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.

The Global Pandemic of Education Reform: Bad Science, Bad Business

Education reform efforts are underway around the world.  To borrow from Ken Robinson, nations are trying their best to adapt education to the changing economy while maintaining some kind of cultural identity.  [How much they’re working on the identity stuff I’m not sure.]  Two main influences are driving the way reform is done: science and business.


The science most closely associated with education these days revolves around the results of standardized test scores.  Whether they be the TCAPs and EOCs in Tennessee, CATS tests in Kentucky, or the PISA and TIMMS tests worldwide, test results are used to “scientifically” measure school success and compare within and among schools, states, and nations. The results are seen by many as valid indicators of achievement and failure, but there are innumerable problems with this system.

In most science, experimenters go to great lengths to reduce their influence on the phenomena they observe or measure.  To see whether or not a certain habitat restoration project was successful, it would be unethical to lure animals back to the area in question with mating calls or temporary stocks of food.  Scientists would work hard to be minimally invasive in their observations, perhaps going so far as to install hidden cameras or at least use camouflage.

But in schools the supposed measuring technique, the test, is not only invasive, it has become the target.  States use carrots and sticks to get schools and teachers to focus like lasers on the tests. Students are tested over and over, year after year. As Bob Lingard says in this article, what we have now is a situation where we are trying to fatten a pig by weighing it.


With the rise in profile of economics, business and finance practices now have an influence on just about everything. Somehow policy-makers have been convinced that the people making the most money know how to run everything, including schools and hospitals. In education, the idea that putting money into schooling provides an economic return is nothing new, but the extent to which education is borrowing business practices now in an effort to “maximize returns for taxpayers” is extreme.  Students and parents are seen as clients or stakeholders rather than citizens. Parents are encouraged to be smart “consumers” of education for their children and are given school choice through vouchers or parent trigger laws. These reforms are intended to breed competition among schools to improve. Student achievement on standardized tests is the measure for how successful schools are rather than how the schools contribute to solving community problems.

Many reforms desire to increase innovation in schools.  What does innovation require?  In this video, Dan Pink describes a company that gives employees one day a quarter to work on whatever they want.  This day leads to the most innovation due to a combination of freedom and purpose.  In education reform, schools that do poorly on tests are punished.  This clear lack of freedom discourages innovation and encourages a more narrow range of teaching techniques, and of course teaching to the test.

In this article, Valli describes the increase in teacher workload due to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  In business terms, NCLB represented a culture change within education. The new set of expectations for teachers amounts to what, in a normal business, would warrant retraining, extra professional development, and company support. Teachers got no such extra training and were judged on the results of school test scores within 2 years of the implemented changes.  A good business would also pay workers more if they expected such a huge increase in worker productivity.  During the time of NCLB, many states have frozen their budgets and teacher raises did not keep pace with inflation.  In effect, they were asked to work a lot harder for less pay.

Another business-minded reform is related to the curriculum.  Common Core is a national curriculum designed with the intent to prepare students to participate in the global economy. But participate how?  Fundamental business principles could easily dissuade a school district from implementing a national or global curriculum: workers get jobs through individuation and unique skills, not standardization.  If everyone has the same education, where do students get a comparative advantage over their competition for a job?


Our society’s reliance on economic rationalization, the combination of science and business reforms, is a crutch that has led to greater stratification of our society and a fracturing of communities.  Many students are unprepared for the workforce and unattached to their homes.  Education has been hurt greatly by standardization and psuedo-science.

Many times people complain about complaining.  I don’t like the current system, but I don’t offer any alternatives, they might say.  But alternatives already exist.  There are exemplary schools and programs around the country, and in this blog I sometimes highlight them.  Not every business or science-related reform is all bad, but when they eliminate good programs, we need to fight to stop them. There are groups fighting, and only with lots of work can we build a movement strong enough to counter the technocrats running things now.

What are your projects looking like?

In my design theory class, we’re talking about general design principles and practices and how they can be applied to education.  My general impression so far is that most teachers in public schools, for a myriad of reasons, continue to follow in the footsteps of traditional education methods and practices that originated 50 to 60 years ago.

If the goal of good design is to meet the constraints of a problem with a relatively elegant solution, those methods rarely do either.  Programs that include project-based learning initiatives seem like a great way to get beyond the old ways, meet the constraints imposed by 21st-century learner needs, and (sometimes) end up with something elegant.

How about this project as an example?

Habitatmap is a non-profit that specializes in mapping-related education projects that take on environmental problems in innovative ways.  In this case, Habitatmap is partnering with some engineers at City University of New York (CUNY) to involve high school students in a citizen-science project that will attempt to connect physiological changes to environmental conditions.

Many savvy folks already use fancy pedometers that upload data to a central server–there’s an app for that (of course).  What Habitatmap is doing is more or less combining that information with environmental data obtained with cheap, small monitors (that will also plug into a smart-phone), and of course it’s all tied to GPS data, so it will have a spatial component as well.

Students involved with the project will be able to collect data when they’re walking around, and when they are back in class they can analyze the data and draw some conclusions.  This is the stuff science is made of, and, given the interdisciplinary nature of the project, wellness and environmental justice can be tied in as well.

Now that is some instructional design worth emulating.

ADIOS TEACHERS [creepy robot voice]

Just kidding, but what is happening around the developing world is probably enough to scare the most anxiety-ridden among us.  This article tells how kids in a remote Ethiopian village are teaching themselves how to read and, perhaps more interestingly, how to hack the tablet computers they were given.  (Someone had decided to disable the camera on all of them!)

I first learned of kids teaching themselves how to surf the Internet and speak English after a friend recommended a TED talk by Sugata Mitra.  You can watch the video or read this article, which tells how he got started.

Mitra calls this Minimally Invasive Education (MIE), and as someone who has traveled through some areas in South America and Mexico, think carefully about what Mitra says about the learning he studies: in rural areas, even when there is a school, the teachers aren’t any good.  What does he mean by that?  I personally struggle with the idea of good and bad teachers–it takes a village, you know.  Put one of those good teachers in a bad school and see how well they do.  Put a bad teacher in a good school and see what happens.  But what Mitra is talking about is the style of education given in rural areas.  Often teachers use outdated methods, focusing entirely on rote memorization.  Only the “smart” kids do well.  What MIE allows is access to knowledge, with the only barrier being the skill-set the child develops.

It has to be a radical constructivist’s dream come true: (from the first article linked) Box of tablets dropped off in village.  Kid opens boxes, finds on switch, and within two weeks they were singing ABC songs in English.  Within 5 months they figured out how to enable the disabled camera function.  BAM.  In their study they also find that the kids start teaching their parents English.

[I don’t want to sound like I’m cheerleading for the destruction of non-English cultures.  It is hard to argue with how impressive the results are, but let’s not forget what is lost.  But here’s the thing: change happens, and if we want to preserve cultures, we need to document them.  These days, by the time you finish documenting the culture, it’s already changed.  And you change it by documenting it. There are lots of cans of worms here, so I’ll sign off before opening up three more.]

If You Haven’t Read Henry Giroux, You Don’t Know Boo.

Henry Giroux is a sociologist of education that writes mainly about what he (and others) call “critical pedagogy.”  For him, schools are not just neutral deliverers of information to students—they are sites where the cultural values of society are implied and enforced, where students and teachers resist and conform, and where the greatest potential exists to make humanistic reforms for society.  And that’s where critical pedagogy comes in: by examining the structures of society (including schools) and tendencies of cultures, educators can teach in a powerfully emancipatory way.

He has written prolifically, and it’s not like I’ve read a whole lot of his work, but recommend two articles.

The first, Theories of Reproduction and Resistance in the New Sociology of Education: A Critical Analysis, is a tour of contemporary sociology of education from the perspective of class, race and gender.  It reviews and explains what some of the most important educational critics are saying about how schools reproduce the status quo and how students and teachers can break out of that mold.  Written in 1983, the authors he reviews are a who’s who of the canon of sociology of education and cultural studies: Apple, Bordieu, Gramsci, Althusser, and many more.  While much of Giroux’s work is nearly impenetrable due to vocabulary and a sense of hurry, this essay is measured and accessible, if long.  He explains the theories so well, I dare say you don’t even need to bother reading the original work (GASP, I take it back, we should all read everything by everyone).

Touching on topics like the hidden curriculum, symbolic violence, ideology, hegemony, in the framework of reproduction and resistance, Giroux lays out strengths and weaknesses of each theory, and in the end presents an alternative theory that relies on the agency of individuals.  While it was abstract in 1983, he went on to describe his theory and what it would look like in practice in many of his other articles.  In Doing Cultural Studies: Youth and the Challenge of Pedagogy, he offers a model for teachers on how they might teach in the way he described in the 1983 article.  He describes the importance of teachers and suggests they take on the role of public intellectuals.  The model describes how teachers can use popular movies in their classrooms to challenge the messages and stories presented by dominant media.  This is critical pedagogy in action.

So read some Henry Giroux!  He presents a real challenge to teachers in today’s schools to be transformative educators.

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.