By Howard Pitler
Often when I observe in classrooms, I hear teachers begin their instructions for an assignment with “What I want you to do for me . . .” I am sure that I, too, used that phrase hundreds or even thousands of times over the years. However, after recent reflection, I think this phrase, which is essentially just used as filler language, may have a much more loaded meaning than most teachers realize. The unintended message this language conveys is that the task assigned is something that the student should do for the teacher. Thus, the assignment represents a transaction between the student and the teacher—one that will remain entirely within the confines of the classroom and be judged solely by the teacher. It’s not an assignment for the student—it’s for the teacher.
There are certainly times in the learning process when teachers want the students to do something for them. Teachers need to see where students are in the learning process and use that formative data to provide specific feedback and decide the next steps for students. This is, of course, a necessary part of good teaching.
My belief, however, is that enduring learning should transcend the classroom. When learners know that only the teacher will view their work, they want to do well enough to please the teacher, get a good grade, and move on. When learners know that a wider audience made up of peers and others throughout the world may view their work, they want their work to represent the best they can do. Instead of thinking about what their teacher wants to know, the learners are forced to think about what they would want to know.
I remember a conversation I had with a student when I was a middle school principal. This 7th grader was struggling in language arts, turning in subpar reports and essays or missing them altogether. Her teacher frequently saw her writing in class, but her assignments didn’t seem to show much thought or care. It seemed like she was just trying to get by.
I asked her why she didn’t like to write, and she looked me right in the eyes and said, “What do you mean? I love writing.” I told her that, based on what I was hearing, it seemed like she didn’t. She said that I should go to a website called Figment and look at her writing. On the website, I found that she had posted more than 20 stories. Her stories were expressive, well-written, and filled with detailed characters and plots. Each story had numerous comments and suggestions. One person even commented that he was a big fan of her writing.
To say that I was surprised would be an understatement. I asked her why getting her to write in class was like pulling teeth since she obviously liked to write and was good at it. She immediately replied, “When I write online, I know that people from all over are going to read my stuff. They will tell me what they like and give me suggestions to make my stories better. I am always trying to make my online stories better. When I write in class, I do what I need to do to get a grade, and I am done with it. It really doesn’t mean much to me.”
As teachers plan units of instruction, a good practice is to give students an authentic audience toward the end of the unit. This might mean posting a finished product on the class website, sharing work with another school using Skype or Facetime, or showing learning in a short video and then tweeting it out on the school Twitter account.
When I was an elementary school principal, my school had a television station. My students wrote and produced a 10-minute show every morning. They were also responsible for a 30-minute show on the district’s public access station. Students knew this was real work for a real audience with real deadlines and responsibilities. That was 2o years ago, and, still today, I have former students who message me to tell me how much that experience meant to them and taught them.
Having an authentic audience changes the focus of learning so that, rather than completing work for the sole benefit of the teacher, learners can find their own meaning in an assignment. With an authentic audience, learners are able to focus on their process and their intended results instead of merely focusing on pleasing an audience of one—a teacher with a red pen and an answer sheet.
Howard Pitler is a dynamic facilitator, speaker, and instructional coach with a proven record of success spanning four decades. Pitler is an ASCD Faculty member and the author of several ASCD publications including Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd edition, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition. Contact Pitler at email@example.com or on his website.