Now More Than Ever… Clarify the Purpose Behind the Assignment

Craig Gastauer

Craig Gastauer is currently Internal Director of Pedagogy at Vista High School in Vista, CA. He is proud to be working with great teachers and students to create a more learner-centered public high school experience.

Have you ever gotten so busy “doing” things that you forget why you are doing things in the first place? Many of my past students feel that that’s what assigned homework feels like all the time; they’re just doing work.

Last week I was honored to receive an email from a former student. In this email, she reminded me of the power that purpose can have for learners:

“You told us the key to succeeding at everything we do is finding a purpose or significance in doing it. At first, I don’t think I really understood how meaningful the advice was, not until I got to college. I really struggled my first year at UCSB and I even considered transferring to a school closer to home, but one day I remembered the advice you gave me and it just clicked. Yes, the classes were still hard, not all of the material was interesting, I was still very far from my family, but once I began to think about why I was doing it all, it got a lot easier. Eventually, I went from barely passing some of my chemistry and bio classes to setting the curve during my second year.”

While I have no illusions that this is a magic bullet that will help every learner set the curve in their future college science courses, I can’t help but wonder if this might be a perfect time to help students learn to connect readings, assignments, projects, and other activities to a larger purpose or set of goals? Might we be able to Think Flexibly about our curriculum to make this possible?

  • In what ways might we help learners connect the curriculum to potential future careers?
  • In what ways might we help learners connect the curriculum to their own goals?
  • In what ways might we help learners positively impact their family and/or community as they engage in the curriculum?
  • In what ways might we help learners explore interests and emerging passions in conjunction with the curriculum?
  • In what ways might we help learners connect the curriculum to something relevant in their own lives?

As I try to think of what this might look like in various classes, I’m envisioning my 9th grade Biology students learning how to use Punnett squares to understand basic genetics. While many of the students will find it fascinating to understand how traits are passed from generation to generation, many will also find this work to be a tedious, step-by-step process that they must repeat for each new assigned problem

At this point, I’m thinking I might have students re-examine their Holland Code combinations (RIASEC Themes) that they discovered through an interest inventory survey taken in the first semester. By understanding what combination of interest themes they have, it can help them identify careers that could best fit their strengths. By selecting a career of interest to explore in relation to learning in their biology class, the lessons now become more personal to the student. Some examples might include:

  • Students who find interest in journalism could use this opportunity to write about their learning from the point of view of a journalist or creating short video segments to describe their learning from the standpoint of a newscaster.
  • Students interested in business could explore the learning from an agricultural standpoint to find out how agricultural businesses use knowledge of genetics to become more profitable.
  • Students interested in web development might explore this career by developing web pages or apps that could demonstrate their learning.

In these example situations, the students would still be expected to use their understanding of genetics but they could do so in a way that aligns to a potential future career and/or current interest.

It seems to me that if we help learners connect their learning to something more relevant to their current lives or their future rather than having students just “do” assignments for their teacher or for a grade then we are also setting them up for greater life success.

Considering that so many of us are trying to rapidly switch to online learning experiences in this time of Coronavirus, please share your efforts and ideas related to helping students develop a purpose while still engaging in them in the essential curriculum. It would be great to create a repository of ideas to help us all at this time.


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