Here is a terrific article from American Educator that might explain why schools have such dismal results.
Lost In Action
Are time-consuming, trivializing activities displacing the cultivation of active minds ?
By Gilbert T. Sewall
A third-grade social studies student in California builds an Endangered Species "portfolio." For the entire year. This portfolio is given over to the demise of the toucan and the Galapagos tortoise. The portfolio is brightly colored, laminated and spiral bound, containing lots of glossy photographs clipped from magazines. Each page is thick with adhesive stick-ons and glitter. The portfolio contains many, many misspelled words and exhibits almost no understanding of the South American continent's natural history.
As traditional learning gives way in a growing number of classrooms, students encounter more and more projects and activities like the one above:
A seventh-grade suburban Maryland student builds a shoebox-sized replica of the items in his school locker for Spanish class. The academic content: He then labels the items in Spanish. Total time for the project: approximately 20 hours. Ninth-grade French class students in New York City scout cookbooks for crepe suzette and omelet recipes. They create photo montages of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, making posters for display on classroom walls.
Selected members of a 10th-grade world history class receive cookies. The rest of the class goes empty-handed. This creates a room of haves and have nots. Students discuss how it feels to be left out, and how it feels to be the privileged few given the cookies to eat. The purpose: to prepare for the study of the French Revolution.
Leading textbooks, new tests, and academic journals reinforce these practices:
A third-grade math program devotes a week to the concept of 1,000. One lesson centers on "Thousand skits," in which students figure out things the class can do cooperatively to accomplish 1,000 repetitions and then try to act them out. "Work in groups of four to make up your skit. Decide what you will do, how many people you will need, and how many repetitions each person will do. Write down the directions for your skit." This lesson is taken from a textbook series the U.S. Department of Education recommended last year to school districts across the country.
A sixth-grade social studies textbook suggests: "Imagine you are a television reporter covering the Roman assault on Masada. Prepare a news report on this event."
An "authentic assessment" in "integrated science" designed to replace ordinary tests asks students to write a poem about mitosis. A journal of chemical education encourages high school science students to construct a new periodic table of the elements as it might appear on some unspecified alien planet.
No one contests some legitimate place for projects and activities in classrooms. But lost in the whirlwind, this doing and doing, is a sense of where the real action should be--in the minds of students. Activities enthusiasts are right not to want passive students. But they have made a dangerous error. They have substituted ersatz activity and shallow content for the hard and serious work of the mind.
Whether projects and activities are good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, they are without question popular. They elicit warm and positive feelings that are lodged in persuasive learning theories and sentiments held almost universally: that a variety of tasks, assignments, and methods makes education more pleasurable and memorable.
Activity-based learning is not confined to early childhood education or the lower grades, to a handful of "innovative" classrooms, to public education, or to mediocre schools. In elementary and high schools alike, public and private, it is taking the place of traditional lessons, essays, tests, and research papers. The trend is not a matter of a pendulum swinging a little too far in one direction. In many schools, activities more than supplement the text and lesson. Activities are the lesson.
Such teaching strategies have a long pedigree. Some call them the project method, a term often used interchangeably with "activities-based learning" and "hands-on learning." Content is tied to prior experiences or known student interests. In a 1996 report on how teachers try to stimulate interest in learning, John A. Zahorik at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee defined these hands-on activities very broadly, including lessons in which the "student is an active participant rather than a passive listener. The term includes the use of manipulatives such as pattern blocks in mathematics; playing games of all kinds; participating in simulations, role playing and drama; engaging in projects. "
Education publishers, eager to keep up with pedagogical trends, have responded. Flip to any lesson in any up-to-date textbook. You'll find projects and activities at the core of the editorial apparatus. The most ambitious of the nation's new secondary-level history textbooks, McGraw-Hill/Glencoe's American journey --whose authors include a former president of the American Historical Association and a Pulitzer Prize winner--features a Taffy Pull, complete with a recipe and an invitation for students to relive the social event of the 1800s and early 1900s.
Hands-on enthusiasts claim that traditional pedagogy and content are at the center of the "interest" problem. They assume project- and activity-based learning to be superior forms of instruction, kinder and more humane than the opposite, which is often lumped under the term "verbal learning. " Language and letters, the many-splendored world of mathematics, the vast terrain of history and science, at least in pure form, according to this outlook, are limiting, boring, and possibly emotionally harmful to children.
Traditional classroom activities and content lose out--crowded and trimmed in order to accommodate projects. There's only so much school day, and projects and activities consume time greedily. To make room, time allotted to reading, writing, listening, critical dialogue, and directed inquiry inevitably shrinks. Serious learning takes a back seat.
Activities expand exponentially because teachers think that's what they are supposed to be doing. Administrators, curriculum specialists, education gurus, workshop presenters, psychologists, academic journals, and textbook publishers have told teachers that activities are the only way to engage students. "Chalk and talk" and "drill and kill" are the derisive names given to traditional approaches. Teachers, understandably, shudder at the thought of being associated with such dreary pedagogy. Should they resist the traditional wisdom, they may face scorn and intimidation for being instructionally out of date or even insensitive to student needs.
Lack of variety and imagination in assignments does lead to dull classrooms. Whole-class, teacher-led instruction is not always of high quality. But it certainly can be, frequently is, and would be much more often if it weren't caricatured as inevitably boring and ineffective, thus discouraging teachers from perfecting the art, as Japanese and Chinese teachers work so hard and successfully to do.* (* See below).
Activities-based learning often suspends valid educational premises: that the ability to communicate derives from verbal training; that the ability to absorb, filter and process information requires facility with words and numbers; that general knowledge leads to project mastery; that getting there requires hard work and even then is not universally conferred.
The fear of passive learning may be spectacularly misdirected, but the chalk-and-talk caricature has done its work. Pressed to be events coordinators and social directors, teachers have been robbed of traditional pedagogy's vision of quality: the carefully prepared lesson, rich with analogy, illustration and anecdote; focused and guided; demanding and lively; peppered with good humor; with frequent interchange between student and teacher, student and student; interspersed with small-group work when appropriate; and with a clear sense of direction at the beginning and summary at the end, leaving all participants with a feeling of completion and satisfaction.
Sometimes teachers must inform directly; at other times they guide students to figure things out for themselves. Active, attentive listening--on the part of both teacher and students--is an imperative. Repetition, practice, and memorization have their part, as does learning to take organized notes. At the core, always, is serious content approached seriously. Knowledge builds on knowledge. Thirteen years of carefully sequenced content and jealously guarded classroom time allow students to build an enormous storehouse of knowledge and skills and the ability to use them. And since knowledge and success are the best breeding ground for interest to take root and expand, the more students know, the more they will want to know.
Under the leadership of their teacher, students work to unearth meaning; to evaluate, interpret, compare, extend, and apply; to analyze their errors, present their findings, defend their solutions; to attend carefully to what others say; to get their thoughts down clearly on paper; to understand. This is not boring and it is not passive. This is real action learning. This is the mind at work. Those who would banish such teaching by dismissing it as dull and ineffective are better advised to put their efforts into helping teachers sharpen these familiar and research-validated approaches.
There is much more of this important article.