Friday, November 28, 2008

Struggling with the Rule of Least Restriction...

Two posts have me thinking about the construction of assignments.

First, Tom Hoffman wrote a nice post excoriating an assignment shockingly chosen as a "model" of good standards-based work:

Given that, for good reasons, we're normally much more polite when we talk about other teacher's work, it was nice to hear Tom let loose. How often do we really get a chance to take apart the tasks we assign to kids? How often to English teachers really define what rigor or analysis means and what it can reasonably mean to a student?

The assignment has me thinking about this post on "the rule of least power". What Dan calls the "rule of least power" I would rather call "The rule of least restriction" (oddly, for once, I'm turning town a computer science metaphor for a special education metaphor). The idea is that when you create an assignment, you should always impose the lease powerful (restrictive) frame on a problem possible. This allows as much re-use/re-interpretation as possible, including students taking things in directions you never dreamed of (just as web developers can take easily-scraped data in directions you'd never dream of).

Thinking back to the assignment Tom was attacking (which makes the standard five paragraph essay assignment look open-ended), I admit that it is more likely to get the kind of predictable essays on Anne Frank that some teachers (or some tests) seem to like getting. But, crucially, it doesn't invite the students to ask any questions themselves or to discover why they might be interested in doing so.

On the other hand, the kinds of open-ended tasks I would rather give students are much more open to failure. And that catch -- the fact that assignments that ask students to do real-world tasks or that ask students to think in an open-ended way are far more likely to end in messy, hard-to-grade work or in outright hands-in-the-air I-don't-know-what-to-do failure... well, that's the problem I've been unsuccessfully struggling with my whole teaching career.

Dan finishes his post by formulating his rule of least power in this way:

1. Tell no student to care.
2. Tell no student how to care.
3. Apply increasingly powerful frameworks to mathematical objects only as the class cares about them.

Please don't confuse this with hardcore, Waldorfian constructivism. I have an agenda, a standard to meet, a lesson objective. But I don't fence my students onto a narrow path to my objective. I instead pave the ground beneath them so that the path to my objective is the easiest and the most satisfying to walk.

It's a high bar he sets. It's hard to figure out how to "pave the ground" so that the path you want students to walk is "the most satisfying to walk". It also strikes me that the more authentic your task, the less control you have about how students approach it, ergo, the harder it is to make sure students reach a standard or meet an objective while carrying it out.

Nonetheless, I'll definitely be challenging myself to think about presenting grammar at least (the most mathy thing I do) in the terms he describes (i.e. set up a problem + least restrictive framework and let it lead the class to the learning I want). Meanwhile, I'll try to think about how this problem-solving framework can map onto the stickier world of open-ended humanities-type assignments.

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