Spies, lies and the lure of a life-or-death assignment

17th November 2017 at 00:00
As teachers, we know we should always be truthful with our students – but sometimes a little fib doesn’t hurt to lift motivation levels

Is it OK to lie to your students? It depends…

As fake news seemingly seeps in through every screen and we question our sources more thoroughly than ever before, I’ve wondered about the potential for teachers to make stuff up and deliver it as fact.

It would be unthinkable to abuse our teacher-power, but, let’s be honest, it’d also be a right laugh. I’ve daydreamed about popping an invented punctuation mark to signify sarcasm into my Spag teaching spec, but never actually done it. Because that would be wrong.

That said, I’ve been flogging a semi-porky as a part of my functional skills English classes for a few years. I’d call it a productivity-enhancing nudge, rather than anything sinister.

The “nudge” revolves around a specific word: assignment. Not project, not piece of work, only assignment will do. It sounds grown-up. Vocational areas have assignments. So do spies.

Once we’re all settled into the college routine, I introduce three long-term assignments that must be completed by the end of the academic year. These are not specific to the curriculum but expand on what we learn.

A little white lie...

A level 1 English group was tasked with creating a book report. Most students had never read a book but everyone picked a work of fiction. To help those for whom reading wasn’t a regular activity, we had to design an experience based on how they wanted to feel when they read. We trawled Pinterest, working out how each person could find a time and a place for their book. Were they creating a glamorous corner of their bedroom with a scented candle? Would they take their book to the park? It had to feel like a place of retreat. Once they were underway, they were given the assignment criteria, an in-depth (and highly scaffolded) report on their book that had to be completed by the end of the year.

Other assignments were set every half-term or so – a creative-writing assignment that produced some gobsmackingly good results and a “teach me your vocation” multimedia assignment, in which they had to explain what they’d learned on their course across a range of formats.

All of these assignments were slow burners, revisited throughout the year, organised with a checklist of elements that had to be included.

The learners were clear that they had to pass their reading, writing and speaking and listening functional skills tests to gain their qualification. They also knew they must hand in their completed assignments by the end of the year. I never ever said that the assignments were essential to the qualification (an assumption that lots of learners made) but it was understood that completion was a non-negotiable.

Towards the end of the academic year, when some have passed all their FS exams, motivation droops. But the assignment deadlines (and the capacity to individualise projects and challenge learners) means we are productive right until the end. Honest.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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