Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Cult of Finished Work

    When I was in second grade, I had a wonderful teacher. Quiet and soft-spoken, she engaged us in reading self-selected books in an age of basal readers, encouraged us to complete cooperative projects, and taught eight-year-olds how to summarize with strategies I still use today.
    I clearly remember one episode from my days spent with her. One day, as I was probably reading Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, I got the idea to create a newspaper for dolls. During seatwork time I called my teacher over to show her my idea. "I love it," she said. "Make more."
    She didn't mean someday, she meant now. So I went and worked with a few other interested students to make a tiny newspaper. We created advertisements for things that dolls would like, tried to think about articles for dolls, and wrote in super-tiny writing.
    Did we finish? I forget. I certainly don't have a finished product, and I don't think we continued making more past that magical morning. But the experience of the thrill of creation has stayed with me.

    I come back to thinking about this story a lot as I think about school. In many schools, there is an obsession with Finished Work. Students must finish "their work", which means that every line is filled in on the worksheet, every problem completed on the math page, every paragraph written of the essay. And yet I wonder--is this necessary?

Conflation of Learning with Completing
    In some ways, this obsession with finished work conflates learning with task completion. It's easy to see why these two processes are confused. Learning is messy, recursive, and difficult to measure. On the other hand, task completion is a simple yes/no question: Is it done?
    But every teacher knows that a student who has completed a task has not necessarily mastered a concept. The reverse is also true. Using task completion as a substitute for learning is shaky at best and damaging at worst.

Linear vs. Recursive Processes
    How can a focus on task completion be damaging? Research into higher-level thinking tasks like synthesizing reveals that the best work comes from those who use a recursive process. In a recursive process, the learner moves back and forth between tasks like reading and writing. Learners take time to consider information and act upon it. Sometimes they find dead ends which must be abandoned.
    But a focus on task completion encourages a linear process. Students get an assignment, finish it, and move on to the next. Students rarely look back at finished tasks, because they are finished. They do not engage in recursive thinking, because they are busy looking on to what they must do next.

Breaking Free
    Moving beyond the cult of Finished Work can be hard for a teacher. At first, you feel as if you are not a Good Teacher. Good Teachers have neat little gradebooks filled with marks that show exactly what students have learned. Allowing a student to "get away with" not completing an assignment makes one feel like a shirker, a wishy-washy impostor who doesn't have high standards.
    But the feeling changes when we think about the true purpose of the work. The activities we assign are learning tools. If an activity has no value beyond the learning, then why must it be completed?
    Moving beyond Finished Work requires a teacher to ask two questions:

What is the learning goal for this assignment?

Does this assignment have value beyond the learning goal?

What is the learning goal?
    This question seems so simple, but is deceptively complex. What do we want students to learn from an assignment? If the task is practice, then how much practice is needed before we can say that students have attained the skill? These are hard questions to consider, but they are so worthwhile for reflection.

Does this assignment have value beyond the learning goal?
    To think about this question, a teacher has to consider the WHY of an assignment. An assignment that is authentic and has real world value may very well have a purpose beyond the learning. Students may be motivated and excited to complete this task even if they know the concepts behind it very well.
    Many school assignments, however, have little long-term value. Consider a page of 30 long division problems. If a student can do 10 with no problems, what is the purpose of having that student complete all 30? Is it so that the page is "done"? That student's time would be better spent on some kind of enrichment activity in which he or she is challenged to go beyond the long division algorithm and consider its utility in the real world.


Sole, Isabel, Miras, Mariana, Castells, Nuria, Espino, Sandra, Minguela, Marta. 2013. Written Communication, v30 n1, p 63-90.

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