I think we’ve all encountered it, more likely as students than as teachers. It’s something that our own instructors probably made us do from time to time, perhaps to distract us while they scrambled to do something seemingly more important than teaching us. Or maybe they just got tired, or they ran out of lesson ideas on short notice.
So we got it: crossword puzzles, word searches, repetitive worksheets, movies that were only tangentially related to what we happened to be studying, reading matter that was almost indecipherable, and on and on.
It was busy work. And it accomplished what it was supposed to do…it kept us busy. It gave us something to do, and it might have even amounted to some minor achievement — finish this before anyone else in the class, and you get a pencil/ sticker/ eraser/ candy/whatever tchotchke.
But, that was years ago. We know so much more now about teaching and learning than we did when my generation was in high school — one of the first things they told me in the hallowed halls of San Jose State University as I began my (not especially distinguished) credential program. Oh yes, we’ve got it covered. Teachers today never give busy work, do they?
This defendant pleads guilty to past offenses. In earlier years, I had a pile of crosswords and word searches in my file cabinet, ready for a (sometimes literally) rainy day when the power went out. And I used them as competitive material, and to buy time while I took care of something that seemed very meaningful at that moment.
I know now, after becoming a reflective and connected educator, that those dead trees I used had absolutely no educational value. I have resolved never to use them again during regular class time, at least while I can get electricity out of a wall socket. So what is modern busy work?
Do we show films to our students, and then fail to then follow up on them and ask the kids to think and reflect critically about them? Do we give a 30-problem assignment when 10 problems, completed successfully, would indicate mastery (or lack of it)? Do we give them a list of vocabulary terms to define from whatever ELA texts we may be teaching, knowing that those words won’t ever appear in our kids’ lexicons or even on an SAT? Do we tell our kids to alphabetize their assignments in a paper notebook, after gluing those assignments to pages of binder paper? (I thought about throwing in diagramming sentences to that litany of wasteful activities, but I didn’t want to insult my English teacher friends — besides, I don’t know anyone that is still practicing it.)
Some teachers, I guess, think that their students don’t know their time is being spent badly when that kind of assignment is lobbed at them. But they do. They know that busy work is, at best, a mimicry of the subject matter you’re supposed to be learning about together. It’s like learning a bunch of French-sounding words that aren’t French and that have no meaning (or for which you don’t know the definition), and then showing up in Paris thinking that your linguistic prowess will improve the way people in the City of Lights regard American tourists. The Parisians would be insulted (again), and so will your kids.
The damnedest thing about busy work, on an emotional level, is that you never get that time back with your students. By assigning this stuff, you throw out a chance to do something truly meaningful. It’s a hollow feeling, to know you had a chance to teach something innovatively and in a fun and challenging way, and you fell back on a worksheet instead.
I do not want to experience that emptiness, thank you very much.
I’m not going to allow those golden moments to slip by. I’m not going to pull something out of a file cabinet just to kill time. I’m not going to make history-sounding noises when there is real learning to be done, and I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that an electronic piece of busy work is any better than a paper one.
Benjamin Franklin had a lot of deep things to say, but one of my favorites is this one: “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff that life is made of.”
Dost thou love learning, my friends?
Then do not squander time on busy work, for that is the stuff that boredom is made of.