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| Volume 68 | Number 1
Giving Students Meaningful Work
"Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." — Theodore Roosevelt
How likely is it that our students come to school expecting the best part of the day to be the chance to dig into schoolwork? As the above quote implies, students won't experience demanding work as its own reward unless they feel in their bones that the work is worth doing. And, according to Joseph and Claudia Allen ("The Big Wait," p. 22), when teachers couch schoolwork only in terms of practice for later life instead of as directly affecting life now, learners may conclude that schoolwork is worth little. Consider the scenario Allen and Allen paint:
One morning you wake up to find yourself living in a twilight-zone world. Walking outside, you see your neighbor across the street, a surgeon, who remarks that he spends his days just cutting up cadavers to practice his craft. As you move through your day, you realize that lawyers now argue only mock cases, plumbers practice repairing fake leaks, and airline pilots fly only on flight simulators. … The meaning of your work is gone, and increasingly, you feel bored, restless, apathetic, and even lazy. … You're experiencing the life of a typical high school student! (p. 23)
For high school teachers:
Allen and Allen claim that high school teachers are in a prime position to help "reintroduce[e] elements of real adulthood back into their teenage years." Look over the four approaches they list, especially providing real-world feedback. Discuss as a group:
In "Five Hallmarks of Good Homework" (p. 10), Cathy Vatterott examines whether typical homework assignments would pass the "work worth doing" test in students' minds. She finds the answer is often no. Kathleen Cushman ("Show Us What Homework's For," p. 24) heard a similar message as she surveyed teenagers about whether homework felt like meaningful practice. First on Vatterott's list of five characteristics of worthwhile homework is "the task has a clear academic purpose." Cushman also found students wanted the purpose of homework to be clear.
Check whether your typical homework assignment communicates to learners a worthwhile purpose for their hard work:
ReLeah Lent ("The Responsibility Breakthrough", p. 68) believes student ownership of schoolwork—particularly giving students choice in assignments—leads to meaningfulness. She sometimes lets students fully design their own assignments with such spare parameters as "I want you to read and write something." Lent recommends that teachers "provide as much autonomy as possible in choice of content, task, texts, partners, delivery, due dates, and assessment."
EL's new research columnist, Bryan Goodwin ("Choice is a Matter of Degree," p. 80), cites research that shows giving students too many choices in schoolwork has diminishing returns. One study found, for instance, that college students who were given a choice of six possible essay topics were more likely to complete a two-page writing assignment than were a group of students offered 30 topic choices.
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