This past week at work, no less than four adults expressed their frustrations to me about a singular topic. The first two concerns were conveyed to me via email and were from parents. In essence, the content of those letters went something like this: "Mr. Taibbi, I am wondering if you might be able to help me. I am worried that my child is being asked to do work in his classroom that he already knows. I feel the teacher is giving him this work to do just to keep him busy while she works with the others who don't yet understand the material. My son finds the work boring and tedious, and I worry about how this will affect his attitude about school, and education in general, in the long run."
The other two came from fellow teachers who stopped me in the halls and took a moment to vent. Their half of the conversation might be summarized this way: "What some students don't seem to understand is that not all the stuff we do can be 'fun'. Sometimes schoolwork is just that: work. I mean, I try to make sure that we mix it up; when I can, I try to find different ways of having the kids practice the skills, but there isn't always a great way to make dictionary guide words or long division be all that appealing—you just have to practice!"
You might be surprised to discover that none of these adults knew, nor had any relationship to, each other in any way.
In my role as a teacher of gifted students, it is not unusual for me to field concerns like this one. In fact part of my job is to make sure that I am available as a resource to both parents and teachers as they work with their gifted children at home and in school. With parents, I may offer advice or answer questions about what services our division can offer their children. With teachers, I may gather resources to assist with differentiating instruction, pull the gifted students aside for enrichment, or co-teach model lessons for the whole class. Sometimes I am asked to straddle the fence and address issues that both parties see as important but whose points of view on those issues vary. In such cases, I may help clarify expectations or shed light on a teacher's rationale for a certain approach or lesson's design.
But it is because so many different adults expressed such similar related concerns in the same short week that I feel the time is ripe for us to reexamine what is at the core of these conversations. It's time to revisit and clearly define the whole notion of "busywork." This is a tricky issue but it's also one in which I am confident that I understand both points of view. To witness, let's begin with...
The Parent or Gifted Student's Perspective: You want to be sure that your child (or yourself) is not being asked to do something merely for the sake of, well, doing something. You want the assignments offered by the teacher to be ones that will help the individual grow, via appropriate challenge, to stretch his/her abilities.
The Teacher Perspective: Educators want the same thing that you do. But they also want their parents and students to understand that there are times when legitimate work is assigned and that, tedious and dull as that practice material may be, it still merits completion.
Ultimately, what both parties want is an intelligent way to differentiate between the useless busywork (those "work-for-sake-of-work" assignments that all of us have encountered at some point in our educational experiences) and genuinely justifiable busywork, those rightfully assigned tasks that keep a person "busy", sure, but in a meaningful way. So how do we meet in the middle? How do we, as teachers and parents, distinguish between the two? It turns out that the answer is relatively simple.
Defining busywork as "relevant" or "useless" begins first with an understanding of its purpose, not how it feels as the person complete it. "Geez, this work is so boring! I don't see why I have to do it. It's so stupid! What a waste of time." Parents and doubtless nearly all students have heard, thought, felt, or outright expressed these sentiments at some point in time; and for the gifted child who finds himself in a classroom where the teacher truly is unresponsive to the unique needs of this student, this concern can be especially egregious and frustrating.
But, gifted or not, just because an assignment feels boring or feels like a waste of time, doesn't mean it is. Translating a passage written in Latin, for example, is incredibly tedious. Solving a long division problem is equally so. But few would argue that for the high school student who wants to attend college and major in a foreign language (or attend med school) the process of translating that Latin passage is a really waste of time. For the third grade elementary school student who seeks to enter algebra a year earlier in middle school, practicing long division now is similarly tedious, but it is not a fruitless task.
What helps us define the truly ineffective "busywork" from real "worth-the-effort" work is how respectful the task is to the student. Carol Ann Tomlinson, a true guru in the field of gifted education, defines a "respectful task" as one that matches the learning experience to the actual needs of the student. Tasks that are respectful of the learner "honor the differences among students' readiness levels,...areas of interest,... and learning profile." Put another way, a "respectful task" is one that is appropriately rigorous, engages the learner, and attends to his/her processing strengths. For the teacher, dealing with these three distinct areas of student differences can be quite a tall, and frankly impossible, order to fill on a daily basis.
Every student in a classroom, for example, has a different modality preference as he engages and processes new information. Similarly, every student in the classroom has a different area of personal interest that a teacher might hope to tap. Asking a teacher to address all of these nuances on a daily basis is impractical but, luckily, few would argue that all these iterations of students' profiles need to be so carefully attended every single school day. At some point, for example, most teachers will offer students some choices in how they demonstrate their understanding ("You may do a write a standard book report if you'd like, or you may dress up as a character and deliver a presentation to the class."). Most teachers will allow students to practice skills while also tapping into some field of interest ("In this unit, we are going to explore the idea of a biography. As we do this, you may choose someone who interests you-anyone from a NASCAR driver to a famous historical figure.").
It's when the teacher consistently disregards the differences in student readiness that the issue of irrelevant "busywork" typically rears its head--and perhaps rightfully so. But let's be careful here! It is perfectly reasonable for a teacher to ask any third grade child to periodically demonstrate (or verify) her retention of basic multiplication facts. But, as in the example above, if that student has already aced a multiplication pre-assessment and has long since moved on to long division, should she still be required to do her classmates' thirty-five problem multiplication practice worksheet for homework? No. Such work does not honor her abilities nor stretch them in any way. Likewise, the high school student of Latin has successfully demonstrated that, tedious as it may be, she can translate a tough passage. If she finishes early, should she just be assigned a longer one to translate next time? No. Merely substituting a longer passage next time will not offer a unique challenge to her skill level. In fact, should this practice continue, it might do worse: this kind of useless busywork might cause her to grow bored, restless, and paradoxically resentful of the very appropriate challenge she was offered initially.
And herein begins the vicious cycle.
When work that is too simplistic or overly rote is offered too frequently to the gifted student, she becomes bored. Being forced to do such tedious work becomes monotonous. The emotions of boredom then become associated with all school work—and from then on, any work, legitimate or not, that feels boring is internalized as "useless." The distinction between legitimate challenge and fruitless effort becomes blurred: "What feels boring and monotonous must be useless! It has always been that way before; why should this assignment be any different?" And if this cycle continues long enough the gifted student, who sees little value in completing the work, may stop doing it altogether. Is irrelevant busywork then the cause of the student's apathetic attitude towards school? Of course, to some degree. Is it also possible that an individual's perception of that work is at play in her mindset? Perhaps.
Clearly, parsing out the "who's right" and "who's wrong" when such a child becomes labeled as an "underachieving" gifted learner requires some careful analysis—and maybe even a little forthright soul searching.
Reference: Carol Ann Tomlinson, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms, ASCD, 2001.