I read this article by Alan Stange on assigning penalties to students who hand in work late. He makes the point at the end of his blog post, "There is in fact relatively little significance to learning to complete on time." I agree with this statement and I’m going to expand upon it.
Who set the deadline for the assignment? Why was that particular deadline set? In most cases I am sure the answer to the first question is the teacher, and the answer to the second question was that because that particular deadline was convenient for the teacher. Some schools have got better answers to the 2nd question in the form of homework and assignment calendars, and if your school isn’t already doing some sort of load-balancing of assignments on students, I recommend it as a good starting place.
When the teacher assigns the deadline for the students, they are sending a message. "I am your boss, you will do as I say," which reinforces the teacher student hierarchy. If the teacher explains the reasons for a particular deadline, the hierarchy still exists, but now the teacher has become the "supportive" boss. If a teacher is willing to extend a deadline for a student, they are now the "empathetic" boss. However, they are still the boss. Do we want to tell students that what is important in your classroom is who is in charge?
Deadlines teachers assign are largely arbirtrary. In some cases they are meant to be logically placed around holidays, end of semesters, or between other teacher’s assignments, but these are arbitrary placements. If a deadline is arbitrary, why are we so stuck as teachers on making sure students meet it? What outcome are we hoping for from students when we are in charge of the deadlines?
If you listen to some educators, they’ll tell you that meeting deadlines teaches responsibility, and that meeting deadlines gives you a sense of purpose. So we might assign deadlines for these two reasons, if either of them was true. As far as I know, there is no research to support either of these claims.
Tell me the last time you met a deadline for a major project, say a curriculum review. Did you feel like had a sense of purpose? Did you feel like it taught you responsibility? It’s not the meeting of the deadline that gave you your sense of accomplishment, it was the completing of the project. Completing things makes us feel good. We feel proud of ourselves when we produce something awesome. It doesn’t matter in most cases if it took us 2 days or 20 weeks (unless you are trying for a speed record), we feel good because we finished.
Furthermore, who can really say that a project is really done? Even a published book has errors, and ends up being republished with revisions. Nothing is really ever done, we just decide we are done working on it when we feel like it is a "finished" project. I’ll probably come back and read this blog post in a year and find things I want to change.
So here’s my challenge to you. If you really feel you must have deadlines for assignments, find reasons why the deadline matters. Make the deadline less arbitrary. For example, "we need to finish these projects by Friday because the Mayor of the city is going to come and see them then" or "We have to have the letters done soon because our friends in Kenya are expecting them."
Alternatively, take the time to discuss the deadlines with the students. Ask them what they think and what would work for them. Remember, to you the deadline is mostly arbitrary, letting the students decide on the deadline won’t make it any less arbitrary, but it will give them some choice.
Our schools are currently intended to produce worker bees, and drones, but not thinkers. Our insistence on enforcing arbitrary deadlines just reinforces the power relationship between students and teachers and prevents students from being able to make their own deadlines and become more self-directed in their learning.