Monday, May 16, 2005

Trivial hands-on activities

Educationists waste endless time on trivial hands-on activities and projects and then whine that requiring basic skills in reading and math is an onerous requirement that takes too much of their time. Endless, trivial, often pointless and time-wasting hands-on activities and projects are an integral part of the anti-knowledge progressive/constructivist ed ideology. It has its roots in the progressive belief that learning must be "experiential" and that one only learns by doing. That creates a bias against book learning and explicit instruction.

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.


Jonathan Kallay said...

I give up. You're on your own.

Anonymous said...

You're not alone. Last year, I witnessed a project on citizenship at our elementary school. About 100 children dressed in "period" clothing sat on the floor while their parents (also in costume) pretended to be immigrants coming to Ellis Island. Some had diseases and were deported. Some had jobs and were deported. A few were welcomed into the country -- that one piece of data was the whole purpose for this skit.

I don't know how the kids stayed so quiet during it. After 15 minutes of watching a long line of these parent volunteers display their worst acting skills, I had to go.

Anonymous said...

Wait... the periodic table on another planet?? WTF? Is physics different on that planet? Does an electron have a different charge?

Mrs. Chosa said...

Hands-on = Time wasting
I´m an exchange teacher here in the US, I had heard that students like hands-on activities, so trying to give them a chance I decided to search some of those activities and ended up reading this article which I think is great. My students are asking for that kind of activities which I do not use frequently because they do not require the students to think, but anyway, I agree 100 % with you. The students do not want to do any thinking, they just want to waste time.

Anonymous said...

I am a homeschooler not a professional teacher but we've come to a similar conclusion. We fall back on plain old reading out loud, dictation, narration, discussion, copywork, working problems on white board etc. I've been inspired by descriptions of Japanese teaching methods for learning math, where teachers minutely plan their arguments and work problems as a class. However, my five year old uses manipulatives nearly all the time. Workbooks are almost useless: mostly coloring projects that jumble the order of topics. The French ones are often good though. I think that in science its better to work in projects. Our history is usually interesting enough that books and the internet do all the work. The only thing I use worksheets for is geography. I found this blog because I don't understand the theories I keep reading on educational sites. After googling constructivism and reading a bit, I'm still not sure what it is. (shrug)

classroommng said...

Teachers should provide different illustrations for the lessons they teach to the students. Students should be taught practically. Studentsgain complete knowledge only when they acquire practical knowledge. A great website clearly depicts the importance of practical learning in the classroom.