Year-End Posts from “Out in Left Field”

This is a favorite education blog, and its year-end roundup featured some previous posts and comments on annoying school projects.



In a comment on my recent post on creativity, Auntie Anne reports: 

Our kid was graded down because he really, really wanted a project to be in black and white and the teacher insisted he had to color it.

Here we are 2 years later, he’s in 6th grade and again got marked down about 20% for only putting words on and not “decorating” a small poster. Changed an high A into a low B.


Auntie Ann said…

The crazy-making assignments are a staple across education these days. 

Teachers seem to think that art projects or creative assignments are a way to make learning fun, but they do not take into account those kids who don’t find them the slightest bit fun. What about them? Teachers don’t seem to recognize that some of these so-called fun assignments are torturing a non-negligible part of their class. Our kid is highly fastidious, the slightest mistake in his artwork and he gets incredibly frustrated. Give him a dopey prompt, and he can’t get started. Give him a research assignment and paper to write, and he’s happy as a clam–but make him do a poster about it and he hits the wall.

We get very tired of taking trips to the art store every week.

The cynic in me says that it’s much easier to grade 20 posters than it is to grade 20 papers, and that’s why they get assigned instead. It’s much easier to stress the creativity and content of a fiction story than it is to actually go through and mark the grammar and spelling errors (especially when many of the teachers aren’t terribly strong at grammar either.) It’s also easier to flatten the grading on a creative project than it is a research paper or essay. Check the right boxes on the rubric, and you can have an A. Doesn’t matter if you actually learned something: is your lettering straight and tidy? Is your poster visually appealing? Do you have a good use of color? (Our kid was graded down because he really, really wanted a project to be in black and white and the teacher insisted he had to color it.) Very little of the grade ends up being actually learning or content based.

momof4 said…

Exactly. Schools talk a lot about learning styles but refuse to acknowledge that some kids don’t find artsy projects fun and would rather write a proper report. I’ve come to think that ES teachers (especially but now including many MS teachers) love them, personally, and aren’t even aware that many kids hate them. It’s playing school, not real academics.

Finally, this:

momof4 said…

Even socially adept kids may hate group work – mine did because they were always supposed to give someone a free ride, either because the kid(s) wouldn’t do the work or because the work wouldn’t be A level. They wanted to be left alone to do their own work and they hated wasting time. They didn’t mind doing/listening to BRIEF presentations, in theory, but spending a week enduring all the girls in the 4th-grade class acting out a scene from their book (with costumes and a friend or two) was high-level torture – at least 45″ minutes each, for about 12 girls… They weren’t allowed to do a book report; a diorama was the least painful option. It’s a wonder that the sight of a shoebox doesn’t send me, my daughter or my sons into a panic attack.

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Great remarks from British education secretary Michael Gove

From here:

The Education secretary said he wanted teachers to stop using innovative approaches for teaching which ‘dumbed down’ education.

Examples included “making Plasticine models to represent Hitler’s main aims as Fuhrer” and forcing children to learn about the popstar Tinie Tempah.

Instead he said teachers should focus simply on actively pass on knowledge, organised in academic disciplines such as Physics and History.

Mr Gove singled out “methods which have nothing to do with passing on knowledge” the remarks in a wide-ranging speech on “the importance of teaching” to the right of centre thinktank Policy Exchange.

He described how students in one school had been “studying the battle of Hastings by re-enacting it on a field with softballs, spending three lessons making castles out of cardboard boxes, making Plasticine models to represent Hitler’s main aims as Fuhrer and recreating life on a slave ship by making pupils gather under their desks”.

Mr Gove added: “Another teacher records a lesson for A-Level English students in which they were asked to depict literary characters on a paper plate – drawing a face on the plate – and then asked to use stickers to define the character’s principal traits – pinning the stickers on their clothes and mingling with other students, while they introduce themselves ‘in character’.

Mr Gove said: “Allied to these teaching methods which have nothing to do with passing on knowledge there has also been an emphasis on teachers having to put their own learning aside so that work is ‘relevant’ to the students.

“This has resulted in the dumbing of educational material down to the level of the child – with GCSE English papers that ask students about Tinie Tempah, or Simon Cowell – rather than encouraging the child to thirst after the knowledge of the teacher.”

Mr Gove said that he wanted schools “to move away from these approaches to education … towards an education system which believes, right from the early years, in The Importance of Teaching.

“Because schools are – above all – academic institutions, we need teachers to actively pass on knowledge, organised in academic disciplines such as Physics and History – to introduce children to precisely those areas of human thought and achievement which they are most unlikely to discover or understand on their own.”

Part of the problem was a “belief that education should not be an activity in which the teacher imparts knowledge to the child but a pursuit – by the child – of what it finds interesting”, he said.

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Another Great Mike Schmoker Column

From Education Week:

Accompanied by local educators, I visit dozens of schools every year all around the United States. I assure you that the lessons we witness in the great majority of classrooms violate most of the elements of well-structured lessons. We seldom see clear, posted learning objectives; instead, multiple segments of instruction are often breezily conveyed as students sit mystified or are visibly inattentive or tuned out. And it is the rare lesson where we see instruction that seeks to ensure success for every student on each phase of the lesson, with multiple attempts to clarify or re-teach.

This is a scandal on the order of refusing to administer life-saving antibiotics to needy patients. And it is wholly unnecessary, because the solution is so simple: All we need to do is devote serious time and attention to ensuring that every pre-service student, current teacher, and administrator learn, revisit, and practice (and practice and practice) these hugely effective components until they are mastered and consistently implemented in all of our classrooms. We should make them the focus of faculty, team, and department meetings, as well as professional development sessions. If we do this, we won’t have to wait long to see their impact, which will surpass the effects of all other initiatives thus far launched in this confused, distracted era of “reform.”

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Silly History Lessons from Britain

A great post here:

Here is list of the top ten inane history lessons I have encountered in two years as a history teacher. I may add, these were all pitched at pupils between the ages of 11 and 16:

  1. Study the Battle of Hastings through re-enacting it on a field with softballs.
  2. Study the Doomsday Book through completing a survey of pupils’ possessions in the classroom.
  3. Study King John through composing a song defending his kingship, in response to ‘The Phoney King of England’, a song from a Disney cartoon.
  4. Spend three lessons making castles out of cardboard boxes.
  5. Study Henry VII by asking ‘Was Henry Tudor a Gangster?’.
  6. Study the marriages of Henry VIII by role-playing an episode of Blind Date.
  7. Make pupils gather under their desks in order to experience life on a slave ship.
  8. Study the Industrial Revolution by acting out pitching inventions on Dragon’s Den.
  9. Create a facebook page for Adolf Hitler, circa. 1921.
  10. Make plasticine models to represent Hitler’s main aims as Führer.

. . .

Aside from their ineffectiveness, what is most disheartening about active teaching methods is that they imply history is insufficiently interesting to be taught in its own right. Many teachers seem to believe that without, games, activities, and contrived ‘contemporary relevance’ history is boring. How can the unfolding story of mankind possibly be boring? A good history teacher makes the story of mankind interesting in and of itself. Those who resort to creating facebook pages, making models, dressing up, cookery classes and Mr Men – and in doing so betray the integrity of their subject – are quite simply cheating.

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The question is why more teachers don’t realize this . . .


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“Africa Tissue Box Project”

From a sixth grade classroom in Katy, Texas (a nice suburb of Houston):


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Flip Cameras in English (UK)

From the invaluable Scenes from the Battleground blog, a critique of teaching videos held out in the UK as “best practices”:

This one has to be seen to be believed (at least if you are not used to what goes on in schools), we have good practice in English. A subject that, once upon a time, you may have thought had a lot to do with reading and, dare I say it, writing. Not according to OFSTED [Office for Standards in Education]:

. . . Narrator: Underpinning the practice of speaking and listening is an emphasis on collaboration between all students.

Alys Winstanley: We do a lot of group work, a lot of collaborative work. So I think the students are keen to see each other succeed. And they can recognise good work when they see it… I think collaborative work is really important in getting that positive supportive atmosphere between students.

Teacher: We have found as a pattern that boys like to be up out of their seats. They like to have the freedom to be trusted. Learning beyond the classroom which is a Key Stage 3 term is something that we’ve really sort of taken and run with in the English Department here

Narrator: The use of flip cameras has proved to be a key tool in drawing students, especially boys, in to the process of learning.

Of course, there will be those who watch this and will be baffled as to what’s wrong with any of this. If I was an expert in English teaching I’d know that having a chat and filming themselves with flip cameras (according to one of the teachers this is “essential in all English departments”) was actually the key to effective teaching. Perhaps, when a GCSE English exam can involve analysing reality TV or an interview with Lady Gaga this sort of thing can contribute to getting qualifications. But can we at least consider the possibility that this isn’t what should be accepted as “good practice” for all schools to follow?

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Comments Inspired by the Cartoon Below


My oldest child had group projects in which the entire period was spent arguing whether the members’ names should go on the top of the page, in the space labeled, “name.


Please, triple it for those projects done outside of school; scheduling and transportation are nightmares. One MS teacher told me that she used to love group projects and assigned lots of them – until her child had one and she saw all of the problems at first hand. She never assigned another one. They’re unfair, they’re huge time sinks, they’re usually of dubious academic value, they usually emphasize arts and crafts far beyond the reasonable and they positively encourage cliques and bullying. Particularly in the heterogeneous, mainstreamed classroom, they specifically disadvantage the lower-ability, the shy, the ASD kids, the ADD/ADHD and any kid who is “different”; the most socially adept or powerful are able to create classroom hell for the lower-status kids.


The motivation for all these projects seems to originate from the misconceptions that educators have of teamwork in the “real world”. Teaching is among the most solitary of jobs so teachers are by far the least likely to have any experience in this realm.


Almost every discussion I’ve had with fellow profs on this topic has turned to the bitterness we feel having been made to do group work – it seems there was a large number of “social engineer” teachers out there who somehow believed the slackers would straighten up and fly right if they were just put in a group with a diligent student. No, more likely the diligent student did most of the work and silently resented the slackers.


Some teachers deliberately create groups where someone will do no work. My DD had a MS science teacher like that; it was a mixed class that had a few honors kids (all-honors classes were full), most regular and a few spec ed. The teacher assigned the groups and the honors kids were always given a spec ed kid who cried and threw tantrums if asked to do ANYTHING. After a semester of this, the honors kids asked for her to be reassigned, the teacher refused, one of the kids accused the teacher of not wanting to deal with her himself and the teacher agreed. He was being paid to deal with her; her classmates weren’t. He was an awful teacher, attitude and content-wise, and the projects were a waste of time.


I hated group projects for all the same reasons that others have already stated (i.e., slackers getting a free ride), but believe it or not, things sometimes go the other way, too: When I was in fifth grade I was in a small group of advanced readers that had been assigned to read “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” (gag, I know) and then create a filmstrip on it. I got stuck with two boys who hogged the drawing of practically the entire strip, and they deigned to let me illustrate one half of a slide or some such minuscule portion of the strip. The teacher ended up giving me a poor grade for my “lack of participation,” never taking into account the fact that I had been shut out by a couple of forceful personalities. That was forty years ago, but I still remember the injustice of it all.

A pox on all group projects.

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Great Cartoon

Via the Apartment 11d blog:


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This High School Student Wasn’t Happy

about an assigned project (language alert):

Basically, this thread is about stupid projects you’ve been assigned. I’ll start by telling one i’ve been given today.

Today, my stupid, mentally unstable History teacher had us do a fucking elementary school project. We were supposed to build a castle out of cardboard boxes. This sounds like something you’d give to a 4th or 5th grade class. Hell, I actually was assigned such a project back then. Definitely not something you’d give to a classroom of 9th and 10th grade students. How are we even supposed to get this trash to school?

In other words, i’m prolly not doing this thing.

He drew this response from someone else:

One of my final projects in school, in my English class had to do with the book, Invisible Man. We first had to write an essay about what we basically thought the main character was. We had to describe him basically. And along with that was a collage that was supposed to basically be the visual version of the essay. We had to go through magazines, cut out pics that we thought described the main character and post them on a poster so that it made a collage. Pretty creative project, huh?
Well, being the person I am, in the essay I decided to say that Invisible Man couldn’t be described, that he was some sort of enigma. People who’ve read this book will probably be able to agree with me because if you read the book, you’ll be able to see that the main character always changes who he is. At one point, he is an ass-kissing college student, at another, he his a some sort of hobo wandering aimlessly, and then he turns into some sort of leader, and some other things too. Rather than actually say all of those things, I thought that saying that he was just simply a mystery and truly unidentifiable would be the best way to put it. I mean hell, that’s creative and a hell of a way to think outside of the box.

So that’s what I said in the essay. On the collage, I put nothing on it. Why? Because like I said, he is unidentifiable, and there was no use trying to identify him. So I turned in the collage not blank, but full of unidentifiable objects (that’s the way I saw it at least).

A couple of days later, my teacher told me that she understood why I did what I did, but “it’s kinda hard to grade a collage with nothing on it.”

So basically, she knows that I’m thinking outside the box, but it’s not worth a decent grade.

What did I learn that day? Don’t do unconventional things and expect a conventional result.

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