During focus group research for the book Digital Life Together, two secondary school students offered the following reflections about what happens when their teachers assign reading tasks:
we’ll ask [our teachers], “can we skim it and just look for the answers?” And they’re, like, “No, I actually want you to read it”. … One of my teachers did that and I diligently read it and took notes…because I just do that. And I know a lot of people did because he emphasized that it’s important to read it, whereas most teachers I get, I kind of skim it and look for the answers…[Student 2]
they just say, “Here’s your reading assignment, fill out the worksheet,” and it is easy to just do Apple F and find where the answers are to each of the questions.”1
This brief exchange stayed with me for several reasons. I am going to suggest below that they point us to a simple discipline that might help us grow as Christian educators and deepen our students’ learning. But first let’s listen more closely.
Let’s start by looking again at what the students are saying. They seem to offer two somewhat conflicting narratives. The first is a heart-warming story of ethically engaged teachers and instinctively virtuous students. These teachers routinely emphasize careful reading and reflection. They “actually want you to read it.” The student, diligent by nature, responds with due care, because “I just do that.” In the same sentences, however, a second story looms. In this version, teachers do not usually talk about how to read. With “most teachers” the instruction is “here’s your reading assignment.” Under these conditions, the student does not read so carefully after all: “I kind of skim it and look for the answers.” It begins to sound as if the utopian scenario was more of an exception to the rule.
The students notice that digital technology amplifies the temptation to skim. Convenient search tools make it easier to find the sentences that contain answers rather than going to all the trouble of reading and understanding the text. The barriers to succeeding at the task without full comprehension have been lowered. The less-disciplined form of reading becomes the path of least resistance. A more intentional and memorable intervention by the teacher (“because he emphasized”) might be necessary if something better is to happen. Just saying “here’s your reading assignment” may be an even less effective gambit than it used to be.
None of this is happening in a vacuum. The meaning of our teaching takes shape amid a culture that offers more pressure toward getting things done than toward deep reflection. Some have noted an internalized “completion bias” that ties satisfaction to task completion to the extent that checking off a few trivial tasks at the start of each day can increase overall motivation and satisfaction.2 Easier tasks that offer a quicker sense of completion become a more appealing target for mental resources than more challenging and complex endeavors.
Does schooling help with or hinder this tendency? I doubt the answer is simple. I suspect that these student comments reflect a common pattern of assigning and assessing tasks with task completion in the rhetorical foreground. “Read to page 37 by next time.” “Answer all 8 questions.” “Post three comments.” “Write 200 words.” “Get the next chapter read by Tuesday.” “Here’s your reading assignment, fill out the worksheet.” Might such instructions invite students to focus more on productivity than on other aspects of learning and growth? For these students at least, the answer seems to be “yes.”
Part of the challenge is that all of these exchanges involve what are commonly unexamined moments. I suspect that “here’s your reading assignment” is most often articulated in the last hundred seconds of class time, when students are beginning to pack their bags, and we race to mention the homework. During this last-minute verbal reflex, I wonder how often faith, learning, and formation are at the top of our minds. Experience suggests to me that announcing the assignment is rarely our finest minute. Yet, I would like to suggest that we could gain significantly from focusing our attention on that minute.
There is, I think, benefit in pausing to ask what exactly it is that we are asking students to do and become when we assign a text. (The same principle can apply to other kinds of task; for brevity I focus here on reading tasks). I am not just thinking of how the content might be helpful (though that of course matters a lot), but of how the act of reading is supposed to contribute to students’ formation. What kind of readers do we hope they will become and how is this task a form of practice toward that? And how might we articulate that hope to students? I explained it like this in a recent syllabus for a course on curriculum theory:
Each week you will read scholarly work on curriculum and instruction. There is a long tradition of Christian reflection on what it means to read in light of the calling to love God and neighbor. The authors of each text we read, and your fellow readers, are all neighbors. Each time we engage with a thoughtful work we have an opportunity to grow in our practice of justice (can I read carefully enough to fairly represent what the author is aiming to say, and not overlay it with my own prejudices or distort it through hasty judgments?), patience (when a text seems wrong or difficult or irrelevant, can I give it time to unfold and wait to find the point of connection?), humility (can I come to each text looking for what I can learn from it and not stand too quickly in judgment over it?) and charity (can I read in such a way as to believe well of the author for as long as possible?). This is far from easy. It means resisting the temptation to treat thoughtful texts as sources of quick information snippets or fodder for winning arguments. I will be looking for evidence in your forum discussions of how you have been reading.
Suppose this is a fair representation of one subset of my learning goals. Having named it explicitly, for basic consistency, I now need to avoid practices that might steer us toward skim-reading and quick searches for answers. That includes the tasks I assign, the way I assess, and how I talk about reading assignments. The moment of assigning reading is no longer a quick act of information management. It is a reminder of the hopes to which we have committed ourselves by embarking on the course. I become more likely to be explicit with students about how I hope they will grow as they read, about which parts I would like them to re-read or read slowly, about how they need to discipline their reactions to parts that are difficult or contentious, and so on. Announcing reading assignments becomes part of how I communicate what we are trying to become.
I would like, therefore, to propose a modest spiritual discipline for this semester.
Here’s your assignment.
At least once a week, when you announce an activity or an assignment to students, take the time to say a little about:
- how you want them to engage in the assignment,
- how you think that engagement will help them to grow, and
- why you think that it will help them grow.
In a few sentences, connect the assignment to the deeper goals of the course. Draw upon your own learning experiences. Link your hopes for learning to students’ wider formation. Communicate a vision for the task at hand that involves more than filling up time with productivity. Articulate what it is that is supposed to change for the better if we go about the task the right way, and what exactly is meant by “better.” Don’t go on at great length. Think about it ahead of time, identify your central concern, and express it clearly and succinctly. Don’t berate, lament this dark generation, or predict disappointment. Focus on gently supporting student learning. Express shared hope for how we can grow together as we give ourselves for learning. Hold repeatedly to this hope even when both you and your students fall short.
I am not suggesting that if we get the words right, all students will respond virtuously, or that the two students quoted here stand for all. I do think it is plausible to assume that many students are influenced by what teachers tell them they are supposed to be doing, and that this is one of the routine ways in which we can contribute to their good. Also, the mere attempt can force us into explicit reflection about why we are assigning a task and what we hope for from it, pushing us toward integrity and consistency in the vision that informs our teaching. These twin impulses of service and reflective integrity are, I think, grounds enough to make it worth devoting some uncomfortable attention to how we assign things. Consider it a small act of faithfulness that may bear fruit out of proportion to the time invested.
- David I. Smith, Kara Sevensma, Marjorie Terpstra, & Steven McMullen, Digital Life Together: The Challenge of Technology for Christian Schools. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020, p.235. I have also discussed these student comments and some of the ideas in this article in David I. Smith, ‘Devices, Teachers, and Students: How are our Choices Shaped?’ Christian Educators Journal, December 2019. https://www.cejonline.com/article/devices-teachers-and-students-how-are-our-choices-shaped/
- Francesca Gino & Bradley Staats, ‘Your Desire to Get Things Done Can Undermine Your Effectiveness’, Harvard Business Review, March 22, 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/03/your-desire-to-get-things-done-can-undermine-your-effectiveness