Activity-based education

One understanding that advocates of both teacher-led and child-centred forms of education hold in common is their recognition that teaching and learning are complex. It’s all a bit hit-and-miss. To borrow from Gert Biesta; education is a risk. You can’t quite be sure how things are going to turn out.

You might disagree with this analysis. You might think that I’ve accurately portrayed child-centred educators but the teacher-led camp don’t allow for such complexity. You might suggest that the latter are reductionists who simplify aims and methods. I don’t think there is any inconsistency here. Teacher-led educators attempt to simplify aims and methods in order to deal with the complexity. They recognise that children will arrive at school with very different experiences and motivations and that these may vary from moment to moment and so they focus on achieving a core set of definable goals. You may well disagree with the idea that this is the best approach to the issue but it is one that recognises the complexity. Why, for instance, are teacher-led educators so keen on frequent low-stakes testing? It may be partly due to the benefits of retrieval practice but it is also to keep a track of the messy business of what has been learnt.

Given that those who think deeply about education share this understanding, despite their different philosophies, it is interesting to pivot and consider those who do not; those who take a simplistic view. I think that I have identified such a group. They are the ones who see education as the art of planning and administering a series of different activities.

At first I was puzzled by the canaries who claimed that traditional versus progressive education was a false choice. How could two competing philosophies with their principled differences be essentially the same thing? It didn’t make any sense. But then I started to listen to what these folks had to say; what they were signalling. They reduced these archetypes to different kinds of activities that a teacher could orchestrate in a classroom. They thought, “I sometimes stand at the front and talk and I sometimes set student-led project work and so I do both.”

Once you are alert to it, this activity-based teaching is everywhere. At its worst it looks like 5-ways-to-use-pretzels-to-teach-Shakespeare and there are plenty of educators using social media to propagate such novelties. A question that is rarely asked is, “But why should I do it that way?” If it does get raised then the answer might be that the teacher thought it worked well or the students love it. Yes, there is an argument for variety and perhaps a bit of fun in the way that we design our activities but I don’t think it requires the current extent of coverage. After all, anyone can dream up a gimmick. Even me.

And activity-based approaches can be much more sophisticated than this basic kind. One of my criticisms of Jo Boaler’s recent book was that she seemed to start from cool-sounding problems rather than from key mathematical principles. At yet another level we have commercial interests such as the designers of tablets and apps who want us to pay attention to their games and fancies rather than what it is we want our students to learn.

A different response that you might get to asking, “Why should I do it that way?” may be, “Stop being so negative!”. There’s a lot of negativity about negativity going around at the moment. One phrase I’ve seen written a lot in blogs is, “Be a radiator and not a drain.” I’m not so sure about that. Drains have their uses and it really depends on the situation. It seems like a much better idea to drain away dirty dishwater than to radiate it. I am not going to give-up my right to critically analyse education at the behest of a slogan. Are we not supposed to be in favour of such modes of thinking?

This is a key divide, I think. There are those of us for whom education is a thin shell, papered with slogans and activities. If you tap on it then you find that it is hollow. Then there are those of us who are more interested in the principles that sit behind and therefore guide the work that we do in class.

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5 Comments on “Activity-based education”

  1. Liam H says:

    Whilst I share many of the sentiments put forward in this article I always remain intrigued as to what children actually ‘do’ in lessons that are too teacher-centric. Like many, I try to balance the conveying of my expertise with something tangible for pupils to do afterwards to test that knowledge. Is it as simple as lists of questions and spider diagrams? I am always guilty of wanting my pupils to enjoy my lessons as well as learn from them!

  2. Jennifer Stephenson says:

    if the drains clog we are in deep —- Share your reservations about the slogan

  3. Nick says:

    “Why don’t you find ways to do the things you know work better? “.

    * blank look*

    “But the new curriculum goes to eleven! ”

    -feeling your pain in Alberta.


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