A Student’s Best and an Assignment’s Value
I’m on a constant search for amazing stories, and I particularly like those that tell the story of the good people can do—when given the chance.
Stories of amazing learning can define a school for its community, and fostering and sharing successes in ways that become stories shared should be an emphasis for every school.
Amazing learning, though, can require giving students opportunities that completely step away from their day-to-day experiences. The Memory Project, for example, gives high school art students the opportunity to brighten the lives of orphans thousands of miles away. The change in purpose from earning a grade to doing something meaningful for others can create powerful moments of learning.
Bringing out the best in our students does not always require a major project, though. It can also be a function of tweaks to assignments: encouraging connections to something outside of class, working in a group when individual roles tap the strengths of each student, or allowing options for how they show their mastery of what they are learning. All of these elements can lead to stronger work.
As a guy who started a charity built around sharing learning through video, I’ve spent years exploring how video and expanding one’s audience can change how students think about the quality of their work. (See nextvista.org/tag/gsvff for videos from last year’s Global Student Voice Film Festival for examples of students’ talents for telling stories.)
My focus on video has sparked for me lots of reflection on what makes for strong assignments, and raised plenty of questions about the value of assignments I’ve given or seen in the past.
As an educator, when you give an assignment, you do so because it will help your students learn something. The homework, the classroom activity, the project, the oral quiz, the written exam—we do these kinds of things because they are supposed to help students become comfortable with concepts and material in the curriculum.
That’s why we do them, but that doesn’t mean that they result in the learning we have in mind.
This is obvious in the sense that not every student masters what we put in front of them. For many of us, though, there may not be enough conscious questioning of whether a given assignment results in any meaningful learning for those who complete it.
The most common target I’ve encountered in discussions of the value of learning activities is the math problem set. Imagine a sheet of paper with fifty equations to complete. The questions about the assignment are easy enough for us. Would ten have been just as effective? How about five and feedback in the form of a couple of sentences on what the student thinks is challenging when doing this kind of problem? It’s possible that fifty is too few, but at core, the real question is whether we have a ready explanation for why we assign that number of problems.
It may not be all that different for writing. If you assign four essays over the course of the semester, is that meaningfully better than three? Should you have assigned five? If you can’t easily draw and convey distinctions for the different goals for each of the essays, then doing another may not be yielding enough value for the student to merit their time spent doing it, nor your time spent grading it.
Another way to put all of this is: is what you are giving students nothing more than busywork? If what you’re having them do is failing to help them move forward with their learning, then the assignment is simply filling time. The answer to the question above is yes.
I have seen some seriously animated conversations about this idea with regard to the role of homework.
Those who feel homework is important may be drawing from their sense of how school should be, based on how school was for them. Giving loads of assignments may be seen as being a dedicated and demanding teacher. Coupled with this thinking, there is a directive in many settings that new grades should be entered into the system every week (or every few days) to allow parents to be able to follow the progress of their children.
Those who feel homework is or isn’t valuable are often thinking very specifically of its role in their own subject. It may be that in generalizing these ideas, one is infuriating one’s colleagues who see their work differently. Someone who sees limited value in one kind of problem set, for example, might not be considering the importance of practice for learning in an arts or world languages classes. Still, in those classes, like any other, what’s required may or may not help with what needs to be learned.
Whatever the intensity of the disagreement we and our colleagues may have on these topics, we often fail to tap the strongest perspectives on the value of the assignments we give: those of our students.
Have you ever asked a class how you might change an assignment so it would be better for their learning? They’ll probably have ideas because learning is what they are tasked with doing during most business hours.
You may need to find clever ways of asking them. A class discussion suffers from being limited only to those unafraid of speaking up in front of the larger group. You might use a survey or try an online chat or forum to prompt more participation, and then use ideas from that as seeds for group discussions.
In asking for their insights, it’s no small possibility that some eager-to-talk students have the specific goal of simply lessening what you require of them. The question “Am I giving you too much homework?” might result in a predictable affirmative, depending on the culture of your school and community. The question “How might we change this to make it as valuable to you as possible?” is something different.
Of course, students may struggle to articulate what truly works for them. After a half dozen not-so-useful ideas, though, a student may offer a thought that enlivens learning for them and changes how you think about what’s possible. In following through on suggestions they offer (or tactfully explaining why you won’t), you will be demonstrating your commitment to help them learn in the best way possible, and at the same time let them know that you actually listen.
The fundamental question is whether or not your current class practices result in genuine learning. Being honest with yourself about the value of what you assign, along with getting meaningful feedback on what you try, can make for a better, and notably more effective, classroom environment for everyone.
For more ideas on how to improve your teaching, please take a look at Making Your Teaching Something Special: 50 Simple Ways to Become a Better Teacher, by Rushton Hurley from EdTechTeam Press.
Rushton Hurley holds graduate degrees from Stanford University, is heavily involved in service efforts in his community, and has worked and studied on six continents as a high school Japanese language teacher, principal of an online high school, a teacher trainer, and a speaker. He founded and is executive director of the educational nonprofit Next Vista for Learning, which houses a free library of videos by and for teachers and students at NextVista.org.
A regular keynoter at conferences around the world, Rushton has trained and worked with teachers and school leaders on all continents not called Antarctica. His fun and thoughtful talks center on inspiration and creativity; the connection between engaging learning and useful, affordable technology; the power of digital media; and the professional perspectives and experiences of teachers at all levels. His first book, Making Your School Something Special, was released by EdTechTeam Press in January of 2017. His second book, Making Your Teaching Something Special, was released in June, 2017.