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The Issue with Activity
In the Wiggins and McTighe book Understanding by Design (ASCD 2005), the authors lay out what they describe as the twin sins of unit design: activity and coverage. And, boy, did they hit the nail on the head for where we often struggle as parish educators.
Let me explain. When we parish educators approach teaching a lesson, we tend to fall back on the methods that were used with us when we were young. In our experience, a teacher would usually either do a straight lecture (the sage on a stage) or focus on activities (fun and games, maybe a discussion, etc.). Sometimes our teachers, if they felt adventurous, would switch things up. They would do a bit of lecture, followed by a simple activity such as filling out a worksheet, making a craft project, or sharing our feelings in small groups. I won’t focus on the issue of coverage in this post; I may leave that discussion for another time. What I will address, though, is dealing with the issue of activity and what we can do, simply and effectively, to transform parish education activities into meaningful learning experiences.
What is lost when we focus on activity in the classroom (and I’m guilty of this as much as the next guy) is the tendency to move the focus away from learning. Doing activities puts the focus on, well, being active. The problem with such activities is that they easily lead us into the trap of thinking that simply going through the motions of an activity means that learning is happening. Scientifically speaking, however, we can only know if learning is happening if we have something objective to measure. Now, we might think that a finished worksheet or a table discussion (examples of activities) may fit this bill. The only thing that they show, however, is that the activity was done. There is no way to clearly know if anything was actually learned. There’s nothing to measure and evaluate.
The Power of Assignments
One simple way to transform such a learning activity (like a worksheet, table discussion, role play, etc.) into a more meaningful learning experience is to add a few pieces of structure to the activity. Eleanor Dougherty, in her book Assignments Matter: Making the Connections that Help Students Meet Standards (ASCD 2012), suggests that adding three elements to an activity can dramatically change its potential. The three elements are a prompt, a rubric, and a product. For the sake of planning, let’s look at these in reverse order.
A Product: What exactly will learners make or do during or after the activity that demonstrates new learning or insight? Is there something they can produce or create that is tied to the activity, that can be measured? I know this may seem simple, but it’s critical. For example, table discussion can lead to a lot of great activity, but if we add a product to it, then we have a measurable outcome. A product in a table discussion could be one agreed-upon answer, or one pressing question that the table struggled with, that would be presented to the whole group after the table has had its discussion. In the case of a worksheet, in addition the the sheet being completed, a product could be a learner’s summary (in his or her own words) of the content of that sheet. In other words, a product is something that shows whether something has been learned.
A Rubric: How will the product be evaluated? How will we know if the product at all fits the direction the educator desires? The idea of a rubric may seem scary, but it doesn’t have to be. A rubric simply contains the criteria by which the product produced by the learners will be evaluated. This may look as complicated as a chart with points for precision (like on a sliding scale), or as simple as a statement outlining what the ideal product would contain. For example, in a group discussion, if the product proposed by the educator is a summary statement on behalf of the table, then a simple rubric could be a list of what was desired in that summary statement. Should the statement contain key points? If so, how many? Should it contain quotations? If so, what kind? In other words, a rubric, detailed or simple, would give some specific clarity and structure to those doing the assignment. Most important, I’d submit, adding the combination of a product and a rubric to an activity forces the teacher to narrow in on his or her own standards for teaching and then communicate those more clearly to the learners.
A Prompt: How will you introduce the product? What will you say or do that will give direction to the learners? A trap we easily fall prey to as educators, especially parish educators, is thinking of activities as ends unto themselves. We ask our learners to discuss the question, review the case study, or fill in the blanks on a sheet without giving them a proper reason for why they’re doing it. By adding an end product to the activity (thus making the activity itself a kind of practice for the product) and a rubric of sorts by which to evaluate the quality of the product, now you as the educator can add a more definitive prompt statement to the activity. In a table discussion, a prompt could sound like “At your tables, spend a few minutes among yourselves discussing the question. After each learner gets to share, work together as a group to produce a one-sentence summary of your best answer to the questions. The sentence summary has to have the criteria of . . .” Such a prompt sets up the product and rubric in a way that takes a general activity and makes it a measurable learning experience.
As parish educators, we usually don’t have the inherent structure of classroom educators. We are usually dealing with volunteer learners who are sensitive to things like tests or other assessments. We feel that if we press too hard we may push our learners away from the youth group or Bible class, so all too often we fall back to old habits of going through the motions of activity. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. We can take our activities and add a bit of structure to them in the forms of product, rubric, and prompt, and make each activity a bit more meaningful and measurable in terms of learning. The joy of this is that, for us in the parish, it doesn’t require an excess of planning or extra thought. All it requires is an attention to the way we choose to present information. With a little bit of work, we can slowly but surely transition away from pure activity to more intentional learning.
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