Activities are Meaningless Without Background Knowledge

From Gilbert Sewall, “Lost In Action: Are time-consuming, trivializing activities displacing the cultivation of active minds?,” American Educator (Summer 2000).

In activity-based learning, some teachers turn to drama. But classroom spectacles such as simulations and mock trials are usually doomed from the start. Students rarely have the personal finesse or rhetorical skill that role playing or debate requires to succeed. When they do, students must bring a staggering amount of background knowledge to the table. If they don’t have ample familiarity with the subject, such activities fatally lack content. These skits and theatrics may provide an opportunity for student high jinks.

But if these activities backfire or fall flat, as they often do, the results can be extremely painful for teacher and student. Take some favorites: To study the origins of the Cold War, Harry Truman meets Stalin at Potsdam or stands trial for having bombed Hiroshima. Lyndon Johnson defends U.S. policy in Vietnam. Richard Nixon defends himself.

These efforts put the cart before the horse. In the case of the Cold War, how much more trustworthy and valuable, simpler and richer it would be to read accounts and study maps of the Allied military movements in 1945, the fall of Czechoslovakia, the white paper on containment, or the Marshall address at Harvard University that led to the pan-European economic recovery program. If Korea or Vietnam are to be understood, students must first understand the nature of Soviet aggression in Europe after 1945. So versed, students have a key to understanding geopolitics before 1989 and after.

Projects and activities can breed student cynicism. It does not take long for some students to figure out that activities waste a lot of time and that some activities are pretty lame. Students may wonder what the point is, especially when they encounter dozens or even a hundred projects or activities during the course of the school year instead of a well-chosen handful carried out with precision and depth.

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