Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday's Five - Teaching Responsibility

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

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 As teachers, we know that we are preparing our students for the rest of their lives.  We want to teach them life skills in addition to content.  Among the most important life skills is responsibility.  Our students need to learn to be responsible.

Throughout history, many wise individuals have spoken and written about those with great power having increased responsibility.  How often in our classrooms do we preach to our students the importance of responsibility, but then refuse to allow them the power and autonomy to learn the skill?  Let's take a look at five ways we can help students learn to be responsible.
  1. Let them work on real problems.  If a student is assigned an essay on homelessness and doesn't write it well (or at all), they get a bad grade.  The poor grade will not teach them responsibility.  Most kids don't really buy into our grading system.  If that same student is asked to work with a homeless shelter to increase awareness of the problem in the community, they see the real consequences of not doing their part.  They know that their effort and work is directly contributing to helping others.
  2. Let them experience the rewards of their hard work.  Suppose in the first situation the student writes an amazing essay.  They get 100 on the top of their paper and that's the end of it.  They haven't learned anything about the value of being responsible.  There's no emotional reward other than the grade (which, again, doesn't mean a whole lot to most kids).  If they do a great job on the second task they feel the natural joy that comes authentically when one makes major contributions to a project. 
  3. Allow kids the autonomy and creative control over their work.  Too often we expect kids to learn responsibility by completing 40 problems out of a textbook every night.  We tell them that it's their job to play school, listen to their teachers, and do what they are told.  If great responsibility comes with great power, then it would stand to reason that little power requires little responsibility.  Kids need to be empowered to learn.  Tell them, "If you understand how to add fractions, find a way to prove it to me by Friday.  If not, my door is open for extra help between now and then.  Those who do a good job will create video lessons for next year's class on Monday.  Those who don't will spend Monday with me re-learning."  That's the kind of task that empowers students and allows them to learn responsibility.
  4. Model responsibility.  This one is pretty obvious, but if a teacher is constantly modeling behaviors that are unprofessional and irresponsible, it's tough to teach kids the skills they will need in life.  For many kids, we are the best role models they have.  We have great power in their lives, and our actions are watched very closely. 
  5. Find ways for students to get positive feedback from multiple sources.  Sure, it's important to give students positive feedback when they act responsibly.  It's so much more powerful, however, when that feedback comes from multiple and unexpected sources.  I've seen kids who don't like school become engaged and excited to do their work because they received positive comments on a blog post they wrote.  I've seen students who have attendence problems come to school more often because the school janitor noticed when they showed up for 3 straight days and told them, "Good Job!" 
Now it's your turn.  How do you teach responsibility?  Do you have experiences that you can share with us?  Let us know in the comment section below, and please pass the post on to friends and colleagues via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Plurk so that we can hear their points of view as well.


  1. This is a terrific post. I am very interested in learning design that includes 21st century goals of communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking skills. I think that your responsibility points listed above should be integrated into learning units as well. I plan to incorporate these points into my learning design grid. Thanks. - Maureen

  2. Maureen,
    As I was writing the post I kept thinking how compatible 21st Century Skills and responsibility are. I'd love to hear how it works out as you integrate some of the ideas in the post into your units. Thanks for your comment!