My students know that they can “get away” with turning assignments in late. Although I provide an ideal time frame for when work should be completed, students know that assignments are due when students are ready to receive feedback.
When I mention this to fellow teachers, the first reaction I get tends to be, “Well how will you teach them to be responsible?”
I can rattle off a diatribe about how assessment is about learning rather than character, but I believe character matters. I believe in teaching the whole student. I want my students developing into responsible, self-directed learners; which is precisely why I don’t do punishments and rewards.
Sustainable responsibility happens as a result of ownership, passion and ethical thinking. When a student owns his or her learning, that student has a chance to be passionate about it. Typically that passion transfers into a sense of stewardship for the learning that occurred. Thus learning becomes a sacred act, internalized within the student. Suddenly the late assignment is a missed opportunity to learn. Moreover, the student is able to see that putting things off delays feedback.
By contrast, the student who gets zeroes and lectures about “the real world,” learns to do the bare minimum to avoid a slap on the wrist. That child becomes dependent on “good job” and “let’s work on getting this in on time” and never figures out what it means to manage one’s education. Moreover, it creates in some students a procrastination complex where they have to feel pressured before they get to work on an assignment.
In my first year of teaching, I had a 60% assignment completion rate from my students. Last year, it hovered around 97% (though the students had the opportunity to customize the assignments if they spoke to me about it ahead of time).
It’s at this point that someone might pull the Real World card. But here’s the thing: in the real world, the motives for responsibility are almost entirely intrinsic. Yes, I have to pay bills so I don’t lose my house. However, I also pay them out of a deep love for my family. I teach, not because of a paycheck, but because I get to do something that fits my passion, beliefs and identity. I read, not because I’ll get a coupon for a hunk of fried dough, but because I enjoy learning.
I am responsible, because I am intrinsically driven to do the things that matter. I have a strong sense of ownership. And the crazy thing is I learned this mentality as a kid by deliberately ignoring grades and taking learning into my own hands. I became responsible when I ignored my physics homework so that I could write poetry. I became responsible when I refused to study for a test, because I wanted to read Plato. In other words, I became more responsible by being a “slacker” who had fallen in love with learning.
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John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Start, a book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and Lunatics. He has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for Zombies. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer