The activity school

In the 1930s, progressive education started to gain traction in American public schools. One manifestation of this was the “activity movement”. There was much debate around the definition of the activity movement and “activity schools”, with some seeing no need to differentiate between activity schools and progressive schools. For others, activity schools were a specific application of important principles of progressivism; activity schools were one example of progressivism more generally.

According to Diane Ravitch, a survey of experts managed to produce forty-two different definitions of the activity movement. William Heard Kilpatrick, the popular progressive educationalist and Columbia’s University’s ‘million dollar’ professor, defined an activity school as one where activities were ‘natural’ rather than one where a curriculum was set out in advance. Kilpatrick was famous for his essay “The Project Method” that he wrote in 1918 and which explained his ideas on project-based learning. According to James Lynch, the idea of the activity school traces back to Kilpatrick’s project-based curriculum.

Writing in The Elementary School Journal in 1936 Lynch defines an activity school as, “a progressive school in which the learning process is directed through the spontaneous, creative activities of children.”

Lynch expands on his theme:

“The school… becomes a place where children carry on – explore; converse; play games; build boats, kites, electric bells, aeroplane models; draw; paint; and form groups in order to produce a play – as they would in a world of their own. In other words, the school is a continuation of preschool life. The function of the teacher is to guide children to do better those things in which they engage naturally. Reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history are learned just as talking is learned, as means to the realisation of desired ends; they are modes of procedure into which everyday experiences develop because of their value in satisfying needs.” [my emphasis]

Clyde Hissong, another leading light in the activity movement, saw such projects as leading to improvements in what we might today describe as 21st century skills. After outlining an episode where children visit a Native American reservation and then return to school with the plan of constructing a tepee, Hissong suggests that:

“Certain social values inevitably grow out of the activity of building; pupils learn to apportion work so that the tasks of various individuals when completed will present a unity; they learn to lead and to follow; and they learn the value of group enterprise.”

It is fascinating that people make virtually the same arguments today, eighty years on, and it is instructive to understand why these ideas failed then and will fail now.

Learning to read is not the same as learning to talk. Talking is biologically primary; we have evolved to learn it. Reading is not – it was only invented a few thousand years ago and so it is too young to have influenced evolution. This is why you can’t learn to read as easily as you can learn to talk and why formal methods of reading instruction tend to be more effective than naturalistic ones.

Similarly, Hissong’s useful ‘by-products’ of project work are not really skills that may be transferred to to many different situations. Instead, they tend to be learned in context. An individual may collaborate brilliantly on building a tepee but shrink into the corner during a maths project. So the context is not interchangeable; it is critical. We cannot leave it to chance, following the interests of students. Instead, we must consciously construct a curriculum that cycles them through powerful content.

Today, the ideas that drove activity schools find expression in discussions about 21st century skills and jobs that don’t yet exist. They are pushed by slick consultants with flashy videos and cool TED talks. Nevertheless, these ideas are not new discoveries based on the science of learning. They contain no novel insights. Instead, they are rooted in a debunked ideology that was considered revolutionary in the 1930s.

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8 Comments on “The activity school”

  1. Mike says:

    I think the difference is, back then such people were generally considered cranks. These days, they hold the keys to many metaphorical kingdoms.

  2. David F says:

    FWIW, I was just reading an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s archive from 1924 about the Oak Lane COuntry Day School outside of the city. Same stuff, same claims. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oak_Lane_Day_School

  3. paulgmoss says:

    You raise an interesting point about the transfer of skills, but I think you may have created an irony: sure the transfer of skills developed whilst creating the TP don’t lend itself to the maths lesson, but what if the maths lesson is the moment that is not relevant or necessary. Is the skill of corporation more relevant than having maths skills? Please don’t jump on this as to think I’m suggesting that there is no value in mathematics; more that once a certain level is attained perhaps this type of focusing on other skills to make a well rounded individual is of value?

  4. JL says:

    One of the first requirements for learning something is that the learner become aware of it. All this activity can distract many learners from the important part (the overloaded working memory–makes perfect sense). Back in the 90s when I was doing graduate work on Second Language Acquisition, they spoke of the difference between field independent or dependent learners. Field dependent learners show a relative inability to distinguish detail from other information around it. Unfortunately, the bulk of what builds expertise is in the knowledge of and ability to quickly recall these details.

    The cooperation piece perplexes me. Yes, it has value. However, a) it is considered biologically primary, isn’t it? and b) No, not all students do well with group work but school assigned projects are so very unlike anything in the real world. Groups in which different students have different roles make no sense. That would mean that they are learning different things but receiving a grade for supposedly the same course/level. Students prefer to work with friends whom they trust (or possibly a weak students might be happy with a smart one who will do all the work). Then again, a perfectly able student could be in a group with people who don’t like him/her and refuse to use their work or change it all (and then tell the teacher that that student didn’t do it/did it all wrong and they had to fix it, etc, Kids are manipulative. As a teacher I have never felt that group work gives me a very good idea of what EACH student has actually learned individually. And on top of it all it is SUCH an ineffective use of very LIMITED instructional time

  5. […] is the progressive focus on children as individuals with different needs and the principle that learning should be natural that cause most of these inefficient practices. Individualism and naturalism derive in part from […]


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