Unlearning "Never Make The Activity The Objective"

In solidarity with teachers, administrators, parents, and students in Louisiana who feel oppressed and frustrated by state standardized tests that are being administrated this week, I'm posting an essay a day about unlearning what I was taught in my first two years of teaching. Click here to read the full introduction.

I am terrible at science. I know that lots of people say they are terrible at subjects and are just being modest, but lots of people did not accidentally spill titration mixtures all over their lab partner's faces. You know how in chemistry classrooms there are those eye-flushing faucets that you're supposed to use in case of emergencies, but you've never seen anyone actually use? Yeah. I am the reason those are there.

Jaylen, on the other hand, loves science. I've known Jaylen for five years, and he's one of those kids who bounces around rooms like a pinball. He constantly has things he's not supposed to have in his pockets in his pockets. (The last time I asked him to empty them he had a LaserTag gift card, a glitter-filled hourglass timer, and a human tooth. I decided not to ask.) He's also freakishly smart.

I know Jaylen loves science because the last time I saw him, the first thing he said to me was, "I love science." That's a weird first thing to say to a person you know relatively well. Personally, I like to open with, "How are you?" or "Some weather, huh?" But Jaylen just launched right in.

I said, "That's cool! Maybe you can grow up to be a scientist." And Jaylen said, "But we never do science anymore." To be honest, my first thought was, Lucky you. But then I thought, I'm not actually surprised about that.

When I was training to be a teacher at Teach for America institute, there was this one session that really stuck with me. I remember it so vividly because it was transformative; it changed everything I thought about teaching children. Do you remember when you were learning math and you suddenly understood the relationship between addition and subtraction? It was just this click in your brain and then you couldn't un-know it? This felt a lot like that to me. The subject was "activity-based learning," and why teachers should never teach it.

By "activity-based learning," the presenter meant lessons wherein an activity is the objective. I remember the example she gave: she said that if you were teaching a lesson about vikings, an activity-based lesson would be to have students make viking ships out of clay, and then paint the viking ships. She asked us what you would learn by doing that. The answer she was looking for was, "Nothing."

She suggested that instead, teachers could design a lesson where they transformed their classroom into a map of the world, and had students role play that they were vikings. They'd have to learn complicated backstories for their viking characters, which would incorporate elements of history, and would simultaneously force them to practice reading (the presenter said that science and social studies should always be conduits for teaching reading). Then, they could trade goods with other classmates, travel the high seas, and interact with deadly weather patterns. They could keep journals about their travels, and could be subjected to disease or warfare. A lesson like that, the presenter said, involved an activity, and was fun, but wasn't about the activity. The students would be reading, internalizing information about vikings, and applying problem-solving skills. They would be learning something. They would not be painting a ship.

Right then, I knew exactly the kind of teacher I was going to be: I was going to be the role-playing viking teacher, not the boat-painting viking teacher. My students would all be readers who knew what it was like to be a viking. 

Of course, when I started teaching, the logistics of the viking role-play project became immediately problematic. How would the students move about the classroom? Who would be writing these back-stories? Also, was it really wise to allow children to engage in mock "warfare?" That suddenly felt like a yard fight waiting to happen. But I didn't want to teach an "activity-based" lesson, so I watered things down. We would read about vikings (Reading! Yay!) and then we'd write viking journal entries about what it was like to be a viking. But investment was low. No one was really into that project. On a good day during the viking unit, the majority of my students fell asleep.

As I continued teaching, I heard the "never make the activity the objective" mantra again and again. And sometimes, especially in the charter school world, the message would get taken a step further. The message became, "Reading and math are the most important things for children to learn, and we have to spend most of the day teaching those things, until students school-wide are up to grade level. Therefore, science and social studies need to either be sacrificed, or taught as a reading lesson."

Before you start shouting at me, let me be clear: I think reading and math are really important. I could write a novel about how important reading and math are. (But if you didn't know how to read, that would be meaningless to you, wouldn't it? See how important reading is?) I believe fundamentally that being able to read and do math are basic human rights that have too long been considered privileges. I agree with those who say that reading and math are foundations that need to be focused on and targeted, and that good reading and math instruction are indispensable.

But Jaylen is not paying attention in reading and math. He would be paying attention in science, because he loves science, but his teachers aren't teaching him science. It's not their fault: they've been told not to prioritize science. After all, Jaylen is in fourth grade, which means it's a testing year for him. The fourth graders will need to pass a reading test and a math test to go on to the next grade. They will also take a science test and a social studies test, but those tests rely on rote memorization. A student could learn everything they need to know to pass them by reading a book.

I spend a lot of time with kids like Jaylen, who have behavior challenges in regular classrooms. They're not necessarily kids who have classifiable Emotional and Behavioral Disturbances -- they're just kids who drive their teachers crazy, because they talk incessantly, throw paper airplanes, try to get on the computer when no one is looking, and are easily provoked (think chair-throwing, name-calling, and wall-punching). In my class, small groups of students make monster eyeballs out of clay, experiment with Papier Mâché, and shake rhythm instruments really loudly. All they do, in other words, are activities.

There are no real content objectives for these activities. I usually slap one on ("Students will be able to visualize the physical components of a Greek god by making a cotton ball sculpture of Zeus"), but those objectives are false. The real objectives are hidden underneath the surface. "Students will be able to enjoy the work the are doing." "Students will be able to share supplies with someone else." "Students will be able to concentrate on one project for 45 minutes." "Students will feel successful because they finished a project." "Students will be able to get kind of curious about Zeus. They might want to know more about him. They might independently grow intrigued about his hair, and about the not-especially-democratic system under which he controlled all the other gods. Maybe while the students are sculpting with the cotton balls, they'll ask the teacher a question about Zeus. Students will then think about Zeus the next day, while looking at the clouds. Then, when students are at the library, they might want to look at a book about Greek gods. Then maybe, just maybe, they'll read about the Greek gods. Because they want to. Because they are intrinsically motivated to. Because maybe now students will be kinda into Greek gods."

When I taught the viking unit during my first year of teaching, I was missing something really important: I needed my students to care about vikings. Maybe having them build a viking ship out of clay and painting it wouldn't have made them care about vikings. But on the other hand, maybe for some of them, it would have.

We need to have viking ship painting projects because an enormous part of learning is joy. Sometimes, as teachers, that means we have to simplify. Instead of trying to cram the joy of learning and subject content and longterm objective mastery with bubble-in exit tickets into one lesson, we might need to occasionally scaffold. We might need to sometimes teach lessons that are just about having fun. We might have to sometimes devote an hour to just feeling what it feels like to sit at a desk, do a project, and enjoy doing it. We might have to paint a few viking ships. Then, later, we can read about vikings.

I have the privilege of knowing that I don't really like science, because from second grade on, I did a lot of science projects. We spent what felt like inordinate amounts of time just doing these dumb science projects that I found tremendously difficult and endlessly tedious. My best friend Ben, on the other hand loved digging in the dirt behind the school to find worms to throw under microscopes. In third grade, he thought that was awesome. I thought it was repulsive. There was no content objective that I can possibly name about the worm-microscope thing. We didn't read about worms, or microscopes. We didn't label the parts of a worm. We didn't explain how microscopes worked. It was just digging in the dirt, throwing worms under microscopes, just for the hell of it, again and again. But 20 years later, Ben is a scientist, and he uses microscopes every day. That sounds horrible to me, but to him, it is heaven.

Jaylen loves science. He loves to poke stuff and mix liquids together to see what might explode. But right now, he hates school. He spends most of the day reading packets and bubbling answer documents. But what if he was allowed to spend a chunk of the day digging up worms? In 20 years, where might he be?