As a young teenager I remember being immensely excited as I went to the Georgia DMV to receive my learner’s permit—I would finally be able to learn how to drive. Imagine my surprise when the officer administering the written test looked at my score, smiled, and then announced it was time for the driving test. Naturally, I laughed; it was a good-humored joke. Never did the thought cross my mind that I was actually supposed to get in the car and prove that I could drive, that would be absurd—even illegal!
Driving is one of those things that has to be learned by “doing”. It requires the ability to control a powerful machine that could take the life of anyone who mistreats it. Driving is not the only thing that is best learned by doing, try to cut a straight line without ever having picked up a pair of scissors, or signing you name without ever having used a writing utensil. These are very basic examples of a concept that gets ignored everyday in American schools—activity-based learning.
Activity-based learning is the acquirement of schematic concepts through activities that involve the task or concept to be learned. The old 4-H motto “learn to do by doing” sums up this approach taken on mainly by progressive/developmentalist teachers. The approach itself is ancient in form; Socrates himself embraced a method of this approach. He challenged his students to find the answers for themselves through discussion and questioning—the same concept that serves as a foundation for activity-based learning.
Activity-based learning fits very nicely into student-centered environments because students are learning to read and write through their own active involvement in the process, but it doesn’t stop there. Activity-based learning also refers to the teacher interweaving something essentially boring with an activity that engages students and allows them to get excited about what they are doing. For instance, in a third grade classroom, learning how to divide whole numbers into fractions through the teacher conducting a demonstration on the whiteboard would be an utterly hopeless event—nobody would learn how to divide whole numbers into fractions. Even working fraction problems on paper is a boring task for the third grader who “just doesn’t get it.” However, bring cookies into class and all of a sudden: halves, fourths, wholes, the child just seems to get it. The teacher took something essentially boring (fractions) and integrated it into something exciting for the child (cookies). Through this approach, learning becomes something the student does instead of something done to him.
Learning through activity has gone in and out of popularity through the ages. It is now severely downplayed in an era of standardized testing and accountability. Teachers are trying to “meet” the massive amount of standards by drilling facts into their students’ heads. The thought is that if teachers force-feed students with enough facts, surely some of them will stick… Instead, teachers need to take the time to allow students to learn, let them learn through creative play, active involvement, inquiry-based methods, or other forms of activity-based learning. It is almost inevitable that children will learn more through this approach than if teachers try to force the spoon into their babes’ mouths. So, if students are given the opportunity to actually absorb the material than is it really a problem to take the time to do it? This is one of the major arguments used to justify non-activity-based methods, “it takes too much time and effort to involve students in activity-based learning.” However, if the student isn’t learning (which may very well be the case depending on your definition of learning) than isn’t a method that takes a long time much better than one that doesn’t work at all? Of course! If it were only that easy to convince the government which demands “accountability”.
The mass majority of the public wants to know how the schools in the nation are doing, so that they can make comparisons between their own children and others. It is quite hard to give the public this data through activity-based learning; which does not require students to regurgitate facts onto a written test for the public eyes to see. It is even harder for teachers to incorporate activity-based learning when the law mandates these standardized tests through acts like No Child Left Behind; an act that requires schools to test students rigorously throughout their school careers. This act, along with the trend of higher standards and accountability have made the term “activity-based learning” seem like a code word for teachers who break the rules. Teachers are so afraid of their students failing the tests that they have become drillmasters, expecting the students to enjoy the material for the sake of passing the test and the intrinsic motivation of the material itself.
While standardized testing, accountability, and standards are not going away—nor should they—we can change our focus about passing and meeting standards. This will be no simple task in a nation that is so focused on statistics that we don’t care where the numbers came from as long as they are high. Instead of flocking toward the school districts with “good schools”, choose a school where teachers allow students to explore. Make sure your child gets the opportunity to express what they learn through projects, portfolios, performance, and activities. If the “good schools” are only good because they make high scores on “the test” rest assured, this is not a place conducive to learning, it is a place where students learn how to take a test—which really won’t be of use when their boss asks them to do something that doesn’t require filling in paper bubbles with a number-two pencil.
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Reading to children of all ages can be a rewarding experience. It can also be a ho-hum activity. My hope is that this guide will help make your own read-aloud experience an active adventure instead of a passive activity!