The Best Kind of Assignment

In my humble opinion, the best kind of assignment is no assignment at all. Allow me to explain myself.

The most valuable kind of work a student can do is work that is voluntary, self-motivated, and unassigned. This is the kind of thing a student thinks of and pursues independently, just because they think it’s cool. Despite the elusive and difficult-to-quantify nature of uncoerced student productivity, it is unquestionably the richest, most meaningful work of all. Students learn and retain more by exercising their own creative and independent ideas than they will ever completing our imposed tasks and assessments. This self-propelled work is often the best use of everyone’s time.

The logistics of creating space and opportunity for this kind of work in the classroom, however, are incredibly tricky. The very idea requires a lot of careful planning and trust in students on the part of the classroom educator. It involves trimming down compulsory classroom work to the bare necessities so we have time and energy for intellectual play. It requires me to strategically cultivate attitudes of exploration and curiosity over time so my students are increasingly predisposed to come up with, recognize, and act on creative compositional impulses. Relationships between the students and myself and between the students themselves must be mentored into bringing about the kind of collaborative environment that naturally erupts into spontaneous acts of creation. It’s actually kind of exhausting, but, in my experience, TOTALLY worth it.

The central, anxious questions haunting my dreams as I try to design a classroom environment that invites voluntary work always go something like…

  • What if students choose to do nothing with the space I create for voluntary exploration?
  • What if students apply what I’m teaching them incorrectly?
  • What if students are only interested in one avenue of exploration and neglect necessary skills, leaving them unprepared for future academic exploits?
  • How do I grade this madness?

This is an adapted list, as the complete one is approximately 30 times as long; however, I have found that there are pretty practical, simple answers to these questions.

  • What if students just choose to do nothing with the space I create for voluntary exploration? Some will. Others won’t. As time goes on, the number of students choosing to do nothing will dwindle as they observe their peers interested and engaged in really cool, individualized work. Some students choosing to do nothing with the space might actually just need space.
  • What if students apply what I’m teaching them incorrectly? What I often perceive as incorrect application of a skill or principle I’ve taught can, on closer inspection, just be a student’s very different take on what we are learning together. However, if the student genuinely struggled to understand what I was teaching, there is NO better learning opportunity than when underway in an applicable, interesting project. 
  • What if students are only interested in one avenue of exploration and neglect necessary skills, leaving them unprepared for future academic exploits? My answer to this has been balance. I do not recommend doing away altogether with compulsory work that encourages students to stretch in all directions. I am however preparing my students for a world in which creativity, individual motivation, and ability to self-direct will probably get them a lot farther than any discrete content I have to teach them, so my classroom design needs to account for that.
  • How do I grade this madness? I grade effort, progress, and reflection. Have I watched the student struggle and overcome? Has the project evolved into something significantly more complex than the first draft? Can the student insightfully converse with me or peers on their intellectual process? It’s not scientific, but I find students rarely disagree with my final grades.

What I’ve learned while experimenting with this idea of creating space for students to act independently and then stepping back is this: when you invest in teaching your kids real world skills that are flexible, applicable, and multipurposed, they start doing really cool things just because they can. Teaching students how to flex their creative, activist, or design muscles can trigger a number of students to authentically desire to play with their newly discovered skills. We can and SHOULD stay up late at night designing strategic, well-integrated, and thoughtful assignments, but we also need to face the facts that the only people who can really create understanding and productivity in our students is our students themselves. So let’s do what we can to back them up!