Students need structure, especially students who struggle. Students need very clear expectations from their teachers so they know what to do. The more clarity and specificity in the directions the better. Rubrics and models show students what to strive for.
These are all familiar mantras, but I am not sure I believe them. I have always been uncomfortable with rubrics but that is another post – in fact, I wrote it last year. I have been thinking a lot about learning and life. We say we want to create life-long learners, but great achievements are not the result of following directions. There is no rubric for an Oscar winning film or a great novel. There is no single formula to make someone a successful teacher. There is not even a reliable process that scientists always use to approach a problem. In fact, this article about the limitations of the scientific method started me thinking about this today.
When we provide paths that become check lists, we are essentially giving kids Lego kits instead of boxes of random Legos. We will get the product we ask for, and if not, we will likely know how to judge what we get based on how close it comes to the image, but we will never get more. Each year, in Modern World History we do a group project where students trace a commodity through history. This year, we shifted the requirements for the bibliography from specifying how many book and scholarly sources to saying simply “Find the best sources” including books, articles, databases, etc. I still worry that we have done too much dictation of process and product in this project, but this is a start. I would rather talk to students about what makes a great collection of sources than have them match a formula.
Do we want students who can follow directions? Sometimes. Do we want students who can tackle a challenge from multiple angles? Always. Can we have a conversation with students asking them what they think the best qualities of a successful product or experiment are? Absolutely. Should we stand back and let them find their own path to the end? Yes. Should we be there to consult and provide suggestions and feedback along the way. Of course.
I think that in the end too much structure limits learning. If it really is about the process, that is where I want the most learning to happen. To learn, students need to think for themselves.