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 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.

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. *

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.

Zahorik's report, entitled "Elementary and Secondary Teachers' Reports of How They Make Learning Interesting," reached the following conclusion based on an extensive survey of 65 teachers: "Hands-on activities are the primary way of establishing interest, although teachers also reported creating interest through the use of personalized content, student trust, and group tasks, and in other ways. Teachers reported that they rarely used content facts and concepts as a means to establish interest " [italics added]. All of the teachers except two secondary teachers identified sedentary activities" as "producing disinterest and, often, causing antagonism." Of sedentary activities, Zahorik explained, "the behaviors and tasks that teachers saw as harmful to interest were lecturing, explaining, giving directions, reviewing, taking tests, reading textbooks, doing workbooks, and taking notes."

What has happened here? How did the humanities and sciences get declared a turnoff? This view is inert to the beauty and use of knowledge. The magic of Pythagoras and the value of the hypotenuse in navigating everyday life; the digestive system of mollusks and mammals; how cutting a sentence by half can sometimes double its power; the influence of Palladio on world architecture; the world as seen by Copernicus and Galileo; the building of the canals in China during the Ming dynasty and the transcontinental railroad in 19th century America; the story of the boy from hardscrabble Kentucky who became a president who preserved the Union and freed the slaves, Abraham Lincoln. The fist of subjects that can move and instruct is endless. This content needs no dressing up or excuses. It stands on its own.

In the upper grades, social promotion and detracked classrooms contribute to hands-on practices. Teachers are rightly eager that all students succeed and that all students are at least marginally "engaged" in learning. Faced with the daunting task of teaching to a wide range of achievement, teachers feel they have no choice but to offer an array of activities accessible to even the most unprepared students.

*  *  *

Popular culture blindsides some students. It provides mesmerizing entertainments, some incorporated into multimedia and educational software programming. These images and fast-paced electronics are emotionally seductive. Concerned that subject content fails to grab many students—who are grabbed by Nintendo, Channel One, and MTV—psychologists, school administrators, parents, and journalists pressure for more "innovative" learning styles and teaching strategies.

Consider the sixth-grade Live from Masada! project, an assignment that any ambitious teacher with the available technology can complicate, asking students to capture each classmate's sound bite on videotape and camcorder. Such an activity could easily expand to eat up a week or more of social studies for 25 students.

Logistics aside, the exercise contains a whiff of showbiz. It sensationalizes and trivializes the subject. It cheapens the event. It deflects an opportunity to teach the epic struggle between Rome and the Jews in the early common era, paganism and Judaism set against the birth of Christianity in the first century. Live From Masada! suggests that events themselves are not sufficiently forceful or interesting to capture student attention. That the Roman siege and the deaths of 960 men, women, and children in the Judean desert requires a charade of Nightly News to make it interesting.

In a false bow to so-called critical thinking, history and social studies activities often embrace questions and events so complex and perplexing that the nation's greatest minds feel timorous in their presence, as the historian and essayist Paul Gagnon has noted. Prentice Hall's high school textbook World History: Connections to Today, for instance, asks students to ponder the question, "Is war ever justified?" based on very short observations about war from the ancient Chinese warrior Sun Tzu, the Aztecs, Catherine the Great, José Marti, Gandhi, and a member of Another Mother Against War.

This is followed by an activity in which students "investigate" other points of view, finally expressing the viewpoint they "agree with most" in their own ways, which may be "an essay, a cartoon, a poem, a drawing or painting, a song, a skit, a video, or some other way." In the same book, students are supposed to follow the same steps to "decide" such issues as "Is technology a blessing or curse?" and "Does diversity strengthen or weaken a society?"

Some activities are simply in bad taste. Francine Prose writing in Harper's magazine (September, 1999) notes Carolyn Smith McGowen's Teaching Literature by Women Authors (a book with which I am personally unfamiliar), a guide that gives this suggestion to teachers preparing to teach The Diary of Anne Frank: "Give each student a paper grocery bag. Explain that to avoid being sent to a concentration camp, many people went into hiding. Often they could take with them only what they could carry... Ask your students to choose the items they would take into hiding. These items must fit into a grocery bag."

Hands-on activities often fold into writing assignments. Authors like Prose are puzzled when they encounter teachers' manuals and instructors' learning guides that verge on the bizarre. They learn from a teachers' guide called Teaching the Novel: Students might write a script for the TV news announcing the Macbeth murders or write a psychiatrist's report on Lady Macbeth. Students might write her suicide note to her husband, or Macbeth's entry in Who's Who, or his obituary. Prose deplores such writing around the subject. These teaching strategies are inert to the power of language, to the unparalleled contributions of Shakespeare in particular, and to the essence of human feeling and heart contained in his plays, she complains.

Prose condemns teaching strategies that put the student at the center of the subject, an increasingly common practice running throughout school-level humanities today. For Prose, "those who might have supposed that one purpose of fiction was to deploy the powers of language to connect us, directly and intimately, with the hearts and souls of others, will be disappointed to learn that the whole point is to make us examine ourselves." The wonder of Me.

Describe how you would react if.... Did you ever feel ... ? This second-person device now extends into textbook captions, lesson extensions, and classroom review exercises. But activities that continually thrust the student into the center of the literary or historical event "narrow the world of experience down to the personal," says Prose. They actually shrink the student's vision. They limit the student's imagination, which remains imprisoned in its own perspectives and experiences, which are often meager and mundane.

In activity-based learning, some teachers turn to drama. But classroom spectacles such as simulations and mock trials are usually doomed from the start. Students rarely have the personal finesse or rhetorical skill that role playing or debate requires to succeed. When they do, students must bring a staggering amount of background knowledge to the table. If they don't have ample familiarity with the subject, such activities fatally lack content. These skits and theatrics may provide an opportunity for student high jinks. But if these activities backfire or fall flat, as they often do, the results can be extremely painful for teacher and student. Take some favorites: To study the origins of the Cold War, Harry Truman meets Stalin at Potsdam or stands trial for having bombed Hiroshima. Lyndon Johnson defends U.S. policy in Vietnam. Richard Nixon defends himself.

These efforts put the cart before the horse. in the case of the Cold War, how much more trustworthy and valuable, simpler and richer it would be to read accounts and study maps of the Allied military movements in 1945, the fall of Czechoslovakia, the white paper on containment, or the Marshall address at Harvard University that led to the pan-European economic recovery program. If Korea or Vietnam are to be understood, students must first understand the nature of Soviet aggression in Europe after 1945. So versed, students have a key to understanding geopolitics before 1989 and after.

Projects and activities can breed student cynicism. It does not take long for some students to figure out that activities waste a lot of time and that some activities are pretty lame. Students may wonder what the point is, especially when they encounter dozens or even a hundred projects or activities during the course of the school year instead of a well-chosen handful carried out with precision and depth.

*  *  *

Activity-based learning is vain. It presupposes it alone is responsive to the "inner gifts" of children, especially children who are challenged or overmatched by traditional academic learning. A salting of high theory stands behind it, theory that is reinforced in faculty lounges and workshops and that has special appeal to those who face a rising number of children who seem alienated from words and numbers.

Teachers are on the receiving end of much bad information about learning. Not only do they endure pressure from gurus and guides. Complicit are schools of education that encourage teachers not to be "hung up on facts" but to concentrate on nurturing self-esteem and individuality. Methods classes uncritically praise project learning and activity-based learning. They subscribe to a set of principles at odds with classical education that go back 75 or 80 years, to William Kilpatrick's project method and Harold Rugg's child-centered school.

Project-based learning enthusiasts want children to be—here we return to affective philosophy—active. The learning process, they say, should be "tactile." With busy hands and classrooms in motion. According to powerful currents that influence how teachers frame their lesson plans, educational success should be joyful noise and creative disorder, durable concepts of the 1970s. In motivational educational workshops, a teacher learns not to be a "sage on the stage." She should be a "guide on the side." Deep bias exists against a teacher-centered classroom.

Those preparing to be teachers rarely hear that some projects are neither beneficial nor valuable, that they may in fact corrupt subtle thinking about a subject. That if projects are to succeed, they must be limited in scope and time. Or that projects need to be filled out and supplemented with generous amounts of reading and writing. Orderly classrooms and unadorned lessons are minuses, they hear, as is "rote" education too terrible to behold.

The typology of talent and intelligence bends so far as to render academic education peripheral or competitive with other varieties of knowledge. Projects, it is said, are more sensitive to diversity and different intelligences. They honor individual modes of expression. Fine if you are a cognitive type ... but if you are not, no problem. Word and number learning were demoted during the 1990s, joined in school by new kinds of intelligence that all seemed to cry for activities-based learning. The premier exponent of this "multiple intelligences" (MI) schema—the most powerful force in progressive education today—is Howard Gardner, the tireless promoter of the theory. Sage-on-the-stage Gardner is Harvard University's professor of cognition and education, and an adjunct professor of psychology, a staple on news and talk shows, and author of dozens of books, monographs, and videos.

The MI concept—originated by Gardner in the early 1980s and embraced by education organizations, schools, and experts—has achieved doctrinal status in a short time. According to Gardner's widely accepted schema, word (linguistic) and number (logical-mathematical) smart are two kinds of smart. But so is picture smart (spatial), body smart (bodily-kinesthetic), music smart (musical), people smart (interpersonal), self smart (intrapersonal), and—his newest addition—nature smart (naturalist). The MI appeal is obvious. It caters to the idea of individual modes of learning, itself a concept that research has failed to deliver on but that nevertheless remains a central progressive interest and promise. It is rooted in American fair play. It levels the playing field.

Howard Gardner knows that many very silly things are said in his name. But the writings in Thomas Armstrong's Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom (ASCD, second edition, 2000), published with the imprimatur of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, cannot be among them. The book appears with Gardner's blessing. In a preface, Gardner vouches for the accuracy, clarity, broad range, and the teacher-friendliness of the book. He calls it a "reliable and readable account of my work" that "conveys a vivid idea of what MI classes, teaching moves, curricula, and assessments can be like."

Armstrong's guide is a veritable encyclopedia of non-traditional teaching strategies. To tap into interpersonal intelligence, the book extols the construction and use of board games "easily made using manila file folders, magic markers ... a pair of dice and miniature cars, people or colored cubes ... to serve as game pieces. Topics can include a wide range of subjects, from math facts and phonics skills to rain forest data and history questions." In Armstrong's world, animal sounds, plant symbols, class plays, making pictures, and color coding are alternate ways to learn about punctuation.

To engage the naturalist intelligence, another teaching strategy suggests that high school teachers "use a class pet as a kind of 'alter ego' for the classroom in posing instructional questions (e.g., 'How do you think our rabbit Albert would feel about the problem of world hunger?'). Students who relate best to the world through their love of animals might well use Albert's persona in giving voice to their own thinking on the matter."

In featured examples in the book's appendix, for a fifth-grade history lesson on the development of Rhode Island, students—depending on their "smarts"—can choose between traditional approaches such as reading a textbook and creating a timeline, or they can relate the settlement of Rhode Island to their own need or desire to break away from authority, or compare the settlement of Rhode Island with the growth of an amoeba. (It's hard to know what this last learning exercise means or means to teach.) But such antic activities will undoubtedly influence some impressionable curriculum specialists, just as they reinforce the false notion that learning should be cheery and blithe. (Learning is often very hard and even tedious work.)

To get a feel for unknowns in basic algebra, Armstrong advises, spatially endowed students in junior high school can draw a version of "x" as a masked outlaw. Students with musical intelligence can chant "x is a mystery" and "accompany their chanting with any available percussion instruments." To get a feel for Boyle's Law, high school chemistry students can become "molecules" of gas in a "container" (a clearly defined corner of the classroom). They move at a constant rate (temperature) and cannot leave the container (constant mass).

These activities are at once catchy, dreary, and desperate. This is not the way to learn about "x" or Boyle's Law. Animal sounds are not the best way for children to learn about punctuation. Teachers should not suffer theory that tells them they are. Don't have high school students ask 4ibert the classroom rabbit what he thinks about world hunger, as Armstrong's guide would suggest. Have them obtain research material from the Population Reference Bureau.

Sometimes, Zahorik noted in his study of how teachers make learning interesting, an activity may stir up interest but be educationally counterproductive. In Zahorik's chosen example, on a field trip to a nature center, students were asked to role-play various animals such as the "radar-eared grass nibbler" and the "longlegged fish nabber" while the teacher, wearing an official-looking costume, role-played the mayor of a hypothetical community. Using written clues suspended from trees, each "animal" was to find a home where it could survive. "Since natural environments with real plants and animals can provide considerable situational interest, the role-playing activity may not have been needed," Zahorik concluded with academic understatement.

At rock bottom, projects and activities provide mere entertainment. Teachers who fear student antagonism abandon "sedentary activities." They seek to fill dead time in the classroom. Projects and activities keep kids occupied and unmutinous. One of Zahorik's points was that "artificial tasks ... detract from interest." But real knowledge needs no artificial tasks.

  • Compare the tricky verbs, être and avoir, to their English cousins. Compare the Romanesque and the Gothic.
  • Read a description of the French Revolution. Plenty exist, and they are not hard to find. Tell the story of the extraordinary flight from Paris of Louis XVI, a monarch who was ultimately tried, found guilty, and executed in one of the great and moving spectacles in all history. How is this revolution linked to the American Revolution and Constitution?
  • Get to know the Carpetbaggers, the Know-Nothings, the Copperheads, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, Warren Harding, and Franklin Roosevelt.

Inherently fascinating subjects—how water gets from a reservoir to a kitchen sink, the locomotion of flatworms, the features of the solar system and what the names of each planet symbolize, the discovery of penicillin and the polio vaccine, why sad songs like the blues often use minor chords—are without limit. None of these subjects needs an artificial stimulus to make it come alive. Each brims with thrilling substance that lends itself to a memorable lesson in unadulterated form.

*  *  *

Prodded by voters and elected officials who are seeking improved educational results, states are issuing detailed and in some cases ambitious content standards that seek to enlarge coverage and guarantee academic knowledge. Attention grows over what children should know, stimulated by widely held suspicions backed up by national data that too many of them know very little.

When done well, these new content standards are a positive and possibly historic development in American education. But the gurus are telling teachers to go somewhere else—and moreover, that the "narrow" knowledge embodied in new curriculum frameworks may bruise some children. Hence, teachers are undermined from the start. Well-intentioned teachers cannot realize these public expectations and at the same time abide the advice, theory, and recommendations that filter down to them from research university faculties and oracular educational institutes.

Balance is everything in education, and just as teachers should sometimes make judgments that land on the side of activity, they must also often act as experts and leaders. Teachers have to ask themselves: Is writing an eyewitness journal entry on "what it was like to witness the signing of the Declaration of Independence" really the best way for eighth-graders to learn the principles of the Declaration? Do we give up making that mural of the Underground Railroad in order to get a more in-depth understanding of the Civil War through reading the Emancipation Proclamation or memorizing the Gettysburg Address? Which is doable in a shorter amount of time, and which is more valuable?

In order to succeed, projects and activities take more planning, care, and work for teachers than standard lessons. In both successful and unsuccessful projects, teachers work very hard to make learning direct and lively. When successful, the inner satisfaction of developing the activity and fusing it to academic content drive teacher and student alike.

Teachers must define the scope, limit the things to be learned, and make sure students learn these things. If the subject is handled with planning and forethought, students will gain a sense of mastery from a project, not frustration.

In designing activities and projects teachers must ask: What do I want to accomplish by this? Is an activity the most effective and time-efficient way to achieve results? What evidence will stand to prove the desired end has been achieved? How is this project intended to advance what most or all students should know or be able to do?

Activities and projects work best when they are matched to the individual, stimulate intellectual growth in ways that the student cannot yet know, and build on knowledge that gives the endeavor depth and substance upon completion. Selection, arrangement, focus, presentation, practice, review—the mainstays of curriculum—must all be taken into account.

Education is not a game. The only valid architecture for projects and activities is core knowledge. How to handle words, express yourself fluently, and listen are not educational electives. No substitute exists for the foundations of mathematics, history, and science. Individual deliberation, judgment, understanding, and the ability to take advantage of the present depend on an individual's storehouse of these fundamental facts and skills. They are the armature, skeleton, and building blocks on which continuing education depends.

Facts and academic mastery are what too many activities artfully dodge. What civilizations have considered the keys to and the superstructure of knowledge, contemporary progressives label lower-order skills. At their most debased, projects and activities are the curriculum of Nietzsche's Last People, who see the wonders of the world, a world formalized in the humanities and science—and can only blink.


Gilbert T. Sewall is director of the American Textbook Council and, most recently, the editor of The Eighties: A Reader. He writes frequently on education issues.

*See "Polishing the Stone: How Asian Teachers Perfect Their Lessons," by James Stigler and Harold Stevenson, in the Spring 1991 issue of American Educator.
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