One of the joys of teaching is interacting with students who have not quite mastered particular social graces, such as politeness or tact. Early in my teaching career, I had a student tell me individually what she really thought of our class. She did not mean to be insulting – but she definitely wasn’t complementing me either!

This student said anytime I referred to something as an “activity,” she immediately shut down her brain. “Activities are time-fillers, busy work. I’m not going to learn anything from activities.” That really struck a chord with me. But everything we do is important! We don’t have time for busy work!

She was right though – when I generally think of an “activity,” it’s something fun, but not necessarily challenging or strenuous. What my student was implying was that “activities” don’t have a purpose other than to fill time. They aren’t building towards anything. They aren’t going to help her intellectually grow.

Ever since then, I have tried to give much more thought as to how I introduce or describe classroom work. First and foremost, I eliminated “activity” from my vocabulary. This might seem like a matter of semantics, but not really – it made me think much more about my teaching purpose with everything we did. After that, I described our work as “exercises.” What’s the difference?   An exercise implies you are strengthening your muscles or skills towards a goal. Though in social studies there’s not necessarily a tangible finish line to cross, we need to think about what we ask students to do and for what it prepares them. It’s not about remembering disconnected content, but rather having students develop the skills required of experts in the respective disciplines. This purpose should be woven throughout our pedagogical choices.

Kathy Swan often discusses inquiry as a marathon – you can’t just wake up one day without training and expect to successfully run a marathon. You have to create an exercise regimen that progressively prepares your body for the challenge. And just like physical exercises, classroom exercises should increase in rigor. In the IDM Blueprint, the formative tasks’ reflect this logic, as they get increasingly analytical and/or complex. It starts with a question, establishing the end goal, an argument-based answer, and the steps necessary to get there.
So my challenge to you is to re-label your activities as exercises – talk to students about how classwork is contributing to building their brain muscles.

Share with us how it changed things!