A Sense of Purpose in the Classroom

A student’s disposition to work in a classroom is strengthened by a corporate sense of purpose. In systematic instruction, it is usually necessary for the purpose of the work to be the responsibility of the teacher. The teacher assesses what is required based on his or her understanding of what students do not yet know, cannot yet do, and what might be the best means of helping them acquire the necessary skills and understandings. The teacher directs the students’ work according to his or her judgment of their learning needs. In project work, however, the teacher looks at the students from a different perspective, seeing them in terms of what they can already do and how they might use, for their own purposes, the skills they have already acquired.

Students can assume some responsibility for the kinds of work they undertake in project activities. For example, the teacher can enable them to select the level of challenge with which they feel confident, the length of time they plan to take, the level of detail or elaboration which might be appropriate for them, and whether they wish to work alone or with another student. Making choices of this nature allows students to take ownership of some of the work and accept responsibility for the amount of effort and the quality of the ideas that they bring to the activity or resulting product.

In a classroom where the teacher can monitor such choices of purpose, the students can offer rich explanations of what, how, and why they undertook the activities as they did. The teacher can remain in communication with the students throughout the activity by requesting reports from time to time or by intervening in the activity from the sidelines, as appropriate. The teacher’s role in project work is that of a guide and consultant in enabling students to practice and apply their skills.

Students who are used to the kind of learning climate described here exhibit considerable intrinsic motivation to negotiate possibilities with the teacher in their own work. Where the teacher encourages such an approach to learning, the social culture that develops in the classroom is a community of learners that positions teachers alongside their students.