Some great quotes and examples from Elaine Wrisley Reed, “Projects and Activities: A Means, Not an End,” American Educator (Winter 1997-98).
THE LESSON was about Abraham Lincoln, and the primary grade teacher came up with what she must have thought was a nifty “hands-on activity.” The students were instructed to make a Lincoln Log Cabin by pasting Popsicle sticks onto milk cartons. They may have learned something about pasting sticks onto cardboard, but they probably learned little about the sixteenth president or why he made a difference in the story of our country.
This is but one example of an educational fad gone awry. Under pressure to get students actively involved in learning, projects frequently wind up keeping youngsters busy without really teaching them anything of importance.
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Below are a few other examples of activities I have come across recently that either lacked serious content or strayed from the point of the lesson.
- A history teacher assigns students to build a “pioneer home.” There is no research involved, nor any requirement that the students explain why their structure looks the way it does. One student decided she would build a wattle-and-daub house and was flunked because it was not a “pioneer” cabin; everyone knows “pioneers” made log cabins.
- One lesson about the treatment of Native Americans notes that the Cherokee Nation had their own newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. It then goes on to suggest creating a newspaper about your class. The second activity in the lesson indicates that Sequoyah developed a written alphabet of the Cherokee language; create an alphabet of your own.
- A lesson on exploring world cultures, in a recent issue of a social studies magazine, provides instructions for making multi-colored beads from strips of magazine paper, cut into triangle pieces. This is intended to address the theme of “time, continuity, and change,” and is meant to be a discovery project for “beads around the world.”
These are all “hands-on” projects. The students probably passed their time in class enjoyably and had something to take home to show their parents. But how did the activities help students learn about history, and what did the students know when they finished?
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None of my comments should be interpreted to discourage variety or spice in lesson planning. In my own field of history, for example, activities such as role playing, debates, the creation of timelines and maps, visits from local experts, well-planned field trips, the generous use of original documents, letters, photographs, and biographies, and a rich array of other options can each make its unique contribution. No activity, however, should be an end in and of itself, but a path or a tool in the labor of genuine learning.