A Theory of Busy Work

Brian K. Sohn, Knoxville, TN.

I currently work as an instructor for a class in Applied Educational Psychology. It is required for future teachers. Pre-service teachers are uniquely positioned in between being students and being teachers, so they are, in my opinion, most qualified to develop a theory on busy work.

I asked my classes to comment on what characteristics busy work or non-busy work has. We looked at their comments together and pulled out a few ideas and themes, and with subsequent classes I teach, I will encourage the students to build on this current Theory of Busy Work:

Value is a big part of busy work theory: who places value on the work (student or teacher?) How do they show that value? (quality of work, teacher feedback, time given, how many points it’s worth, teacher preparation for the activity or assignment)

Does the work further learning? Is it excessive practice?

Is there a balance between the time spent out of class vs time given in class?

Is there a balance between the time spent working and how much value is placed on it?: for some students if something is easy they will think it’s busy work.

How is the work connected to the other work you’re doing in the class?

Do students perceive the work as redundant?

As teachers we must reveal the intent behind work.

Pre-service teachers are also an ideal audience to learn the lessons of busy work theory: How can they motivate their future students if they give what is perceived to be busy work? As with most of the blog entries I write, I often come back to the same solution. This is a question of motivation, in essence, and if work is real, authentic, and connected to place, students will see it has value beyond the four walls of the classroom.

This is a work in progress, and I hope to add to this theory in the next year. I welcome suggestions.

It’s Already Here

This weekend I visited my mother, who held a party in her home in North Carolina for my sister and her new husband.  My sister, Laura, is trying to re-learn Spanish.  As a former Spanish teacher, she is enlisting my help, but she is joining the e-learning revolution as well.

“It had the best reviews,” she justified.  Clicking, buzzing, fart-noises, and music reminiscent of Mario Brothers was coming from her phone as she tapped the screen and said words out loud in Spanish.

It was MindSnacks, an app that has games to help learn Spanish.  In the years I have known my sister, she has never once expressed even remote interest in video games.  In recent years, she refuses to play games of any kind.  No Scategories, no Cranium, no Taboo, no card games.  So even though I have seen the e-learning trend growing and growing, I was still surprised to hear her yell out, “I’m almost on the fourth level!”

I went over to look over her shoulder as she played the next round.  “You have to go fast,” she explained.  She was clicking viernes or turquesa as what appeared to be a water level behind the options was dropping to the bottom of the screen faster and faster the more points she earned.  When it would hit the bottom, the phone emitted a fart noise and her game was over.  “I earned 800 points that time.  The rhino dies if you lose the next one.”

This popular app employs rewards, punishments, humor, speed, and feedback.  If you can put your stigmas aside (if you have any left), you can see why digital games for education can be (and are) powerful.  Check out this article with an overview of what makes a video game good, educational or otherwise.

For anyone interested in the learning theory behind digital games, one of the authorities on the subject is a guy named James Paul Gee.  He writes mainly about the power of games in terms of cognitive learning theory, but also in terms of motivation.  A preview to one of his articles is linked here.  In it he picks out 16 concepts from cognitive psychology that video games exemplify.  For example, (p.36).  This seems to be less academic than what I was looking for, but a colleague of mine, Vittorio Marone, is in the process of writing a paper framed in more traditional educational psychology terminology, and once it’s published, I’ll be sure to share it.  In it, he examines the ways in which video games reflect principles of behaviorism (trial and error, law of readiness, schedule of reinforcements), social cognitive theory (enactive and vicarious learning, goal progress feedback), constructivism (ZPD, collaborative learning), and many other theory families.

As I look around, I see more and more people engaging in e-learning, much of it voluntarily.  My friends’ babies are learning colors, numbers, and names of fish.  I’m learning the constellations.  My brother in-law is using Khan Academy to learn chemistry.  As Gee says, “…Lots of young people pay lots of money to engage in an activity that is hard, long, and complex. As an educator, I realized that this was just the problem our schools face — how do you get someone to learn something long, hard, and complex, and yet still enjoy it?”  He implies that we should see how we could better design classroom instruction to utilize the powerful characteristics of games.

There’s at least one thing schools don’t have that games do: choice.  Students are compelled to attend, required to take classes, take state tests, etc.  Even if they were all “gamified” they would be missing one of the keys to motivation: choosing what you want to do.

Flipped Classrooms and Learning Theory

Flipping the Classroom and Learning Theory


As far as I know, flipping in its current form was invented by a couple of chemistry teachers in Woodland Park, Colorado, which (aside) I used to drive through to go rock climbing about half of all my weekends in college.  The only other thing Woodland Park was known for was a really good donut shop and high school football.  Basically the teachers made their lectures available online so they could focus on problems and labs during class time.  I first read about it in some teacher weekly magazine.  “How efficient,” I thought.  Why “waste” class time doing something that does not require a classroom or lab space?  When do students need help more—in a lecture or while doing problem sets and labs?  As a physics major in college, the answer for me was very much wholeheartedly the latter.  Click here for a version of the Woodland Park flipping origin story.

Woodland Park, CO, with Pikes Peak.

Flipping the class has gained lots of steam, and is now a widespread practice from college campuses all the way down into elementary schools.  While originally the lecture was the only part of the class available online, now flipped classes have a myriad of resources and content there, too.  This article from the Economist is over a year old now, but highlights some of the basics people should know.  In the example provided, an elementary school in Palo Alto uses the Khan Academy videos for math instruction.

From a learning theory standpoint, flipping has some attractive features and some drawbacks.  In the article they talk about lectures in general:

“But lectures, whether online or in the flesh, play only a limited role in education. Research shows that the human brain accepts new concepts largely through constant recall while interacting socially. This suggests that good teaching must “de-emphasise lecture and emphasise active problem-solving,” says Carl Wieman, a winner of the Nobel prize in physics and an adviser to Barack Obama.”

When they say how the human brain accepts new information, considering this is the Economist, you can be sure they are referring to quantitative research in cognitive theory.  How human brains accept new concepts, however, is not a question that is answered in any definitive way by any of the major learning theories.  That’s why they’re called theories.  It’s nice to think that we’re so far along in the study of learning that we can say that new concepts are learned best with “constant recall while interacting socially,” but there’s still debate.  I don’t even know what “constant recall” even means, but it makes me recall Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In another story, Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard, was highlighted on NPR for “seeking to lose the lecture.”  As if this was some great discovery of a physics professor, NPR and others ignored the work of learning theorists.  It turns out, educator researchers have known for ten thousand years (give or take) that lecture, by itself, is not the best teaching method.  But, to get back on track here, watching or listening to a lecture online is not the only teaching method at play in flipping.  The whole point was to spend class time doing something else.  If that doesn’t tell kids that the lecture is less important than the work, I don’t know how else you would send that message.

But that takes us to a more powerful argument brought up about Khan Academy specifically:

“Second, even in [math and science] KhanAcademy implicitly reinforces the “sit-and-get” philosophy of teaching, thinks Frank Noschese, a high-school physics teacher in New York. That is, it still “teaches to the test”, without necessarily engaging pupils more deeply. Worse, says Mr Noschese, KhanAcademy’s deliberate “gamification” of learning—all those cute and addictive “meteorite badges”—may have the “disastrous consequence” of making pupils mechanically repeat lower-level exercises to win awards, rather than formulating questions and applying concepts.”

Gamification, while it may have its own adherents and “originators” (like Mazur and his not lecturing), is based on behaviorist theory.  The main criticisms of behaviorism include the eventual breakdown of reward-seeking behavior and lack of transfer.  Numerous studies have shown that, at some point, you just can’t bribe people to do things any more, even things they originally enjoyed doing.  Putting a badge, or an apple, or (new studies show) a salary  higher than $75k at the end of a task does not promote motivation for improvement.  Once basic needs are met, the main thing that motivates people is purpose.  And when your purpose is to get to the end of a learning module on the Internet…ummm, that’s not as good as helping people in need, or staring at a wall.

This doesn’t take a learning theorist to understand.  When you make learning about something other than learning, like earning a meteorite badge at Khan Academy, or scoring high on a standardized test, you cheapen the experience.  When you add something superficial to incentivize something meaningful, you weaken the whole enterprise.

On another note, I did some qualitative research last spring on a flipped class at a large southeastern university.  (Wonder which one).

I found that for students who were excited about the material, the flipped nature of the class was a huge boon.  The professor had made so many resources available online that psyched students could really get a way deeper understanding of the material than they would have from a traditional lecture-based class.  Another thing was that attendance was about twice as good in the flipped class than the lecture class.  If showing up counts (and Woody Allen has always said it does), then that’s a fantastic result.

But for students who weren’t as motivated, and many were taking the class as a gen-ed requirement, the material online seemed disjointed and hard to keep track of.  As one student told me, “I don’t like all this online stuff, and none of my friends do either.”

All of this may be irrelevant.  (Ha, that’s the understatement of the year).  If researchers find that the results of learning from flipped classes are close to traditional classes and student evaluations don’t change much, we, or our kids, will all be experiencing flipped classrooms.  Cuz they are cheaper.  They can be used as an excuse to have fewer teachers.  People are looking at MOOCs the same way, and I’ll probably need to write about them next.

On a less cynical note, the flipped class reflects our culture better than lecture-based classes.  As the human rights movement has spread across the world and developed over time, people have realized that just cuz someone has a position of authority doesn’t mean they know what’s good for you.  You can say this has gone too far, but the authority of teachers is in the same boat as the president.  Before Nixon, (or so I hear) everyone respected the president.  Now look where we are today.  Since teachers can’t just claim absolute authority, it’s good to set classes up in a way that makes the teacher the learning facilitator, rather than the super-infallible expert.  In a flipped class, students can explore the resources that interest them rather than memorize the content of a lecture that may or may not be 100% accurate.  It may or may not be the best method ever devised to teach and learn, but if it increases the democratic nature of education by increasing learner choice, I’m all for it.

NYTimes Education highlights

Educators of all levels and stripes should keep up with the NYTimes education page.  While they do not have much on rural education, what do you expect from a paper based in NYC?

There were three recent articles that deal with race and disparities in schooling.

Bussing in Boston:  A powerful example of white flight, Boston city schools are only 13% white, down from 72% in 1967, which was before a judge order to desegregate.  Now they have students who live on the same block who go to different schools.  It’s very difficult to build community support for a school if the community members don’t attend it.  But kids who are happy where they are don’t want to be forced to go elsewhere.  The problem, they say, is that they need more higher quality schools.  My idea: bus some of the private school teachers in to the city! :)

The 30-Million Word Gap and NYC race disparity: I first heard of the 30-Million word gap in a This American Life episode called “Going Big.”  A famous study by Hart and Risely found a huge difference between the number of words kids hear depending on whether or not their parents are working class or wealthy.  NYC uses a standardized test to determine who can go to the best high schools, and despite the city’s assurances that the tests are objective, the number of African-American and Latino students admitted to top high schools is tiny.  Test advocates have been saying the same thing for years, but unbiased scientific instruments they are not.  This article points to the essential unfairness of the tests.

[Wealthy] Parents Pitch in: In Austin, an architect worked to build an outdoor classroom for his kids’ school.  Nice work, if you can get it done for you.  I hope, as does the principal of the lucky school, that it will serve as a model for other schools, not just in Texas, but around the country.  A local architect in Knoxville is working on a similar idea for Pond Gap.

There was one article on the ultimate teaching strategy: Problem Based Learning (PBL).  This is the way education should be done.  Period.  Find the problems that kids are motivated to tackle and guide them towards a related goal.

Technology integration is a pretty key part of PBL when it comes to sharing the results of a project, as you can see in the article.  Another trend in technology is the digital humanities.  This article introduces the idea and briefly discusses some examples.  One is Giza 3d.  Check it out!

And finally a short report on some educational psychology research.  People are constantly putting old news in the news.  Children behave like scientists?  Not a surprise.  Baby Einstein is worthless?  Say it ain’t so.  Children learn through play and experimentation?  We’ve been all over that since I don’t even know when.  Can we credit Rousseau with that idea?  If we narrow our discussion to the history of educational psychology we can say Piaget and Vygotsky both advocated play.

What’s left out of this article is an important idea: as children “behave like scientists,” there’s one thing they are not doing: separating the knowers (themselves) from the known.  Scientists (and the psychologist who wrote the study) constantly project their worldview on to toddlers, but children create meaning through context and connections.  They learn from their world and about it, whereas scientists focus almost exclusively on the latter.  Youngsters are not yet subject to Plato’s cave, Descartes’ mind-body split, or the reductionist bias ubiquitous in our culture.


An Existentialist Cat Video can Help Explain Constructivism

Henri 2, Paw de Deux

The cat has a distinct worldview, and from it, constructs a world around him of idiots, loneliness, and angst.  His perception of the events around him are clouded by a relentless despair.  He does not understand why he feels nothing when he gets on the scale–his caretakers become irate; why does he feel no different?  Objects in the world have distinct meanings for different observers.  The scale has no fixed significance.  To the humans, it means they have eaten too much and exercised too little.  To Henri, it means he is emotionless.  Even the display of happiness, for Henri, is not enjoyable, but insufferable.  He calls the white cat an imbecile, and thinks he is surrounded by morons.  The actions of the others could be completely logical from their viewpoint, but Henri has an egocentric gaze that has not been challenged by the events around him.  What he has learned, he has learned through experience.  If someone would have told him to avoid the “whipped cream” in the bathroom, he probably would have ignored them.  He found out for himself, in an all-too-real situation.