Three things I wish I’d said to shift thinking about assignment deadlines

I’d asked for push back. Toward the end of my second keynote address in as many days at the Technology Integration & Instruction for the 21st Century Learner (TICL) conference in Storm Lake Iowa. I had the audience stand up, mix about, and share their thinking on what I’d just said.

The morning’s topic was “digital literacy” and I was highlighting projects I’ve designed as a teacher and completed as a student.

“What’s the ugly?” I’d asked, “What did you hear this morning that you don’t agree with.”

One of the participants raised his hand and said his partner understood the importance of choice, but wasn’t jiving with the portion of the writing project I’d described where students were allowed to set their own due dates.

He was a business teacher, you see, and in the business world you aren’t allowed to miss deadlines. Letting students set their own schedules would mean missed deadlines, and that wouldn’t do.

In the moment I agreed with the teacher. He was teaching a business class. If meeting deadlines was a skill firmly planted in his curriculum, then perhaps more freedom wasn’t the answer in that arena.

Since then, I’ve had some opportunity to think more on the matter, and my answer was wrong.

1. Most of the undesirable habits we say won’t fly in the business world probably will. I’ve heard enough stories from friends in the business sector of employees who don’t meet deadlines or need a bit of extra time on a project. Those employees, it turns out, don’t lose their jobs. “You won’t be able to get away with this in the workplace,” is teacher code for, “Because I said so.” While it would be easy to suggest that taking a more hands-off approach could lead to further reinforcement of bad business practice, you need only survey the current global business playing field to realize the strict hierarchical, authoritarian approach hasn’t led us anywhere good.

2. Make deadlines worth meeting. The auditorium wasn’t the place to have this conversation. If I’d been talking with this teacher in a breakout session or one-on-one it would have been an excellent opportunity for the difficult conversation around the goals of deadlines. In adults’ daily lives, if we’re playing the game correctly, we’re faced with requirements of our jobs that ask us to keep up with deadlines. We meet them because they are the terms of staying connected with something we’ve determined is important and valuable in our lives. Assignments and class deadlines often assume students are playing by the same rules and with the same intent. Often they aren’t. Assignment to a class or registration to fulfill a credit requirement isn’t the same as jumping administrative hoops as part of a job you’ve chosen and find intrinsically rewarding.

3. Learning is the goal. If students aren’t learning, the question shouldn’t be “How can I lock this class down so they have no choice but to complete the assignments?” It should be, “What’s going on in my instructional practice that’s turning kids off to learning?” It’s a more sensitive and ego-deflating question, but it runs a far greater risk of improving and increasing learning than racheting up the perceived punishments of coming to class.

Of course, all of this is contingent on whether or not the teacher in the audience was keen on a convervation or had decided this was the reason he was looking for to discount anything else that might shift his thinking.

I tend to assume the best in people, and I’m sorry I missed the chance for the conversation.