Assignments students care about

In today’s Zits cartoon, Jeremy is stumped by his assignment:

This is a funny cartoon (I love Zits)… but it also makes some important points about typical middle and high school assignments… let’s unpack two elements of this cartoon.

First, we live in a world where Jeremy and his mother can “diddle” — or access the internet — at any time of day to learn whatever they want to learn about (see end of post for an update on “diddling”).

If they want to look up definitions of words, they can do so easily — the one below is from —

Our schools should reflect that reality — that people in the real world have access to technology — and should help students learn to sort through (and assess the relative value and credibility of) massive amounts of information.

To further make the point about why we need to assess the validity of online information, here’s a cartoon that has been making the rounds on Facebook:

The second point to make about the Zits cartoon is that Jeremy is trapped in a school system that forces him to learn about things he does not necessarily care about, and in ways that may be inaccessible to him. Actual school assignments may not be quite as obscure as the task before Jeremy in this cartoon:

Describe in an autobiographical statement the correlation between the societal zeitgeist and hierarchical realities of W.B. Buffant’s 1986 essay on the same subject.

But I get the feeling that if you polled middle and high school students about their homework (or their class work) they would be about as engaged in that material as Jeremy is in this assignment.

I believe that the zeitgeist today is that it’s time to abandon the factory model of schooling and design individualized learning opportunities that allow students to follow their passions. I’m designing that sort of learning environment — at Triangle Learning Community — click on the link to check it out.

Imagine what students such as Jeremy could do if he were mentored to pursue one of his passions…

“Diddling” update — I looked up W.B. Buffant just to see if it was a real person — it may be, but I’ve been unable to find information about him or her.  Apparently, other people have similarly looked up terms from today’s strip 🙂

Below is the dashboard of my blog, showing the search terms that have led people to my blog today:

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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5 Responses to Assignments students care about

  1. I was intrigued by the cartoon caption, and immediately Googled the phrase, leading me to your comments. The two things I’m still left wondering are: is there such an article, and what would an essay answer to the homework assignment be like?

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      Hi Harold.

      Thanks for checking out my blog! I Googled W.B. Buffant, just to see if it was a real person. From what I could tell, the author of Zits just made up a funny name. I think that even if such an article existed, the real question is not what an answer would look like — but rather, why should students care about the question in the first place? What skills are they developing by writing that sort of description? If the goal is to get students to describe and reflect on the spirit of our time, why not let them decide what today’s zeitgeist is all about? A teacher might suggest that Occupy Wall Street would be an interesting topic, but ultimately, it would be (IMHO) up to the student to decide his or her topic.

  2. Bob says:

    My youngest step-daughter is a graduate of her high school I.B. program and often brought up how unhappy she has become with the current state of education in this country. How there is a noticeable disdain and apathy for students that do not fit the mold of traditional education, often resulting in a “drop-out”; or instruction material/methods that really have no objective of preparing young people for the future. In other words, “lets cram as much knowledge into them and test them on their ability to regurgitate”. I don’t have an answer or solution having gone through this system myself and apparently surviving. But the numbers of those who do not survive to continue their education do give pause. Your comment about “individualized learning opportunities” to enable students to perhaps find and follow their passions sounds very similar to something she once said to me. It’s a very interesting premise, and one that I hope others start to echo. My best wishes for your middle school. May it be the start of something that leads to change.

  3. Dave Medvitz says:

    I just heard Yong Zhao speak at the MassCUE conference. He was so good, I downloaded his book, “Catching Up or Leading the Way,” while he was finishing his talk. He makes an eloquent case that instead of trying to “catch up” to Singapore and China based on test results, we (the US) should move further in the opposite direction, cultivating creativity and individuality in our schools. If you find Steve’s post compelling, you should read this book.

  4. Steve Goldberg says:

    Thanks, Dave.

    I’d love to catch up…

    Also, I’d love to work with some of your students again, as we were trying to set up at the end of last year.



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