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On the Podcast: Creating User-Oriented Assignments with Jim Burke

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Today on the Heinemann Podcast, does the design of an assignment impact the quality of a student’s work?

Jim Burke is the author of The Six Academic Writing Assignments: Designing the User’s Journey. In his book, Jim investigates writing assignments from hundreds of classrooms to identify what’s useful and what’s not. What he found is that the overall design of an academic assignment, from the layout to the words used, is critical to not only how well a student preforms, but how they continue to learn throughout their academic journey. By taking a user approach, Jim suggests that we can design better work for our students.

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Jim to learn more about what makes a good assignment. Our conversation begins at the start of Jim’s investigative journey…


Below is a full transcript of our conversation.

Jim: Well, it's an interesting moment, because first of all, there's no more important place in a teacher's life in the morning than the copy room. And so you go in there, and you're standing in line, and I'm looking at all the stacks of things that people have copied. And at some point, I realized that the handouts are a really big deal, because you're in there and you're copying this, and you're going to take this back and put this in a kid's hand.

So everybody's got their textbooks, everybody's got all this material that they bought, that the district has paid a lot of money for. And then here's the teacher basically saying ... here's this workaround for teaching this content, or I don't think the textbook is accessible or interesting. As I'm standing there, I'm realizing that the handout is really the secret operating system of the classroom. A teacher's going to go back. They might say, put the textbook away, this is what we're going to do, 'cause that why they're there at 7:54 before class has started at 8:00.

And so I start looking at the different handouts around me, not just ... For any subject. And I happen to pick up one that was just right there, and I can't remember what the subject was for. But there was a timed element to the writing aspect of it. And I'm looking at it, and I'm looking at it from the perspective of the layout of the page, looking at it from the choices of the fonts, from the writing. I'm looking at it from the actual cognitive processes that are knowingly or unwittingly embedded into the assignment. And I'm looking at the fact that it's timed.

And my first thought was actually, if you put this in the hand of a kid who is an English learner, they would fundamentally get less time than other kids in the class, because they wouldn't know what they could ignore on the assignment, because the assignment wasn't designed in that way. And there's a lot of unclear language.

So suddenly I'm standing there, and I'm realizing that a handout is not just the secret operating system in the class, but it gets into becoming almost a social justice issue. You have kids, by virtue of just this handout, who are going to get less support, less time, and therefore increase the likelihood that they're not going to do as well on an assignment in the class, and so they're going to get a lower grade than the kid who understands, oh, that first part is just nonsense. Just cut straight to the directions.

Brett: When we think about design, when we think about friction points, where do these writing assignments tend to go astray?

Jim: Well, you use that word "friction points", and maybe that's a good place to clarify that. That's a really interesting idea that came up, and it comes up both in good ways and in bad ways. So the first time I ever heard "friction point" used was, there's a program, a research program for kids to use. So I had a chance to talk to one of the designers, and I said, "Why does it keep popping up to force you to re-enter your research question?" He goes, "Oh, that's just a friction point," and he kept moving on. I said, "No, wait, wait. That's really interesting, what do you mean by that?" And he said that's just the thing you build in to force somebody to re-remind them of their purpose. So that's a positive friction point that is intentionally put in to achieve an effect.

A negative friction point would basically be all the different things that you rub up against that cause friction that undermines the learning. So the clarity of the language, the clarity of form, the readability of the interface of the computer. If you're using an app, if you're going into some computer program that they don't know how to use it, then that's another ... That's a negative friction point that's between them and the learning they're trying to do. And so it's just going to further undermine.

So that whole idea of just a friction point itself I think is really interesting, and whether you're intentional is something we can talk more about. But in design, that idea of being intentional ... I'm going to build this thing in to force you to restate your research question, versus unintended ... For example, if you started going through all these different handouts that I looked at over the last couple years, and you looked at how many different mental processes over the course of a single handout can be asked of kids, it becomes overwhelming, because we're just not realizing that sometimes in a single question, we're actually asking a kid to make eight different fairly demanding, sophisticated cognitive processes, when we think we're just asking them to summarize the passage or something.

There are a couple things we should talk about when it comes to design. One, it's just a word that's getting used all over the places. It's clearly become a very buzzy word for a lot of good reasons. But one of the things ... If we're going to quickly sketch out the idea of design thinking as a process, we mainly see it sketched out as starting with understanding or empathizing with who the user is or whatever it is. It really changes your thinking just even as an author. Somebody is going to use this book, and if I don't write this book with the idea of the teacher's time and how I want them to use it in mind, then it's probably not going to be very useful to them.

And even though we're talking about designing academic writing, in a sense, it's really ... There's no point in the book where it's not talking about the simultaneous integration of reading and writing, 'cause at the fundamental heart of all these academic writing assignments is the idea that kids are pretty much in this context writing about text of one sort or another.

So then you get to this part of this called generation or iteration. People call it different things. Basically, you're generating as many different possibilities for the assignment as possible, and then you pick one, and then you develop a prototype and then you test it and you see how it plays. And then if it seems like a viable model, then you go back to fixing what didn't work and building on what did. And so you're just getting this whole cycle of revision.

But I think one of the things that the design process encourages you to do is to be super intentional up front, and really invest in the time to develop that assignment as an experience. This idea of the user's journey through the unit. What it challenges me to do, I feel, is to come back and keep trying to make it better, because in a sense, you're in this ongoing process of looking at each assignment as a prototype that can be improved to better try to meet all those kids' needs.

And the other aspect of it, going back to your question, is ... I just marvel at how each year just has its own flavor. Part of you would like to think, oh, right, I've got this assignment. It's perfect. It's great. And then the next year you come in ... And last year, I had over 20% of my kids had IEPs or 504s or some kind of special needs, and there's probably 8% more that don't have those things on paper, but they still have those needs. And then the next year you get a class that has none of those kids, or they have a whole different set of needs. And so to be able to in there and in that responsive nature, I think the design process is really ... It's kind of an agile, responsive process, which I think is probably why there is a legitimate basis for people being so interested in it, 'cause this is the way we're living the world these days. The conditions keep changing.

And I talked briefly earlier about the idea of constraints. One example that I talked about in the book that I think is really interesting is I'm in the copy room one day, and I see a handout for Lord of the Flies. So, I don't know, let's say there's 15 chapters in Lord of the Flies, 20 chapters. And so here's this handout for Chapter 3, and there are 10 questions for this homework assignment, which at seems to me like it's supposed to be done that night.

So I sneak a copy, and then I take it home and I look at it, and there's actually not 10 questions. There's 30, because it's one of those deals where it's like, question number one. Who's Piggy, what does Piggy represent, and how would you describe Piggy's relationship with the other kids on the island? So you have three questions that are all like Russian dolls nested under number one, and each of them gets progressively more cognitively demanding. If you just had those three questions that are hidden under number one, if you actually wanted the kid to go home and write at substantial length and depth, that would be enough.

What you end up having is 30 questions that are disguised at 10, and they all do that same thing, and this is just for Chapter 3. And even I look at these, and by the time I get to the bottom of this one, I never want to look at Lord of the Flies again. And here comes Chapter 4 and Chapter 5. Don't ask 30 questions, don't ask 10. Ask five that are all good and all function at different levels, and let kids choose three of those five that they want to write about in some depth. Then you get a little more choice. They're all aligned with different standards, so you win by whichever entry point. But then you get a little more of a sense of choice, and then kids are more likely to do that work and do it at a level that's going to pay off. Otherwise, it's just something to be gotten finished, to be gotten rid of.

Brett: Yeah, it's just busywork at that point.

You mentioned the handouts that you went through, and I know you went through a journey through this book in terms of ... You traveled around, you talked to a lot of people, you did a lot of reading of many handouts. Talk a little bit about that process that you led to you coming to these six design-

Jim: Well, it was such a window onto our work. Going back to that idea of the secret operating system, it became ... It first started at my own school. Got a little spy-ish, which I had tended to do at my own school, try to keep a low profile as an author. But teachers are always leaving copies around, they don't take the original out of the copy machine or whatever. And so I started looking around more and more, whether it was in my department or others.

So I just kind of started collecting them. I'd look at the directions, look at the kinds of questions that were being asked. I might know that this person teaches this class and this person teaches the same class, but they're giving different handouts. So is there a consistency of the language? Is one assignment asking a kid to make a claim, and is the other asking kids to develop an argument? So do you get what some people call this volleyball effect, where different terms are used, bounce kids around, cause a lot of unnecessary confusion? I'm not going to go to the teacher and say, hey, I stole a copy of your handout.

Brett: What'd you do next?

Jim: But what often became clear to me was a lot of these assignments, and from teachers I saw around the country, was that they would walk kids up to a certain point, and the next step would be the point that would make the greater cognitive demand. So an example would be ... And the assignment wouldn't include it. So you start looking at the handout, the assignment, telling the kid how we want you to take notes, kind of doing a bit of a right to learn thing as you're doing the experiment, and then I'm looking for ... Do you then have them synthesize all that into some kind of lab report or something? Or do you just write a brief summary of what they found and why it mattered? And a lot of times, it seemed like they wouldn't do that.

So one of the really interesting terms that I came across during the research was ... Ernest Morrell talks about the extent to which we're really good at working towards the inspiration point, which is getting kids engaged. But we've gotta bring them up to and through the perspiration point. And so what I started doing at that point was saying, send me your assignments. It was a huge transformation for me, just in terms of going out and working with schools and with teachers.

You can't really do that at a conference, but what I would say, if I were going to a district or a school, is to have people send me representative assignments, whether they're assignments that they think are really some of their best, they really think they get good results or whatever ... and then re-organization the day around some of these key principles that I began to discover that were fundamental to effective assignments, and have them go back into their own assignments, and basically do this reverse engineering and break the language and the design of their handouts, and all that kind of stuff down, and make them more aware of just how many things were going on.

And sometimes people just wouldn't realize how many different things they were asking a kid to do simultaneously, at least if the kids were going to do them at the level that they expected. So that idea of gathering assignments ... And then I just got really deliberate about it, so pretty much every district I've been working with for the last couple years, part of the process has been to send me representative assignments, and then when we do the workshop, to have the teachers come in with their own work and spend as much of the day as possible going into an assignment and looking at the cognitive moves, looking at Webb's depth of knowledge model and things like that, and really look at ... Are they getting those kids up to those higher levels? And if we can have that conversation about our own work honestly, I think basically we all realize, myself included, that there's just always ways that we can improve it.

Brett: Did you see key features jump out at you that led to the six?

Jim: So I started this inquiry into ... What are the elements of effective secondary writing assignments, and then Tom Newkirk, my editor, pointed out to me a book where a guy ... I think it's just called Writing Assignments ... where this guy was doing the same thing but at the college level. And he gathered thousands of assignments and broke them all down, and these were all freshman-level college assignments, and started looking at just the different kinds of assignments.

And so you get into short answer and research papers and things like that, which has a lot of implications for us ... If we're always trying to prepare the kids for what comes up, then the question is, what's going on there? And then a really interesting, probably from my mind, one of the most interesting reports during the time, came out. It was a report called Checking In that came out from Ed Trust, Education Trust in DC, which in the past has tended to be much more policy-oriented. And they do a lot of great work looking at equity and social justice and stuff in instruction.

And they started with this premise that if a state was doing standards legitimately, then there should be some reasonable expectation of transformation and gains. And if not, then what's that been all about? And so they did the same assignment, except they did it at the middle school level. So this one guy's got this thing going at the college level, and they started to do this at the middle school level, and then I started doing it at the high school level.

And so they looked at, I think, 3,000 assignments. And they're going to come out in a year with a report. And the things that they found concerned them so much that they felt like they had to initiate this report as soon as possible to try to alert people. So what they began to realize was that the assignments needed to be aligned with standards, whether it's from the College Board or the AP program, Common Core, whatever. But you've gotta have some high mark that you're trying to reach. They had to be cognitively demanding, they had to be engaging and motivating, and they had to draw on kids' skills and develop the skills kids needed to be able to work at this level. And the number of assignments that they found that were meeting those criteria was just really profoundly troubling.

So it's just interesting, I think, at a time, for all of us, whether it's the college, middle school, or high school level, to be arriving at this question of ... I almost go back to that secret operating system analogy, 'cause we're all looking at handouts, basically, and saying, are these things that people are giving students to do, are they cognitively demanding, are they engaging, and things like that? And the results on all fronts were fairly troubling.

So, of course, one of the things you can say about the profession right now ... It goes back to one of Don Graves's old great comments, which is that teachers are like five-pound bags in which people are always trying to stuff 10 pounds of grain. So nobody is ever coming by saying, "Jim, we'd just like you to do less." I get 51 minutes in a class, and so there's this question of constraints.

One of the fundamental principles is when you're designing something, whatever it is, whether it's a phone ... You've got the constraint of the size of your pocket, or how long the battery can last, or whatever. So these constraints of time and number of kids in classes and things like that are very well constrained. So I was never being critical of teachers. What I became interested in was, what can we create that gives them some guidelines to be able to create more consistently effective writing assignments that are at least more likely to consistently improve kids' ability to write well?

Brett: So let's talk about the six.

Jim: Sure.

Brett: I think what I love about these six is that they're really applicable for different subject matters. It's not just the English classroom. You've really thought about science, you've really thought about social studies, you've thought about all these different ways. And you put a lot of thought and, as you mentioned, design into them. So talk a little bit about the six, and just how you landed on these six.

Jim: Sure. One of the ways to think about the six, I think, is it's a kind of a gestalt ... It's also the idea of, what do we call that, myplate.gov or whatever. The balanced meal, we had the old pyramid, or something like that. And so if you look at the whole cognitive, intellectual diet of a kid, they should be consuming a variety of types and levels.

So the six, what they sorted out into was the idea of writing to learn, which is writing that can be used in a lot of different ways. It can be in journals, writing that's often more informal, may happen at the beginning of class just to get people ready for a conversation. It tends to focus less on the style of writing, things like that.

You've got short answer, which is anything from a sentence maybe up to a paragraph. But the kids are having to generate the language. You've got what I call process papers, which is a concept that some people grappled with for a while, because they would say, is that like an analytical essay or an argument essay? And to me, the six aren't rhetorical models.

So the process paper is simply a paper that you take through all over some portion of the writing process, which ... [Jus Langer 00:17:50] and [Arthur Appleby 00:17:51] have found in their big study of writing, that a lot of people say they really embrace and appreciate the writing process. But when they go out and they observe them in classes in their big national study, they found that a lot of people ... They have an identity of themselves as doing a lot of writing process, but in fact, they're not finding or making enough time in their class to be able to do too much of that. So the process paper is simply a paper which could be really of any length, that you're going through all or some portion of the writing process.

You've got writing on demand, which ... If you go back to that balanced diet analogy, part of the challenge with that is that you have some people that are just wildly out of balance in their academic diet. Kids are just writing timed essays. And then you have research or long form. So it doesn't necessarily have to be a research paper, but you're getting in and going long. And then you have what I call alternative assignments, which can be anything from mixed media types of pieces to more functional pieces like resumes. A lot of the work that can go on that involves different forms can fall under the alternative assignments, but then the question is, what are kids actually being expected of when they get to college?

So as the father of a daughter who just finished her first year in college, I have all too clear a grasp on the demands of that, and it's revealing. So you get assignments at the college level that ask kids to make a lot of different moves, drawing on a lot of different kinds of texts. They're often most consistently aligned with the long form or the research kind of paper. You can't do doing all these things all the time, obviously.

One of the things that really unexpectedly came out of the research was ... Which I hadn't been aware of until I was writing the book ... was the extent to which they often can dovetail or you can kind of get a twofer. So if you have a kid write a timed, writing a demand piece, practice for the state, for the AP, whatever it might be, you can treat that as a terminal assignment. You got a B on the assignment. Or you can treat that as, okay, so that's round one. We're just going to treat that as a practice for the state test. Now we've done that practice for the state test, and now I want to treat it as if we've got a rough draft of an essay that we can then use to actually revise and treat it as a process paper, and that's really where the writing instruction's going to come, 'cause the writing on demand, there's not really much room for the writing instruction. The whole thing is kind of ... Get in there and sit and write the piece.

Looking at some of the writing to learn things that you can have kids do that are preparatory for the process paper ... So you can work in writing to learn things throughout. In the book, there's a big emphasis on what, in my class, we call the expert project paper, which is this year-long inquiry into one topic. And it was not obvious to me until I was writing the book. So it's just about every type of other writing assignment out of the six that ends up getting folded into the expert project by the time it's finished.

The kids go out and they do original research and they've gotta write up this alternative form of the executive summary. They have to write up surveys and things like that, which is another alternative form, kind of a work-related kind of form. They're doing a lot of writing to learn in response to articles they're reading along the way. They're doing timed writing in response to books that they're reading, 'cause the project goes over the course of the whole year. And then when they get to the long form for the actual paper itself, they're essentially writing a process paper, which is an 8-10 page paper for the long form, for that paper.

So that extent to which oftentimes they dovetail in on each other ... At the same time, I think the idea of the six is to be able to check yourself and say, you know, we've just been doing a lot of writing to learn lately. And that's fine, but there's not a great level of accountability to that. It's kind of just whatever kids want to think about that. And so how do we design assignments that are, if we're going to do writing to learn, they're short answer pieces that are asking kids to engage in deeper, more thoughtful levels with text that we read, for example?

Brett: As you wrote about design and you wrote about the operating system, you really mentioned that the way the student has learned has changed a lot in the last 5-10 years, and it's time to make these shifts in the teaching to be where the student is a bit more. You also wrote about that a little bit.

Jim: So many different kinds of kids in the class. And I think one of the things ... So one of the other really transformative aspects of the research process for the book was arriving at this idea ... If you're talking about design, design is fundamentally about the idea of the user, of the thing that you're going to design. And it really challenges and transforms your view to begin thinking of your student as a user of your class, of this assignment, of this book. And you suddenly start looking ... It goes back to that friction point thing a little bit, right? What are the friction points for this text?

It could be that there's vocabulary in there that if I don't help them get a handle on, then they're not going to be able to do the assignment that I'm asking them to write about, or something like that. And so when you start thinking about your students as users, you start having to think of things from more the perspective of multiple entry points into that experience, that not everything is going to be equally intuitive to the students, I think.

And so I think one of the things that this design perspective of the user, which ... In my class, I have about 35 kids. And I've got kids, I teach all seniors right now. So I have kids that have been in advanced and honors AP classes for the last three years and they're stepping out. I've got other kids that are coming in with an acute, chronic case of senioritis by the first day that are really ready to go. And then everybody in between. I have a lot of kids with special needs of all different kinds.

And so when you take that into consideration, one of the things that this emphasis on design and the user challenges you to do is to say, how is that assignment going to be accessible at some meaningful level? I'd much rather think about that ahead of time than feel like I'm supposed to create 15 different assignments for all different kids at all different levels in my class.

And so maybe we can end with a story that I talk about in the book. I've talked about this in other books. I barely graduated from high school. I was in the bottom 10% of my high school class. So I was put in a remedial writing class in college, and at some point, I had to write this paper, and it was a 10-page typed paper, and I got an F on it. I was the first in my family to go to college. My dad dropped out in the ninth grade. So it was a completely foreign world to me.

And the only reason I can go, I think, to this professor's office to ask him why I got an F was because I was starting from this place of ... But it's a 10-page typed paper, man. Don't we just start with a B- at least and just work up from there? This is typed pre-computer. So I just ... His whole feedback was an F, and it just said, "So?" A four-inch, big, red, S-O, question mark. And that was all of his feedback.

And so just more out of confusion, demystification, went to his office. And it led to a great conversation. And he ... Basically, my thesis was, well, there's this guy named Hamlet that really liked Ophelia. I didn't know how to do academic writing. So these kids that we're often so worried about, if we don't take those things into consideration in designing, meeting with the teacher ... You're all, by Friday, you're all going to have a rough draft, and I want you to come up with me. We're going to meet even for one minute.

And then you try to help kids, 'cause learning, it just fundamentally involves a sense of vulnerability. And I think writing more than anything ... because it's a very, very public performance of your intelligence. With reading, you can say, oh yeah, I understood that poem. But I don't want to talk about it. But with writing, the page is blank or it's not. And so it's just a very emotional experience.

Brett: You put it out there for the world.

Jim: Yeah, yeah.

•••

Learn more about The Six Academic Writing Assignments at Heinemann.com

Download a Sample Chapter of The Six Academic Writing Assignments


jimburkeJim Burke is the author of numerous bestselling Heinemann titles, including the English Teacher’s Companion, Fourth Edition and What’s the Big Idea? The question he’s always tried to answer is “How can we teach our students better?” He seeks these answers daily through his work in his own classroom at Burlingame High School in California where he still teaches after twenty years. Facing the same constraints and challenges as every other teacher, Jim shares his creative solutions in bestselling professional titles with Heinemann such as Reading Reminders and Writing Reminders as well as through Heinemann Professional Development Services. As part of his commitment to helping teachers and learning how to use the latest technologies, he founded the English Companion Ning, described by Education Week as “the world’s largest English department” and winner of several Edublog Awards for Best Social Network for Education. In addition to the EC Ning, Jim offers a steady stream of recommended resources through his website (www.englishcompanion.com) and Twitter (@englishcomp) where he is ranked in the top 100 educators to follow at the top within the online English teacher community. 

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Topics: Jim Burke, The Six Academic Writing Assignments, Podcast, Podcasts, Heinemann Podcast, Writing

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