Activities: the devil will find work for idle hands to do

Some years ago, when I was still held firmly within the gravitational pull of my initial teacher training, I wrote a blog about praxis.

Not praxis as seen through the work of Paulo Freire. Rather, I came to praxis through the words of Anthony H. Wilson. That’s Tony Wilson to you and I: former TV presenter and record label impresario. As co-founder of the legendary Factory Records in Manchester, Wilson nurtured pioneering bands such as Joy Division, New Order, and Happy Mondays; he also gave the world the fabled Haçienda nightclub –  the spiritual home of rave culture in the late 80s and early 90s. Oh, and he lost lots of money doing all of these things. Whenever he is asked about the reasoning behind these creative pursuits, he always referred to praxis. Here’s what the had to say about it:

So praxis for Wilson was post-rationalisation: he did things that he wanted to, and then he decided on the reasons for doing them afterwards.

In my rookie blogpost on the subject, I advocated this form of praxis to underpin classroom teaching. I was foolish. I thought that getting children to do activities in the classroom and then finding out what was learned afterwards was actually a reasonable idea. But then so did many other people: the post was rather well received.

The reason it was well received is because it followed a creed that was certainly dominant at the time of my training, and is still prevalent now: it prioritised the ‘how’ before the ‘what’. In essence, this is the approach of putting the designing of an activity before the most important thing: deciding what it is that we actually want children to learn.

Some time after I wrote about praxis, I read (and rather enjoyed) Phil Beadle’s book ‘Dancing About Architecture’. Like Tony Wilson, Beadle advocated this post-rationalisation:

“What fascinates me here is the infinity of potential in having the outcome completely led by process. If we take Gardner’s intelligences as being a guiding structure and run them back to front, the lesson outcome would be a thought: a thought about speech about an image of a piece of music, which is written about numbers that have been obtained by a literary text.”

Whilst this resonated with me at the time, I find myself opposed to it as an idea now. However, Beadle’s prophecy was fulfilled this week when David Didau tweeted an image of a grid that used Gardner’s multiple intelligences and Bloom’s taxonomy to suggest lesson activities:

Like praxis, this grid prioritises the undertaking of activities over why they are doing them. There seem to be no discernible objectives behind these tasks: what specifically is it that the teacher wants pupils to learn?

I have a similar issue with ‘takeaway homework’ menus. Both the Bloom’s/MI grid and takeaway homeworks seem to suffer under the same premise: pupils can choose what they want to do and that will differ in both activity and outcome for each pupil. And that is where I see problems: if pupils can undertake just one task from a choice of, say, 9 tasks, how valuable and purposeful are those tasks if pupils don’t have to do 8 of them? If the tasks have different learning outcomes, are teachers saying that 8 of those outcomes are unnecessary? Because if they are saying 8 of them are unnecessary, it means that all 9 of them are. This criticism may seem harsh, but such approaches have an underlying, unspoken principle: it doesn’t matter what the pupil does as long as they are doing something.

This is the cult of activity: an unconscious belief that occupying pupils with something is the most important part of lesson or homework planning, over and above deciding what it is that we want pupils to learn.

I say that it is an unconscious belief, because it really is for the majority of us. Most of us that have been in its thrall were indoctrinated by teacher training or by observation cultures that prioritise activities as the first concern.

Of course, whilst it’s true that faith in the cult of activity has been unconscious for most of us, some were knowingly performing and promoting its rituals. And those people should be utterly ashamed of themselves. Who are these contemptible, immoral people? I’ll tell you: they were the sort of people who were writing blogposts advocating praxis as an approach to teaching, that’s who. I hope they are suitably embarrassed.

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11 thoughts on “Activities: the devil will find work for idle hands to do”

  1. When I did my BEd I was taught to plan by starting with an objective, i.e. what we wanted the children to learn. We also had to state our long term aims (I remember we spent ages on the nuances of objectives/aims, but then it was a 4 year course!) The way that we got to that learning could vary, so we might well have a variety of activities within a lesson. But the objective was the starting point and still is for most teachers, if the ones I work with are anything to go by. WALT and WILF are also very much about what you are learning, rather than how – were these mentioned during your ITT?

    1. I imagine that a 4 year course was more useful for focusing on objectives. But majority of teachers don’t do 4 year BEd, so they get the constant feedback on how, rather than what. This, alongside Ofsted’s recent history of prescribing the ‘how’ over the ‘what’ means that activity-based planning is prevalent.

    2. Snap – always the objective – what has to be learned. I remember making up the typewritten sheets for each lesson plan on teaching practice even now 36 years later. Most primary teachers I know still do maybe it’s a prim/ sec split?

  2. Certainly at primary you have to think it through from the objective as a starting point, because often you’re teaching a subject where you’re not a specialist, so you have to nail down what you’re trying to get across. Mind you, I’ve also taught in secondary, and we definitely wrote learning objectives at the start of our lesson plans there too.

    Maybe we need to go back to the 4 year BEd model. 😉

  3. A lot depends upon what the learning objective is. Having one is no guarantee. Is it focused on knowledge, or meaningless National Curriculum progress descriptors? If the latter, then it is a proxy for content, and we’re back to how over what.

    1. An objective is always going to be about knowledge, surely? Either ‘know what’ or ‘know how’, depending on the topic/subject/skill concerned. We can’t exactly blame teachers for using the National Curriculum, since their job is to teach the National Curriculum.

  4. I’d guess we were all taught to plan “objective first”, then “how”.

    So I think you’ve scored a hit but it’s against the wrong target.

    The problem here isn’t teacher training, it’s ‘ordinary day to day management’.

    When the SLT expect to ‘learning walk’ their way around school whenever they feel like it and, no matter what they say officially, everyone knows that they want to see lots of ‘activities” when they stop buy, well, that’s what the wage slaves will deliver.

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