Activities, projects and the American Educator

Posted on 22-01-2012

One of the most wonderful educational resources I have found on the internet is the archive of the journal American Educator. This is the journal of the American Federation of Teachers, America’s second largest teaching union. Although the AFT is very similar to unions in England in its stance on employment rights, pension and pay, it is very different from the teaching unions in this country in its stance on pedagogy. For example, prominent unionists in England believe that school curricula should be reformed for the 21st century and should include lessons on how to walk. The AFT, on the other hand, are supporters of Core Knowledge, a  kindergarten-eighth grade curriculum that focuses on traditional subjects and content.

There are tons of good articles in the American Educator, but one I want to blog about now is by Gilbert Sewall.  It’s about the way that activities and projects have come to take up more and more classroom time. Here’s an excerpt:

  • 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…
  • 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 crêpe 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…
  • 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.

My first reaction was to cringe. I myself had taught lots of lessons like this. I had always thought there was something a bit wrong about them, but everyone else was doing it, and it was what we’d been taught at teacher training college. So I carried on teaching them and assumed that my uneasiness was down to me being a bit curmudgeonly and old-fashioned. When I read Sewall’s article, the way that he lists all the activities makes you realise how absurd they all are. I mean, they read like something out of Brass Eye or Monty Python. ‘Live at Masada’ in particular sounds like a scene from the Holy Grail that was left on the cutting room floor.

My second reaction was to question my first reaction. After all, Sewall’s article is a convincing piece of rhetoric, but does it really offer any evidence as to why such projects aren’t valuable? Isn’t the problem that such projects might be taught badly, and that taught well they would be very good? It’s easy to mock ideas like ‘Live at Masada’, but they do actually engage the kids. And is it just that he has cherrypicked the worst types of projects, attacking a straw man rather than a real problem? In short, is he just an old-fashioned curmudgeon whose ideas play to my prejudices?

My first reaction was correct, but it was another AFT writer, Dan T. Willingham, who convinced me of this. Willingham offers some cognitive evidence about exactly why such projects and activities are not worthwhile. In his book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’,  Willingham speaks about a similar project to the ones Sewall mentions.

‘A teacher once told me that for a fourth grade unit on the Underground Railroad he had his students bake biscuits, because this was a staple food for runaway slaves.’ (53)

Then, Willingham explains what the flaw is:

‘his students probably thought for about forty seconds about the relationship of biscuits to the Underground Railroad, and for forty minutes about measuring flour, mixing shortening and so on.’ (53)

And the reason why this is a problem is that:

‘Whatever students think about is what they will remember…memory is the residue of thought.’ (54)

And this, of course, is the problem with the projects Sewall lists. They get pupils to think about the wrong things. If we want pupils to learn Spanish, they need to think about Spanish vocabulary and sentence structures, not replicas of shoeboxes. If we want pupils to learn about Roman history, we need to get them to think about the events of Roman history, not about TV news reporters’ interviewing techniques.

Of course, there is another possible criticism of Sewall’s article, which is that we shouldn’t be bothering to teach pupils Spanish vocab or Roman history in the first place. I will deal with that in another post.