Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Reasonable and Realistic Assignments

Hey there, teacher...

That assignment you gave your students today...how much time will it take your students to complete?

I suspect you have an estimate in mind for how long you expect it will take a "typical" student to complete it. But I want to slow you down there a minute... Who is this "typical" student? Does s/he really exist? How many of your real-life students are actually represented by this "typical" student?

Since we're living in the real world, and not the world of the hypothetical "typical"...a very real question for you: is the assignment you are giving out reasonable and realistic in the amount of time it will take for your real students? And if you quickly answered, "Well of course!" to that last question...how do you know? Remember, you're the adult, already an expert in this content, and you--as a teacher--are clearly a "winner" at the game of school. Do you really know how long it will take a struggling reader to read that assignment? Do you know if your talented and gifted learners really need the practice? Do you know if your students really are prepared for the work, based on you teaching--or are they going to need help and support from an adult at home?

Image by Scott Barkley [CC BY 2.0]

So...back to my original question: That assignment you gave your students today...how much time will it take your students to complete?

That can be a tricky one to answer in the real world, can't it? Because...well...there are a number of factors at play. Some kids work quickly...and some need more time. Some kids rush through to get done...and some are detail-oriented and meticulous. Some kids find your subject easy...and some struggle with it every day.

You might say, "Well...I gave them class time to work on their assignment, and it only becomes homework if they don't get it finished in class."

Right. I've been there too--that was my go-to strategy when I taught middle school math, and it was my approach at the beginning of my tenure as a middle school science teacher too.

But you know what I realized? It was almost always the same kids who had the work done in class...and the same kids who took the work home with them. Is that a problem? Well...maybe not...but maybe it is.

You see, this is the issue with one-size-fits-all assignments: different kids need different things to learn, to thrive, to flourish. Some need lots of practice. Some need just a little. Some need different practice. Some need supports to learn successfully. Some need space to be creative and will astound you with the things they come up with.

Yes, it's easier to just assign them all the same thing and be done with it. Yes. It is. Straight up, no foolin' around, it's easier.

But is it right?

I'm not arguing against practice. Most things require some practice to get good at them. This is true of playing the oboe, or shooting a left-handed layup, or doing long division problems, or writing original poetry, or reading a science textbook with comprehension, or creating a digital story to illustrate learning. Practice makes permanent.

And, because practice makes permanent, we need to get this right!

I think it's essential that we plan assignments carefully and thoughtfully, and we should take the time to explain to students why we are giving them a given task. If it's for practice, let's say so! If it's for preparation for the next day's lesson, tell 'em! If it's busywork for a grade to somehow justify that you're doing something in your classroom...yeah, I think you should fess up about that too. 

Let's ensure that those assignments we give are reasonable and realistic. And...if we aren't sure...maybe we shouldn't assign them? Or...we should do the hard work of bringing students into the conversation--helping them self-assess for the amount of practice they actually need?

What do you think, teachers? Do you have strategies for how to do this? Please share your thoughts--help me think this through!

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