Students should be given opportunities to create work for audiences outside of the classroom, said Ron Berger, chief program officer for Expeditionary Learning Schools. He writes in this blog post about students who have created art and YouTube videos for audiences other than their peers and how the act of completing “work of value” changes students and improves the quality of their work. 

I travel with a heavy suitcase. Over my 35-year career as a public school teacher and educator at Expeditionary Learning, I have been obsessed with collecting student work of remarkable quality and value. I bring this work with me whenever I visit schools or present at conferences and workshops, because otherwise no one would believe me when I describe it.

The student work in my giant black suitcase is exemplary — beautiful and accurate, representative of strong content knowledge and critical thinking skills — but it’s not from “exceptional” students. It does not come from gifted and talented classrooms or from high-powered private schools. It’s the work of regular students in typical schools around the country. The difference is that these students’ teachers have helped them develop the skills and mindsets necessary to produce work of exceptional quality, and have built classroom and school cultures in which exceptional work is the norm.

Seeking Value

In all of my years sitting in classrooms as a student, in public schools that were highly regarded, I never once produced anything that resembled authentic work or had value beyond addressing a class requirement. My time was spent on an academic treadmill of turning in short assignments completed individually as final drafts — worksheets, papers, math problem sets, lab reports — none of which meant much to anyone and none of which resembled the work I have done in the real world. Although I received good grades, I have no work saved from my days in school, because nothing I created was particularly original, important or beautiful.

Yet when we finish school and enter the world of work, we are asked to create work of value — scientific reports, business plans, websites, books, architectural blueprints, graphic artwork, investment proposals, medical devices and software applications. This work is created over weeks or months with team consultation, collaboration and critique, and it goes through multiple revisions. The research, analysis, and production involve multiple disciplines, such as reading, writing, mathematics, science, engineering and design.

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