How To Teach Responsibility

Graceachen recently wrote a post that got me thinking about ways to teach the “stuff” that is hard to assess accurately and even harder to teach explicitly.  For example, I would like to teach all of my students:

  • Responsibility
  • Respect
  • Curiosity
  • Investigative skills
  • Teamwork skills
  • To be comfortable with a lack of knowledge and with mistakes

But I’m not going to make a standard for each of these things and assign grades, and no section of any one of my lesson plans will start, “here’s one way you can be curious1.”  However, I do teach these things intentionally and I do assess them.  In this post, I write about how to teach responsibility, and about some traps that seem important to avoid.  There are two types of responsibility: the fulfill-your-obligations kind and the take-ownership-of-your-destiny kind.  I’m talking about both.

Find Ways to Give Ownership, and Communicate Them

Give students the answers to their homework

Matt Townsley and grace said that they use homework to teach responsibility.  I do this too and so do many other teachers.  The three of us make sure that students have answer resources available before assignments are due so that they can more easily feel responsible for the quality of their work.  Without answers, if a student does his work incorrectly, the excuse is easy: “I didn’t know how,” or “I guess there’s a mistake.”  With solutions, a student is denied these reasons for poor work.

Tell students, “the solutions to these problems are available to you so that you can make sure you understand; please make sure you understand.”  This communicates that it is their responsibility, that you think they can do it, and that you trust them to do it.

Refer to student work and expertise during class

Please have students create projects that explain or summarize the concepts you’re studying.  When you’re lecturing, or when a student has a question, refer to those projects.  Whomever made that project will be directly responsible for the knowledge being disseminated.  You might also make different groups of students “expert groups” in different areas, and ask those groups specific questions (but please do give them the tools to actually become experts before putting them on the spot).

Again, it’s not always easy to think of telling the students that you’re doing this, but saying “these posters will be used as reference for the rest of the year” will let the kids know that you expect them to make production-quality work.  Actually using them will show them that you expect them to make production-quality work.  “These posters are going live, kids.”  They won’t mess it up after you’ve articulated (and demonstrated) such high expectations of them.

Use Standards-Based Grading (if you must grade)

Or at least, some grading system as clear.  Please don’t use a grading system that obscures the reasons for your students’ grades (like averaging), because then the focus will shift from the responsibility of the knowledge to the responsibility of the grade.  I think grades should be as invisible as possible.  SBG is the best grading system I’ve seen because it gives the clearest idea about what a student needs to learn to improve his status.

You can only hold a student responsible for his grade after convincing him he can control it, and showing him how the controls work.  If, at any point, he loses that control, you won’t be able to expect anything more out of him.

Model responsibility (visibly)

Let your students see something you’re working on.  Let them in on your process for their class!  Show them all the ways you practice, prepare, and follow up.  Some of my students read my blog (hey guys!) and they see me in their other classes, observing other teachers.  Unique to Scattergood, perhaps: they see me attending required community events, keeping my apartment clean, helping with dinner cleanup when it’s my turn.

Don’t take responsibility away

Don’t grade homework

You shouldn’t grade homework because doing so transfers responsibility in a bad way.  When students have to do homework for their own sake, they are being responsible for their own knowledge and edification.  When you give them a grade, they will change – they will think themselves responsible only for that grade.  Please also tell your students why you are not grading homework – the effect doubles when they know what you’re trying to do.

There are many arguments for grading homework, but I haven’t heard one yet that’s convinced me.  Let’s debate in the comments if you’ve heard one that’s convinced you.

Avoid assigning unnecessary work

No one will feel much passion for work that they consider pointless.  If you really think that Johnny needs to do 30 factoring problems (lots of good arguments for assignments like these), then please explain to Johnny why you think so.  It may take something more convincing than mere explanation.

If a student thinks your whole class is unnecessary work, you have a more fundamental problem on your hands, and you might consider starting there.

Of all of my suggestions, which are all hard to do, I think this is the hardest.  If you’ve got a bunch of kids at different levels, 140 hours, and 140 skills to teach, you may have to give assignments that are not individually tailored to each student’s level – but you can at least tell them that!

Don’t answer questions that your students have the tools to answer

In my experience, I am my students’ favorite resource.  They will ask me a question before they use any other resource, including their notes, their books, or even their own understanding.  If you think that a student should be expected to be able to answer a certain kind of question, expect it of her!  Please do not waste your own effort by completing parts of your student’s lesson for her!  Don’t be too helpful!

None of these are explicit ways of teaching responsibility.  You make them explicit by talking about them, but the real lesson lies in their practice.  The real lesson happens when a student didn’t do some homework and can connect that with the fact that he’s feeling left out in class, or when he doesn’t understand something he’s expected to.  The real lesson happens when his classmates are looking at the crappy poster he made and complaining to him about how inaccurate or incomplete it is, or, better, when his classmates are looking at the awesome poster he made and complimenting him or incorporating it in their own work.  I guess that for my suggestions to work, your classroom culture needs to be set up in a way that allows these feelings to happen, and you need to be on the lookout for them, ready to emphasize them and focus them.

Assessing responsibility is more vague in my mind than teaching it.  I mean, ultimately, if a student passes a class, she’s responsible for that, and if she doesn’t, she’s responsible for that too.  If you get the opportunity to give written feedback to your students, or to have one-on-one meetings with them, make sure to emphasize what you saw working and not working towards the goal of passing.  Any other ideas out there?

This is a fascinating topic to me as a teacher and as a member of society contemplating parenthood.  Expect more, focusing on my other bullet points!

  1. though as I write, I’m pretty sure I’ve said this  during a lesson

14 thoughts on “How To Teach Responsibility”

  1. Yes, sir. I totally agree. Although I firmly believe that the grading homework is counter-productive. Giving it as an opportunity to practice (to be accepted or not) is much better.

    Thanks for the link, and I’m really enjoying going through your archive. Nice to know someone like you is teaching like this in the area!

  2. Thanks for the shout-out. I appreciate the concrete advice and suggestions here– and would add that so much of this is about messaging and explicit instructions. The reason I consistently issue consequences for irresponsible behavior isn’t because I don’t like children, or because I get a kick out of giving consequences. It’s because you are here to learn and it is my job to help you do that– as a professional, I respect your time and your right to not do meaningless work, and so I only assign you what I sincerely think you need. As a professional, you recognize that homework is about practice and reinforcement and an opportunity to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and so I trust you to make wise decisions about when to do it and when not to (if I’m not collecting or grading it, which, as Shawn suggests above, I shouldn’t).

    1. Yes! Explicit communication is vital. I am all about expecting reasonable responsibility from students, but total responsibility (including figuring out what they should do on their own) is not reasonable to expect of them (depending on age, experience, subject, etc).

  3. “Please do not waste your own effort by completing parts of your student’s lesson for her!”
    Why does it seem that at the beginning of the course, I can remember this…but as the semester progresses, I find myself becoming more and more helpful (enabling)?

    Thanks for the great reminder, Riley.

  4. Just found this post via ThinkThankThunk…and may get sucked into reading your archive instead of doing taxes! Definitely sold on not grading homework, and pondering the other things you have described here.

  5. I’m all for not grading homework, but I have yet to convince anyone admins at my school that not grading homework won’t de-emphasize its importance.

    Basically, how do you let involved parents keep up with whether or not their student is doing the practice you’re asking them to do?

    I guess the bigger question I’m dealing with is how do you convince others to buy into the idea that homework shouldn’t be graded?

    1. Great questions, Paul – and they can be really hard ones, depending on how much your audience would actually be willing to accept a good answer.

      This is a good question for our ActiveGrade blog – if you don’t mind, I’ll put some of OUR answers up there in a few days instead of waxing philosophical here.

  6. I’m curious about what you mean when you say that you give your students solutions to their homework ahead of time. Do you mean you give them answers (e.g., the answer to number 1 is 27.5 sheep) or that you give them fully worked out solutions to each problem? What format do you use to distribute these solutions? Do you give printouts, post them online, etc.?


    1. Honestly I gave them answers in whatever form was easiest for me. If these are book problems, I only assigned the ones with an answer key in the back. They tended to be like “27.5 sheep” but my calculus book had fuller solutions.

      When I made worksheets I just put the answers on the class website, or on the reverse side.

      Thanks for writing!

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