This was a comment I posted in response to a blog post you can read here
I just finished my 3rd yr teaching 8th grade Language Arts and have found that finding the balance between engagement and relevance is tricky. The 8th grade team completed our first Expeditionary Learning Unit (See what that means here: http://bit.ly/cmX1r8) and found that engagement was very high. It involved student choice and a fair amount of self-directed work by the students. They produced some of the best work I’ve seen so far from 8th graders (you can see the work here: http://bit.ly/eC0eIW).
I always ask myself questions before beginning a project, why am I doing this: How does it meet my teaching goals? Can the students do what I’m asking them to do, have I done enough to make sure they have the skills required to complete the task? (I will often ask students this question outright when introducing a project – “Does this sound doable? Is what I’m asking you do a reasonable request?” Of course kids don’t always know what they don’t know but it’s a good place to start assessing what they need to know collaboratively.
And secondly (and I think the point of your post) do the students know why we are doing this and will they care? My goal this year was to make sure the students knew why I assigned the work I did, I think it made a difference.
The engagement that we saw in the Expedition was a result of the students personal connection to the work – one student remarked that she felt like the work she was doing was meaningful, and could make a difference. This is why so many students worked so hard.
Of course some kids did need a modified process, that will always be the case; so no, I don’t think it’s a cop-out to think that.
I think that reflecting on lessons and figuring out what went wrong (and what went right) by ourselves and with colleagues is the best thing we can do as teachers to improve our craft.