I saw an interesting article on PHYS.org the other day that got me thinking about how we design and implement assignments and projects in our classes.
The article was written by Sam Birmingham, a coordinator of a company that promotes tech startups in Australia. The article discusses how children should play with their LEGO sets to improve their skills…..the answer is not by following instructions. Birmingham’s article acknowledges that when children create builds independently, following the directions for a given set, their confidence and basic skill are improved. However, he encourages us to then throw away the instructions and encourage children to play collaboratively and come up with their own ideas. In doing so, they gain more complex skills that become important later on. An expert quoted in the article makes a clear connection between the different kinds of play and future careers, suggesting that instruction following jobs are becoming automated and that jobs will be in areas where creativity is necessary.
I think these ideas are highly important and relevant in our classrooms. Are we creating students who follow instructions or are we creating students who can think creatively and work with others?
The past few semesters I have started adding “instruction-less” final projects to some of my courses as a way to get students to think creatively, collaboratively, and to explore a content area they are specifically interested in. In my social psychology class, students identified one of three areas of applied social psychology that interested them. I used that information to place them into groups and then gave them the last two weeks of the class to design and implement a project on some aspect of that topic. They then presented their projects for their final exam. That’s pretty much all the guidance I gave them, I encouraged them to be creative and not just create a boring PowerPoint presentation. In some ways it was a hard assignment; students wanted more information on how to do the project, a clearer grading scheme (here is the one I used at the time), and example ideas. And yet, when I pushed back and challenged them to come up with their own ideas, they produced some wonderful projects. One group who covered social psychology in the clinic interviewed the campus counselor and created a video with the interview and other relevant clips. Another group who covered social psychology and the environment presented three proposals for community projects to make the town and campus more environmentally friendly. It was awesome! I have tried a similar project in my General Psychology class too, although I’ll admit, with less success (I’m working on it though).
As important as I believe it is to let students take the reins sometimes, I still think it’s important to teach students to follow instructions. As the article says, instruction following builds confidence. And, realistically, the instructions we may offer on a given assignment are not as detailed and perfectly algorithmic as LEGO instructions. I still see students struggling to follow assignment guidelines or use the grading rubric to assess whether or not they have completed all of the requirements of a structured assignment. So these kinds of assignments still have value (and I still regularly use them).
Perhaps then the best approach is to scaffold. Work on the “instruction-y” assignments to build their confidence, and then throw them out and give them a chance to strike out on their own.
How have you encouraged your student’s to take the reins in your coursework?
Written by Ciara Kidder