Are school activities fun or meaningful?

Attentive class
Despite all the hype about making better use of visual content in education, most educators still rely on language to communicate their messages. When educators talk to audiences beyond the education community, they often choose the same words they would use with other educators. Those choices can significantly undermine the case for education.

One such word is  fun.

Foreign language teachers have been discussing ramifications of  “fun activities” in foreign language classrooms. Joanne E. O’Toole, assistant professor of  curriculum and instruction at the State University of New York at Oswego, offered this insight:

I have spent much time trying to understand why some people view foreign language education as dispensable or less important than other content areas.  One contributor I have discovered is the perception others have of the nature of the language classroom.

Our beginning courses can be viewed as lacking weight because they are composed of so many “fun” activities (i.e., games, songs, food, etc.), just as our  advanced courses can be viewed as too weighty because they are “no fun at all.” This “fun-based” dichotomy can negatively influence educational decision makers, students, and parents.

My perspective is that conversations about what happens in language classrooms should not be about degrees of “fun” but rather on meaningfulness and the opportunities provided for worthwhile learning.

Therefore, I have replaced the word “fun” with the word “meaningful” when I talk about what we do in the foreign language classroom. This reminds me to make the meaningfulness of activities I use explicit, such that others understand the value the activities contribute to overall language and cultural learning.

Meaningful activities take a range of forms that evolve with the students’ proficiency levels; there is no dichotomy. Meaningfulness can be easily understood and valued by all those with whom we work and the students we teach.

In other words, one very powerful advocacy move I believe we all can make is this semantic shift. When we talk about what we do as “meaningful” rather than “fun,” we advocate for the value of language teaching and learning.

Dr. O’Toole’s analysis fits with what research tells us students want in courses in every discipline: activities that are meaningful and challenging rather than activities that are fun.

Her analysis also makes good sense from a public relations standpoint. Hearing his school taxes support “fun activities” is likely to raise the ordinary taxpayer’s blood pressure to a dangerous level. Such wording may lead to a resounding “NO!” vote on a school’s budget proposal, while an identical tax levy to support “meaningful activities” might pass without opposition.


Thanks to Dr. O’Toole for permission to reprint her remarks.
Photo Credit: “Attentive Class” by Ruthibabe

Language skills decline’s not funny

The following was passage from Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, talking about covering fencing in the Sydney 2000 games, was posted to the Foreign Language teachers’ list serve recently.

I went to the fencing competition the other day. A lot of people don’t like fencing because they don’t understand the rules and terminology, but in fact it’s quite simple.

Basically, there are four thrusts—the cartilage, the chaise lounge, the aubergine, and the fromage anglaise—and these in turn can be parried by four defensive feints—the pastiche, the penchant, the demitasse, and the saumon en croute.  Scoring is on the basis of one point for a petit pois and two for a baguette. Points equally can be deducted for a foot fault, or a pied a terre, and for a type of illegal lunge known as a zut alors.

Actually, I don’t have the faintest notion what goes on in fencing, but that’s okay because this is the Olympics, and it’s full of sports that most people don’t understand or follow closely.

If you don’t know what’s funny about that passage, you might be in line to be the next British monarch.

What is definitely not funny is the decline in knowledge of languages (including English) by Americans.

Reading bestselling novels from the early part of the twentieth century for my hobby blog, GreatPenformances, makes it painfully clear that literate people 70 or more years ago were expected to know Latin and French and at least a smattering of German and Italian in order to understand popular literature. American novel readers these days are rarely expected to recognize English words of more than two syllables, let alone read a foreign language.

Why in an increasingly connected world are Americans becoming increasingly insular?

Curriculum planning in the digital age

Take a look at what curriculum planning looks like in the digital age.

The Foreign Languages Curriculum Review by the Holliston Public Schools in Holliston, MA. is an all-electronic  “document” with more content than many school districts’ websites.

The material is available online for school personnel, students, parents, and the public.

The Curriculum Review contains:

  • an overview of the curriculum review process,
  • statement of goals and philosophy,
  • list of desired learning outcomes,
  • articles, bibliographies, doctoral dissertations dealing with foreign language teaching
  • position papers on diverse learning styles,
  • papers on keeping instruction in the target language,
  • a budget showing required funding for foreign language instruction.

Each section is hyperlinked. You can move around easily with a click of a mouse.

The review was prepared by a school committee comprised of people working at the building level and the district level.  Their goal was a complete the alignment of the district’s current curriculum practices with state and national standards for PreK-12 students with best practices in foreign language education.  Holliston offers instruction in Spanish, French, Mandarin and Latin.

The entire project took three years. It was time well-spent.

[2016-02-03 repaired broken link]