friday, August 26, 2016

What Kind of Work?


It's time to have a difficult conversation, teacher friends.

Here goes...

We have to think about what students are doing in your class, and why they are doing it.

What kind of work are students doing in your classroom? To what end? What is the purpose of the work they are doing? Do they even know? Do you know why you are assigning the things you assign? (Sorry, that last bit sounded nasty, but we need to talk about this.)

Think about the last thing you set before your students, whether as an in-class task, or as homework. What was the purpose of that work? The ready answer is perhaps, "To help them learn <fill in the blank with appropriate content>." Okay, sure. I'm with you there.

But my question remains, and it really is more philosophical, I guess: What is the real purpose of that work?

When you assigned that reading, that worksheet, that project, that video, that activity...what is the intended outcome? Are you intent that they complete the work? (Probably. And that is not a bad thing.) But why should they complete the work? Do the students have a stake in their own learning? Or are they just working on assignments...because that's what is assigned to them?

Here's the problem: if the only compelling reason students have for doing the work is "because I said so"...I am afraid we might be squashing their innate curiosity, desire to explore, and sense of wonder about this amazing world.

I wonder sometimes if electronic gradebooks are part of the problem. When faced with those "holes" in the gradebook that appear when students haven't finished every piece of work assigned to them, we (I) start to bristle and bustle and want to cajole them into completing their assignments. But I wonder if the technology of the gradebook might actually be upending the real purpose of the assignments. If the point is that we assign work to students so that they will the real purpose completing every assigned task? Or...dare I say it... is the purpose actually learning? 

I know that many of you are overwhelmed with a busy schedule, teaching a variety of subjects, just trying to keep up. Maybe you don't have time to think about the kinds of things you are assigning to students. Maybe even trying to keep the kids busy? I totally understand this feeling, really. But I wonder if keeping them "busy" is not really the same thing as keeping them learning?

I think the real question behind the kind of work we ask students to do is this: "Is education something I DO to the students, or is education something PARTICIPATORY on the part of students?" The way we answer that question makes all the difference, I think.

My friend Alice Keeler tweeted the image below earlier today. I think it raises an important question that we have to consider:

Image by Alice Keeler [Used with permission]

(By the way...if you are an educator on Twitter, and you aren't following Alice Keeler, you should be. Just sayin'...)

What kind of work are you asking of students? Are you filling holes in the gradebook? Are you keeping them "busy" with assignments? Or are you inviting students to participate in their education: to think, to investigate, to wonder, to create, and to revel in the joy of learning?


  1. As a BE teacher to adults my basic philosophy is: "Teacher learn and students teach". So, any 'assignments' as such are given with the objectives that they'll help students explain what they need to explain, in English - better.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Philip. That is the sort of "assignment" I'm dreaming of as well: practically relevant, aimed at demonstrating learning, and open to student ownership of the learning process. I love it!