More on the Deadly Assumption that Activities Are More Interesting Than History or Science

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

Sometimes, Zahorik noted in his study of how teachers make learning interesting, an activity may stir up interest but be educationally counterproductive. In Zahorik’s chosen example, on a field trip to a nature center, students were asked to role-play various animals such as the “radar-eared grass nibbler” and the “longlegged fish nabber” while the teacher, wearing an official-looking costume, role-played the mayor of a hypothetical community. Using written clues suspended from trees, each “animal” was to find a home where it could survive. “Since natural environments with real plants and animals can provide considerable situational interest, the role-playing activity may not have been needed,” Zahorik concluded with academic understatement.

At rock bottom, projects and activities provide mere entertainment. Teachers who fear student antagonism abandon “sedentary activities.” They seek to fill dead time in the classroom. Projects and activities keep kids occupied and unmutinous. One of Zahorik’s points was that “artificial tasks … detract from interest.” But real knowledge needs no artificial tasks.

  • Compare the tricky verbs, être and avoir, to their English cousins.
  • Compare the Romanesque and the Gothic.
  • Read a description of the French Revolution. Plenty exist, and they are not hard to find. Tell the story of the extraordinary flight from Paris of Louis XVI, a monarch who was ultimately tried, found guilty, and executed in one of the great and moving spectacles in all history. How is this revolution linked to the American Revolution and Constitution?
  • Get to know the Carpetbaggers, the Know-Nothings, the Copperheads, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, Warren Harding, and Franklin Roosevelt.

Inherently fascinating subjects—how water gets from a reservoir to a kitchen sink, the locomotion of flatworms, the features of the solar system and what the names of each planet symbolize, the discovery of penicillin and the polio vaccine, why sad songs like the blues often use minor chords—are without limit. None of these subjects needs an artificial stimulus to make it come alive. Each brims with thrilling substance that lends itself to a memorable lesson in unadulterated form.

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