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Rethinking deadlines

"Deadline" by Jonathan Bliss on Flickr

Thanks for the headache, Cheryl Morris! During a recent “tweetup” (Twitter-slang for a group chat that can be tracked by a common hashtag), the Marin County,┬áCalifornia high school teacher (and flipped class sage) argued that skills-based learning shouldn’t have a deadline. I was one of those teachers that argued against her that evening, pointing to my own experimentation with going “deadline-free” a couple years ago and then dealing with students who scrambled to turn in work at the end of the semester to squeak out a passing grade. I’ll admit that the conversation has played over in my head the past few weeks, as I’ve been questioning what really happens when we assign deadlines. Does that deadline always produce the result we desire? Thanks to Ms. Morris, I’ve realized that the answer is an emphatic “No!”

I understand the argument teachers make for assignment deadlines: Teens need to learn that there will be deadlines in college and in the working world. Their future professors and employers won’t accept work that is late. Therefore, it is our obligation to start teaching students the importance of being responsible! Apparently, this can be accomplished by handing out zeros for assignment grades, or by giving partial credit (something offered by only the most compassionate of teachers). Students will obviously feel ashamed of their low grade and will never submit another late assignment! Or so the story goes.

What actually happens is that one missing assignment is often just the first of many to come. The class moves on while that student falls further behind, because he or she hasn’t mastered the skills necessary to advance to the next level or complete the next assignment. On top of that, consider what happens to the student’s psyche, as he or she becomes frustrated because the lessons and coursework isn’t properly scaffolded. The student has no chance of acquiring the necessary knowledge vital for success in that class. It’s a recipe for failure.

The more I develop my own flipped class, the more I realize that all I am really doing is creating a database of resources so that my students can learn the required writing and reading skills at their own pace. It is unfair of me to expect them to all complete assignments at exactly the same time and to penalize them if they don’t. Perhaps we should be rethinking the purpose of deadlines: should they be used to punish students, or should they simply be a reminder that work must be completed before a student moves on? Do we honestly think that our students won’t learn the consequences of failing to meet a deadline unless their high school teacher assigns one for some silly homework assignment? If so, debate it with Cheryl Morris (@guster4lovers). A headache has never felt so good.

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