Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Worksheets are to learning as junkfood is to eating...


With special thanks to Lisa Butler (via Twitter @SrtaLisa) for creating this poster, I'd like to further the thoughts behind the quote.

This quote (in the form of a tweet) garnered 22 re-tweets; a record for me;o) The simple message seemed to resonate with people, and I was happy about that. The idea for the quote came to me after visiting two distinctly different grocery vendors on the same day in my home town.

Where I live, people have been enjoying the ambiance of our local farmer's market for over forty years. A stroll down the aisles of this HUGE outdoor market on a sunny Saturday morning... the sights, sounds and smells welcoming you from all sides... is one of my families absolute favorite things to do in spring, summer and fall. It's a multi-sensory experience that just feels right. We eat fresh cooked breakfast there; we sample and buy fresh produce and other natural products like honey and soap; we listen to cultural musicians and we occasionally buy stuff that catches our eyes for the kids, or for our home... there is no end to the supply of unique and interesting clothing, art, nostalgia, furniture, greenery etc. We could spend all day there, but alas, the market moves on to the next town around noon, and we go on with the rest of our day.

A couple of weeks ago we left the farmer's market and went to a local big-box retailer to purchase some party supplies for my daughter's birthday party. As we walked through the doors of this massive building it just hit me. You know how that happens... like a big old wind that comes out of nowhere and startles you with its strength... I was completely taken aback. Fresh from my visceral and fulfilling morning at the farmer's market, I knew my big-box experience was going to be less than memorable.

The farmer's market is so vivid, so stimulating to the senses, that its impossible to feel rushed. Every modality is firing on all cylinders there- you feel alive and receptive; in the here and now. Coupled with the fact that virtually every item for sale at the market is produced naturally, by hand in an organic and particular way, the farmer's market experience becomes so meaningful and mindful; the two words I use to describe an authentic environment.

On the contrary, the big-box environment is filled with stuff too, but it hits you in a vastly different manner. There are no smells in the big-box store beyond the air-freshener aisle. Everything just sits on shelves within the same packaging it left the factory. There's no sound beyond the whirling of shopping carts and the odd "cleanup on aisle 8" intercom announcements in the big-box store. In the grocery section there was no fresh produce in sight... as I walked up and down the aisles I felt rather unstimulated and distant... and I know why. The big-box store was the antithesis of what I call an authentic environment. That's when the analogy hit me.

The farmer's market and the big-box store both provided me with an opportunity to get stuff I needed (even if I didn't realize I needed it until I got there;o) That's where the similarity ends though. At the market, high-quality, organic and creatively manufactured products are sold in a wonderfully stimulating environment that peaks the senses in a way that would affect even the most unreceptive patron... that's just the way it is. In the big-box store, prepackaged, mass-produced chemically-altered products of marginal quality are sold in a glorified warehouse that is about as inviting to the senses as the industrial plants the products were manufactured within.

It's hard for teachers not to draw parallels between their in, and out-of-school experiences... enter my thoughts about authentic teaching and learning environments. The market was like an authentic classroom... hitting all the sensory targets with creative, meaningful and purposeful activities... the classroom where students and teachers feel a sense of discovery and wonderment... where the experience is remembered because it was enjoyable and stimulating to the mind, body and spirit.

The big-box was like an inauthentic classroom environment... hitting none of the sensory targets as a result of under-stimulating, prescribed activities with little relevance to the learner... the environment where the answers are already provided (curriculum) and everyone is busy trying to make up the questions to match them.The first example of a "learning activity" I thought of that undeniably represents this sort of environment was the infamous worksheet... hence the quote.

The pre-packaged, chemically-altered junk we buy at bog-box stores, like the worksheets teachers use in school, fill us up to be sure, but not with anything good. Let's move away from the easy 'drop a worksheet on the desk' mentality and start letting kids fill themselves up with questions instead of answers, and lets make sure that the classroom environments we create look, sound and feel more like the metaphoric farmer's market than the big-box store.
Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

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