Monday, November 05, 2007

Activities, Activities....too many Activities

Many of us went through our training as teachers in a time before there were standards, in a time when curriculum documents sat on shelves in our classrooms if they were there and available at all. It was during that time that we learned to create well designed activities. You know what I mean...that "fun" apple unit that you did in the Fall where you pulled together all sorts of activities - the apple poems, the apple songs, the apple art projects. All of that kept our students very busy doing lots of "stuff" but, what about the learning?

Sitting in a meeting this afternoon I was reminded that we haven't quite broken out of this model even while lots of other things have been changing around us - the development of curriculum documents, training teachers to construct well designed lessons, the plans that brought technology into our classrooms to name a few. There were stories being shared today of students using computers to access a website provided by our reading series that contains a set guessed it...activities. There were recountings of literature circle activities that culminated guessed it...another activity. And I began to wonder, with all that we know about the brain and learning, why we can't break out of that mindset.

It's hard work to teach students to think. You have to lay lots of groundwork before students can independently use thinking skills. It takes modeling, practice and time. Unfortunately, this is what we so often overlook or skim over thinking that all we have to do it "show" our students what to do or give them some sort of activity to do and they'll automatically be able to do it.

To use technology to support learning takes lots of modeling, practice and time but instead we're letting ourselves rely on activities provided by websites that involve no real learning whatsoever. Several teachers have been talking about how they set up stations during their literacy time and they tell me about the great activities that our reading series provides for students online. Finally, while other discussions went forward, I logged onto a computer and got into the website to really take a close look at what's going on there. Having heard the claim that "our students need to practice these skills to get better" from so many teachers I was hoping that what I would see would prove to be worthwhile. But no...just a lot of activities. It goes something like this...Read/listen to the directions, go to the first example, choose the answer and move on to the next example and - oh, yeah - no feedback about wrong answers and you get to see how many points you earned at the end. If you're not truly invested in actually reading the material and thinking about the choices all you have to do is click on each possible answer until you got moved on to the next example. I'd wager that the brightest students invest a little time in looking for the right answer the first time - but then again, the brightest students probably don't need this type of rote activity. And, as for those who struggle with reading - is this kind of thing really going to help them be better readers?

A few weeks back, Jeff Utecht wrote about whether or not we really need standards for technology. I've thought about that quite a bit lately and my answer unequivocally is YES! We most certainly do need standards. If for nothing else than to keep these types of "activities" off the list of things our students can do during the instructional day. But even more than just having a list of standards, we need to have an understanding of how standards work and how they break down into specific benchmarks so that we can move into the realm of using technology less for activities and more for true learning experiences. Wikis, podcasts, blogs, VoiceThreads, SlideShares and the like are really cool - but, if it's not about the learning, if it's just an activity we teach our kids how to do, then it's just a waste of time.

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Clay Burell said...

It's an interesting argument that I agree with overall - tech without meaningful pedagogy is bad juju.

I'm seeing a lot of it in my school recently (or think I'm seeing it), and only console myself with these thoughts:

1) Much teaching and learning in schools is irrelevant and meaningless anyway, so at least everybody is trying new things, and

2) I have to trust in process: my pedagogy with these tools became more reflective with each new unit or project.

(Somehow, my decision to opt out of Twitter seems to fit in this, though I'm not sure how.)

Diane Quirk said...

Hi Clay,
A couple of things:
1. Trying new things is always a good thing and I applaud that with the teachers in my district. But new things must be supported by what we know is good for student learning.
2. The process is an interesting one. When we reflect on the process and see that we can teach the content using sound pedagogical practices and the technology really makes the difference we're getting somewhere aren't we?

And...I just really don't get Twitter. Too many other things to think about I suppose... :)
Thanks for the conversation - good to hear from you again.

Jeremy said...


I've been saying for years that new tech without new methods is a waste of time and money. The technology alone -- all the wizz-bang -- will not solve problems. New technology with methods to fit it, however, will open doors.

And that means growing beyond the tired focus on activities first and foremost. Activities are great, but only if they directly lead to the greater learning needs...otherwise they're a waste of time, or -- worse -- a smokescreen that obscures a lack of learning with 'fun' stuff. Several years ago I was on a committee to realign my district's middle school Social Studies classes with the (then) new state standards. I had people coming after me griping about how I "stole" their coveted 'Greek pillars activity' from them. My question was, and still is, what did your kids learn from that? Did they really learn about Classical Greece, or did they just produce a showy feel-good product that made it look like things were moving & shaking in your room?


Diane Quirk said...

Thanks for the comment. Yes, yes, yes! Our students need true learning experiences. They need to think not just do activities. You're on the same track as I am.