Keep your heart with all vigilance,

for from it flow the springs of life.

Clarity of Responsibility

I was supposed to post a blog every Wednesday beginning Dec till next May. However, the first post has been delayed till this week. So much for discipline. Nonetheless, better late than never.


One week ago, the Project Work committee had our last meeting for the year, a retreat to review the academic year and prepare for the following year ahead. It was a pleasantly productive meeting as we combed through feedback from teachers and discussed about how to better equip and train teachers; to facilitate their growth and development as Project Work Supervising Tutors.

The feedback from teachers pointed to several areas that we could pay attention to. Most interesting to me was that underlying all the feedback is the lack of clarity about the responsibility of a teacher. Specifically, the problem isn't about what the responsibilities are but how much the teacher is obliged to do. Neither is this problem specific to Project Work. Leaving aside the debate over what ought to be the proper development of students, and the arguments about the validity and reliability of test score; to what extent is the teacher responsible for those scores?

While all of us can agree that both extreme answers to the question is to be disregarded, the difficulty is deciding where to draw the line between those two extremes.

For most academic subjects, a large amount of content has to be learned that is subsequently tested. Of course, skills are to to be learnt as it will be tested but without the content, the student has little hope of scoring. The primacy of content is most prevalent in the Sciences and Mathematics, tapers off towards the Humanities and then the Arts. As a result, an implicit contract emerges between teachers and students where each has a specific role and function: The teacher is to deliver the content, assign and grade assignments; the student is to record the content and use it to complete the assignments. 

Whatever disagreements might be raised, this implicit contract provides relative clarity as to who is responsible for what, and how much. Thus, it is easy to identify who has lapsed in their responsibility. If the teacher has delivered the content and assignments but the student failed to pay attention and complete them, the poor marks lie with the latter. Vice versa, the student pays attention and follows instructions to the letter, the fault then probably lies with the teacher.

Project Work is designed such that students have to work independently: students select a problem of their choosing, using methods of their choosing to understand the problem and then create ideas on their own. Content is almost, if not entirely, absent as it is the student who decides what the content ought to be. This is a stark contrast from all other subjects where the content and learning objectives are decided by curriculum experts, school management and teachers. The implicit contract outlined earlier becomes irrelevant. In the absence of content, what is the teacher's responsibility? 

It can be uncomfortable for both teachers and students as Project Work places more responsibility on the student relative to other subjects. Though Project Work is radically different, the community - teachers and students - tries to force Project Work to conform to established norms. Teachers try to do as much as possible providing suggestions in the form of templates and lists, go through endless drafts making countless revisions of students' work and sitting for hours on end giving consultations. Similarly, students rush out draft after draft making every correction instructed by the teacher. At the end, both teacher and student emerges from the experience frustrated and exhausted. 

The frustration and exhaustion isn't surprising: the teacher is taking over the responsibilities of the student; the loss of independence obstructs any learning that was to take place from the experience.

The simple solution is to explicitly state what the responsibilities are of a teacher. For example, the maximum number of drafts that a student is allowed to submit. After a certain number of drafts, the work is more likely to be a product of the teacher than the student. Though the solution is simple, the devil is in the details - how many drafts is too many?

The core issue in the end is having clarity about the responsibility of a teacher. How much is the teacher responsible for? After all, students aren't passive mindless individuals unable to make choices which means they can choose against the teacher. The suggest otherwise is to indirectly claim that students have no will of their own. 

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