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I. Identifying Activities for Students

Identifying activities for students is directly related to the goals of instruction and the concepts, skills, and values that are related to the nature of the course, unit and/or discipline that is the focus of instruction. Moreover, the identification of these appropriate activities should be related to the task of reinforcing instruction, the overall goals, that will be undertaken in connection with the course, unit and/or discipline of instruction. Therefore, it is important that some planning time be spent at the beginning of each school term in a process of identifying a relatively large number of appropriate or possible instructional activities then that can be then reviewed for selection, development, and execution. The process of identifying a relatively large number of possible instructional activities should be done with care and should be related to the materials of instruction, especially the resources that are available to the student within the instructional setting. These resources would include: the student textbook, classroom resources, library resources, community resources, and internet resources, etc. A great amount of time and care should be given to the goals of instruction in reference to the learning abilities, or the learning characteristics of the students, who will be expected to participate and to execute the requirements of each of the selected activities. In other words, each activity selected as an aspect of instruction should be selected in conjunction with the generally known learning characteristics of the student body. Remember that successful activity planning relies on several other important factors, which include some of the following items:

a. Rationale
b. Motivational factors
c. Background or readiness requirements
d. Time and effort needed to complete the activity (time required in and out of class)
e. Materials needed (i.e. construction resources)
f. Required elements of student research
g. Identification of content, skill and value elements
h. Transferability to related topics and activities
i. Grading standards to be used to measure outcomes
j. Display or presentation of student results

(Note: each of the above listed factors will be addressed in the near future according to its identifying letter in a series of related “blogs” i.e. I-a, I-b. I-c, etc.)

I-a. Rationale

“A rationale is a statement that outlines the purpose of instruction (sometimes referred to as a mission statement). This statement is used to justify instruction by taking into consideration; not only content but also the cognitive, social, and physical needs of the student. In addition, a rationale statement often includes a theoretical perspective regarding the nature of learning and the means to be used to present subject matter to students” (See page 224, Dynneson, et. al., Designing Effective Instruction for the Social Studies, 3rd edition. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc; Also, see pages 224-225 for some related concerns.)

In selecting an activity in support of classroom instruction, it is important to justify the time and the effort that will be required to complete the activity in terms of tasks and outcomes. Activities must be justified in terms of what they contribute to the development of student learning or comprehension. This justification or rationale might be based on the need to introduce, to develop, or to conclude a course or a unit of instruction, as well as the basis for providing students with important insights into the nature of the subject matter or the topic of instruction. Because instruction often is justified on the basis of a theoretical approach such as “learning by doing” a rationale statement might contain an argument that the content of instruction is best developed or reinforced through a particular type of activity. Among other things, a rationale statement should provide the instructor with a logical basis for defending an activity that supports the goals or the mission of instruction.

For example, Mr. Olson teaches an eighth grade world geography course that includes the study of several countries from around the world. In addition to keeping notes on classroom presentations, students are assigned the task of developing a series of outline maps for each country or unit studied. At the end of each unit, students are required to turn in a special folder containing the maps for grading purposes.

Mr. Olson’s rationale statement:

Students will develop a series of outline maps as a means of gaining insights into the geographic features of each country studied. This activity is intended to provide an important means of developing student map skills that are needed for the interpretation of maps, and as a means of gaining information about geographical regions of the world. Through this activity, students are expected to gain new insights into the use of map symbols and the application of a student developed map key, which will be used to reference the locations of important cities, resources, natural features of terrain (including rivers, mountains, boundaries, and coastal regions). Student results will be measured on the basis of accuracy of location, illustration of important natural relationships, use of map symbols, and the application of a map key in reference to accurate distances and locations.

1-b. Motivational Activities

In our textbook, Designing Effective Instruction for Secondary Social Studies (see pages 178), we outlined a list of Ten Guides for Motivation that were aimed at helping teachers learn to motivate learning. These “Ten Guides” could be used in almost any classroom regardless of grade level or the topic of instruction. These guides, in other words, are of a very generic nature, and are a set of proposed activities specifically designed to better enhance the learning experience for teacher and students. I have selected three of the ten guides for demonstration purposes.

The following three guides were selected for demonstration purposes:

1. The challenge – Most every student respond well, or positively, to a challenge; that is, provided that the challenge is somewhat within the students’ domain of experience. It also helps if the challenge is based on a topic that appeals to students’ interests in regard to age, background, and desirability as well as to cultural factors. The task for the teacher is to present the challenge and to frame it or to express it, in such a way that it stimulates the students’ sense of mystery and adventure. (i.e. Explain why Napoleon decided to less Louisiana to the Americans at such a bargain price.) A challenge might be presented as a mystery to be solved according to a set of clues contained in a background story. The task for the students is to examine the story for clues that can be abstracted from the story as a means of meeting the challenge. In other words, the challenge is to solve the mystery by examining a set of clues, which could lead to several possible solutions. These several solutions, once identified, can be eliminated until an ideal possible solution emerges that can be tested against the evidence. If time allows, students might be asked to complete some additional “research” regarding the issues related to the challenge before reaching a final conclusion. This additional research might require a re-examination of the evidence in light of new information coming from the results of student research.
2. The question – Learning is often motivated when the teacher states an open-ended question that can be intelligently approached only after instruction is completed on the topic. In addition, open-ended questions are questions that only can be answered speculatively, as they are not open to a fixed or to a correct answer. These types of questions are designed to stimulate a type of thinking and discussion that is analytical in nature. The following is an example of an open-ended question: Was the United States justified in dropping the atomic bomb on Japan as a means to ending World War II? The main feature in this question is that there appears to be no single correct answer; indeed, this type of question has been discussed and debated by scholars for many years and a great deal of commentary has been written on the subject with concluding or satisfactory answers. The reason for the unsettled nature of this question is that it tends to be a question that evokes a form of moral reasoning that cannot be settled once and for all; therefore, this type of issue tends to stimulate both intellectual and moral reasoning. Some students naively might attempt to answer this question without adequate preparation, which is okay provided that the matter does not end at this point. In fact, some teachers have used a strategy that takes advantage of this situation. The teacher states the open-ended question and then calls upon students to give an initial answer, which then is followed by an in-depth study. Following this study the question is then restated and discussed based upon recently completed studies. In other words, the purpose of this exercise is to reassess initial reactions to the question in light of new understandings.
3. The inspiration – Students often tend to respond to the plight of the individual in difficult circumstances, especially in regard to those trials and sacrifices that befall leaders, as well as ordinary individuals, who become caught up in life’s complex and sometimes tragic circumstances. Social studies materials are often so abbreviated that they tend to give the impression that the study of history, government, geography, economics, and so forth, mainly consist of people, places, events that simply appear as a list of names according to some time-frame. One way to motivate learning is to provide the students with short biographical vignettes related to people, places, and events. Vignettes are especially helpful means to humanizing the study of history and the social sciences, which at times appear to be dehumanized by these limitations of the prescribed curriculum. The inclusion of biographical vignettes is one way to help to bring the added vitality to the social studies curriculum. Biographical resources are acquired easily from reference materials related to the various subject fields. For example, there are several library reference books on the life stories of the presidents of the United States, as well as additional reference sources related to the life stories of world leaders. (i.e. Abraham Lincoln was an ignorant backwoodsman who could barely read and write, a rail-splitter who knew little of literary works!) A word of caution should be noted in reference to life stories of famous individuals both living and dead; that is, when attempting to reconstruct lives from the distant past, one may encounter certain embellishments or myths. Passing along myths can damage the credibility of an instructor and can do harm to the academic reputation of the discipline. Therefore, as a general rule, myths should be avoided or should be properly dealt with. For the social studies teacher it must be admitted that myths do exist and therefore should be addressed in connection with instruction. For example, myths can be used to motivate or to stimulating student interest in almost any social studies topic. For example, the teacher might make use of the study of myths for the purpose of exposing them as an aspect of cultural folklore. On the other hand, myths can become the source of student investigation into the life of a person or into actual events. A myth could be used, for example, to introduce a topic and to stimulate student curiosity, which can become the basis for reassessment once the topic has been studied in depth.

1-c. Background and Readiness Requirements

What is the problem?
One of the most crucial activities of the teacher is determining the readiness of their students for instruction. Readiness can be defined as the capacity or the capability of students to successfully meet the learning tasks related to the study of new content. In the past, teachers would sometimes ignore the background of students. Some teachers operate under the assumption that “If they appear in my class they are ready to learn”. Even under the best of circumstances, teachers often do not know the capabilities of their students until well into the course of instruction; as a result, much valuable instructional time has been lost. Complicating the issue of readiness is the recognition that students often do not want to reveal any inadequacies related to their study habits, which hampers the teacher’s ability to adjust instruction to a more appropriate level. In other words, when students lack in knowledge, skills or values needed as a precursor to learning, the efforts of the teacher may be wasted.

Determining the students’ readiness to learn
According to Dynneson, Gross, and Berson’s, Designing Effective Instruction for Secondary Social Studies (see page 126) there are several approaches that can be used to assess student readiness. As a rule of thumb, determining readiness should be executed at the beginning of a course of study, at the introduction of a new unit of instruction, or prior to introducing a complicated lesson.

The following strategies could be used as a means to pretest students prior to instruction:

• The pretest – before beginning instruction it is recommended that some form of a pretest be administered for the purpose of gaining insight regarding the level of background knowledge of students. Two methods of assessing students’ for background knowledge is to (1) to make up a quiz that includes a range of elements, skills, events, and so forth, or (2) to select a sample set of questions from course or unit tests to be used as an indicator of student readiness. The more general questions from course or unit tests are the most appropriate for pretest purposes; however, a few harder questions can reveal important details about individual background and preparation.
• The informal discussion – a beginning class discussion can reveal a good deal of information pertaining to the student readiness. It is recommended that the teacher prepare a list of topics to be included in the pre-instruction discussion. For example, in an advanced history class students are expected to learn about survey research, which might suggest that the teacher should discuss issues pertaining to the strengths and weakness of survey research.
• Individual interviews – individual interviews can reveal a great deal about each student’s readiness for instruction. Some teachers recommend preparing a list of topics to be used as the basis for a one-on-one open-ended interview prior to the beginning of instruction. The purpose of the interview is to reveal information about each student’s knowledge or background pertaining to the content of instruction.

What should a teacher do if readiness is not indicated?
The teacher would be wise to delay instruction until students are brought up to an adequate standard of readiness before beginning regular classroom instruction. Delay poses a problem, as schedules may not be met and the class may be in danger of falling behind set instructional deadlines. In addition, delay may mean that one teacher is not synchronized with other teachers teaching at the same grade level. Circumstances, therefore, will often determine whether to take time to pretest and to use remediation to correct deficiencies. The following three basic strategies might be used to help remedy readiness problems when they arise:

• Provide remedial instruction to the entire class – By providing preliminary (remedial) instruction prior to the beginning of regular instruction, the teacher may be able to emphasize those basic elements that are essential to the instructional program. For example, a geography teacher could provide basic instruction in map reading that includes cardinal directions, the interpretation of the map key, the use of the latitude and longitudinal locations, as well as the use of various grid systems.
• Establish a classroom library – A classroom library should contain a range of instructional materials related to the course of study or unit of study. It can be used for both remedial and enrichment purposes for students with differing degrees of readiness. For example, a high school history classroom might contain both elementary level and college level resources for student use during class time.
• Individual tutoring session – Students who are inadequately prepared for instruction may be greatly assisted by a tutor. It is a relatively common practice for a teacher to tutor individual students or a small group of students in need of additional preparation. In addition, students with a good understanding of the discipline or subject matter can serve as tutors for students who need a little additional help. Parents who are aware of their son’s or daughter’s learning needs can, with school help, locate a qualified tutor from within the community.

By assuming that a relatively large percentage of students may not be ready for instruction, the teacher has a relatively large arsenal of strategies to help make sure that every student, regardless of background, is going to have a successful learning experience.

1-d. Time and Effort

Activities require planning based on an estimation of time and effort that will be needed by students to execute various activity tasks. Mainly, activities are important because they provide the basis for hands on learning experiences. In other words, a learning activity is generally designed to provide students with a realistic learning encounter. Activities, however, take time to execute and this time may be valuable instructional time. Consequently, there is a trade-off between the time taken away from teacher led instruction and the time needed for students to experience a hands on learning experience. Unlike some forms of instruction, an activity also requires special types of written guides, such as a set of special instructions (list of procedures) and/or a specific set of rules that will be used to guide student working relationships. Classroom activities also have certain complications related to the ability levels needed to complete an activity. For example, some students may find the activity too simple while other students may find the activity too difficult. In addition, some students will be willing to put a good deal of effort into an activity, while other students will not.

As a means to further activity development, a set of ten suggestions has been developed to help guide classroom teachers deal with classroom activities.

Ten Suggestions:

1. Every student should participate and be given an assigned activity task.
2. Students should be encouraged to structure themselves into an effective working arrangement.
3. The activity should encourage social interaction, and rules of good conduct should be established prior to the beginning of the activity.
4. Students should work cooperatively and should be encouraged to render assistance to other students.
5. Each classroom activity should have set time limits.
6. The teacher should supervise each phase of the activity and give clarifications when needed.
7. Team activities, especially competitions, should be based on a random selection of team members.
8. The classroom should contain adequate reference resources in support of the activity.
9. The teacher should serve as a resource person by directing students to appropriate reference materials, including related pages contained within the students’ classroom textbook.
10. Each classroom activity should result is some type of end product that can be displayed and used as the focus of a culminating activity discussion.

According to the principles of effectiveness instruction, the teacher should pay close attention to focusing students’ attention on the demands of the separate tasks of the activity. Keeping students on task requires a structured time schedule that can be segmented according to various phases (tasks) of the activity. For example, working on a map activity for the first time students might benefit by examining an ideal end product in which the various phases (tasks) have been completed.


In Mrs. Anderson’s class the map activity was based on a set of five outline maps that each student was to complete: map one became a political map that contained the outline of a state upon with the boundaries of the state contained the districts of the state and its important cities for each district; map two became a map of geographic features that contained rivers, mountains, forests and deserts, etc.; map three became an economic map that contained symbols for the products and the resources (i.e. timber) located within the state; map four became an illustration of important transportation networks that connected the cities of the state; and map five became a cultural map of the peoples of the state.

Keeping students on task requires some form of consistent monitoring. For example, the teacher might decide to ask students for periodic progress reports. These reports might consist of the teacher asking students specific questions as to how they are addressing certain tasks related to the activity.

Activities may be individualized through a strategy of interview and contract writing. The advantage of an individualized activity is that it allows each student to work on an activity according to his or her ability and experience level. Contracts have the advantage of being tailored made, so to speak, according to the amount of work, as well as the grade level to be attempted (see Designing Effective Secondary Instruction by Dynneson, Gross, and Berson, pp. 490-496). Establishing a classroom activity center also can be used to individualize activities according to student interest and according to a level of challenge (also see pp. 131-132).
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