Tuesday, August 18, 2015


When discussing learning and lessons, the thing that is foremost on the minds of most educators is the activity. What are we going to do for the lesson? What activity are we going to run? What field trip are we going to bring our students on? What experiment we are going to run in the lab today?

However, there is a reason why ‘activity’ only made it to the penultimate section of our discussion; because it really is only a means to an end.

Activity-centric teaching – have we missed the point?
A conversation was overheard between two teachers.

“It’s time to review the scheme of work again. I wonder what else we can do with it,” said one.

“I hear the local repertory is staging Othello next year. I really want to go to that one. Can we please put that in?” said the other.

“Why not save the money and bring them when the international troupe comes to town?” replied the first.

Who can see what is wrong with this picture?

There is nothing wrong with bringing our students to the theater to develop an appreciation for the arts. It could even help them with their language.

However, the nature of the activity chosen must be grounded upon sound Key Learning that is matched with appropriate Desired Student Outcomes. That means, bringing the students for Othello must serve a greater purpose within their curriculum than merely giving them a good time out; because how the lesson is carried out is really nothing more than a mere extension of what we want to achieve. Let me give you an illustration.

A math teacher wants to impart the concept of volume and wishes the Desired Student Outcome to be that his students are able to calculate the volume of various shapes. So he elects to bring into class a bar of Toblerone chocolate and a Ferrero Roche.

The weather was hot that day, so by the time he got to class, the Toblerone bar and the Roche had both melted. He walks into class dismayed, saying,

“I had wanted to teach you the concept of volume today, but the chocolate I intended to use melted. So we shall instead carry on with practice sums.”

Contrast this to his colleague who brought the same 2 items to class intending to run a role play in which the students would pretend they were bosses of chocolate factories. He was going to have his students try and figure out which shape they should make their next big product into, so that it would be the most economically viable to transport. Even though the chocolate had melted, he still had the students calculate the most efficient packaging shape from the two, albeit melted and partially deformed bars of chocolate. But this time, he got the students to specify what was wrong with the shapes they were presented with and why those shapes would not lend themselves to efficient packaging.

Now, which of the 2 do you think had a better idea of what purpose his chocolate bar was supposed to serve?

Whatever activity we choose for the lesson must lend itself to the lesson's objectives. The objectives must be constructed around the Desired Student Outcomes and intended Key Learning. We should never reverse engineer the process or it could lead to dire consequences.

That said, there are some things we must take note of when planning the learning activity.

The activity must take into consideration the audience
As discussed in earlier sections, knowing the context in which our teaching is going to take place is extremely important. We need to consider aspects of our students that will affect their retention and attention, like what they would find important and meaningful.

If we are unaware of this, we will not be able to devise a suitable activity that would attract the students to the lesson; much like how using floral arrangement to teach vocabulary to the high school football team will be as fruitful as getting an elephant to break the quarter mile record.

The activity must give time for the desired outcomes
We must be deliberate in setting aside time for the demonstration of the desired outcomes. If we meant for the students to articulate arguments, then we should include time for a student-centered exposition, perhaps a viva; and we will know that we are on the wrong track if our lesson plan does not show time for it.

We also need to be realistic with what we want to achieve in our lessons. This is all the more crucial when we are faced with a short academic term and a long scheme of work and this is where purposefully planning the Key Learning pays dividend.

Focusing on the broader Key Learning, can help us compress more learning into fewer learning activities. Let me illustrate.

Instead of setting aside one lesson each to cover land scarcity, water scarcity and fossil fuel scarcity, we adopt the larger Key Learning of ‘resource scarcity is a real and present danger’.

This will lead us to put in place one session where the class is broken up into expert groups, each looking at a particular aspect of resource scarcity. At the end of the lesson, the groups will share with the class an information sheet which they put together on their particular area. This way, what took 3 sessions, now takes 1.

The activity must change frames
Our students have limited attention spans. Even if the activity is something they enjoy, their attention will waiver if the time is not purposefully occupied. Therefore, every learning activity should have several frames. And we must ensure that each and every frame points the students back to the intended Key Learning.

The activity must be properly introduced
The information that needs to be introduced does not merely include the task to be completed, or the chapter to be covered. More importantly, it must include the intended Key Learning and the Desired Student Outcomes.

Our students need to know, in no uncertain terms, what is expected of them and what they should be looking out for. Just like in the example of the teacher trying to teach suffixes mentioned in the earlier section, the class was not aware of what they were supposed to gain from the activity. Despite his best efforts, his students still took to their own interpretation of the lesson and the Key Learning was never acquired.

Learning will take place regardless of what we do. So we must ensure that what is learnt is in line with what we want acquired.

The activity must be properly closed
Closure is a very important part of the learning activity. It not only sets the students up for the next segment to come, it more importantly corrects any misconception the student might have developed during the lesson. By reiterating the Key Learning for the day, we will have the all-important opportunity to set right anything that might have been misinterpreted; and such timely intervention will go very far in ensuring that knowledge is retained for the long term.

Regardless of the venue, the calendar or the circumstance, the intended Key Learning and Desired Student Outcomes should always guide the learning activity. Sometimes, the construction of the product could also become a learning activity. That notwithstanding, the activity should never be allowed to dictate the learning. It is only a means to an end.

Next up: Secrets to Effective Learning (A Summary)

Understanding Education

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