Tag Archives: design

Drama Isn’t a Grecian Urn

drama vase photo
Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

I was intrigued by Jennifer Gonzalez’s recent post on Cult of Pedagogy, “Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?” Basically, Gonzalez argues that teachers need to be careful that their favorite projects are actually assessing learning and are not fluffy ways to fill time. Gonzalez refers to the work of Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design, particularly their description of one of the twin sins of design—activity-based instruction. If you are a long-time reader, you know I think Understanding by Design is the most important book on pedagogy for any teacher to read, and it has certainly been the most influential professional reading I have ever done.

I agree with a great deal of what Gonzalez says; she also adds that “all lessons have some educational value [and] any kind of reading and writing, manipulating materials and words, interaction with peers, and exposure to the world in general offer opportunities for learning.” However, she also says that teachers should ask, “Does [this activity] consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact?” She concludes that “If students spend more time on work that will not move them forward in the skill you think you are teaching, then it may be a Grecian Urn.” She defines Grecian Urns as activities that consume time but don’t necessarily contribute to learning, naming such activities after a Grecian Urn project she describes in the post.

Gonzalez explains that “[c]oloring or [c]rafting” should be “used sparingly” after primary school, adding “[t]his doesn’t mean you should never ask students to color, cut, paste, sing, act, or draw, but every time you do, ask yourself if that work is contributing to learning.” While I do see her point, I would argue that some might read her argument as an admonition to cut these art forms from assessments, and I can make a case for using almost all of them for educational purposes. What I fear is that teachers who do not want to incorporate these other ways of learning and demonstrating knowledge will find justification for other teaching methods that don’t work—such as coverage-based instruction (the other of the “twin sins” of design).

I ask students to cut when I give them a scene from Shakespeare and ask them to distill its essence, leaving the most important parts intact. In doing so, students are editing and thinking critically about the text. I ask students to act out scenes from literature, a method advocated by the Globe Theatre in London for teaching Shakespeare, because it helps students understand a text to speak it and create movements that communicate the characters’ feelings and actions and the time invested pays dividends in engagement and understanding. I ask students to draw symbols when creating literary reductions because these images help them explain their ideas.

Another concern I have is that many people automatically assume technology-based projects are Grecian Urns. Yes, some are. But some are excellent projects, and Gonzalez makes the difference between valuable technology projects and Grecian Urns very clear. I do think some of the commenters on the article read the article as permission to dismiss technology. I would argue that in addition to considerations of time, which are important, we should also consider the value of the assignments, even if they take some time. Could the assignment be done more efficiently without technology? Does technology add any value to the assignment?

For example, I find working with digital texts cumbersome. Annotation of printed texts is much more efficient, though tools do exist to annotate online texts. If you have access to a printed text, however, it makes more sense to me to use it. My experience using these online annotation tools is that they just don’t replicate or work as well as what we can do with a pencil and printed text. We should never being using technology for the sake of using technology, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss it as a Grecian Urn. To be clear, Gonzalez isn’t arguing that we should dismiss technology. But I could see some folks twisting her argument a bit to imply that technology is a time-waster.

Time isn’t the only factor we need to consider. We really need to figure out what it is we want students to know and be able to do as a result of a lesson or unit. As Gonzalez advocates, we need to use backwards design and design thinking to plan learning for our students so we can avoid Grecian Urn assignments, but I would suggest that we also think carefully before we decide a project is a Grecian Urn. And if it is, Gonzalez is right—it needs to go. I have stopped doing quite a few assignments over the years after holding them up to Wiggins and McTighe’s description of the “twin sins.” But there is a lot of value in integrating the arts and technology, and we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss that value just because rich arts and technology projects take some time.

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Why Are Public School Websites so Bad?

While Randall Munroe’s XKCD cartoon above is mocking university websites for deficiencies in design, the same could be said of many public school websites. A few years ago, my kids’ school website only worked in Internet Explorer. It was the most terrible design you can imagine, done in Front Page I think, with all the most important information buried or even out of date. The reason for that was that the media specialist, who had a full time job running the library, teaching classes that visited the library, and working with teachers, was also tasked with running the school website, and she didn’t have the time or the expertise to do so. The school now has a technology specialist who runs the website, and it is much better than it was. However, it’s still not close to being a slick-looking as some of the private school websites I’ve visited. I think several factors may influence a school’s website design, and the deck is stacked against public schools:

  • Private schools have to market themselves. They’re competing against every other private school in their area, and they have to allocate funds to attracting students. Part of their marketing is a good website. The first step in exploring a school is most often taking a look at their website, and if it’s bad, the family might never even move forward with an application. Information needs to be easy to find, and the site itself must be easy to navigate. It should look professional and give visitors a sense of what they might see in the school.
  • Private schools often hire outside web designers. Public schools tend to assign the task to employees or students, with mixed results. Sometimes you get someone really good who knows what they’re doing, but designing and running a website is a big job, and employees are often stretched too thin to do a good job. A variety of designers cater to private schools. Contrary to popular belief, private schools are not necessarily swimming in money, but they do need to spend money on good websites because of marketing.
  • Public schools seem to communicate more via email, telephone, signage, paper, and snail mail. They probably don’t have a real reason to duplicate all of that information on a website, although I would argue that they should if they want someone outside the community to find the site useful. For instance, we’re moving to Massachusetts this summer, and my husband complained that the public schools’ website in the area we’re moving to was quite difficult to navigate. I tried it out, and he’s right. The district website attaches a frame around the website for the one school I looked at, and navigation was impossible. I never could find a faculty directory.
  • Sometimes the appropriate staff (a technology director, specialist, etc.) floats among several schools or even a whole district. Because private schools are independent, they have to hire faculty and staff to cover these areas (or outsource some of it). Otherwise, they won’t have it. If they don’t have technology faculty, they run the risk of being behind the times and therefore losing potential students to schools that spend more on up-to-date technology.

Asking technology faculty to float is a horrible idea. Each school should have a dedicated member of the faculty who works with teachers to integrate technology. I don’t say that because it’s my job, and I need job security. I say it because I think it’s true. Otherwise, you’re going to have more difficulty getting faculty to integrate technology. You will always have the dedicated teachers who spend their own time learning how to use technology on their own, but if you are trying to make a real school-wide shift, it’s not going to happen if your faculty doesn’t have someone to help them. It’s no wonder public schools can’t dedicate more time to making their websites attractive and user-friendly. They don’t have the personnel, and the personnel they do have don’t have the time.  However, websites are an important communication tool, and in the year 2012, it is not asking too much to have a website that visitors can enjoy using to learn more about a school. Many free and cheap CMS’s exist to help schools (which doesn’t solve the time issue). A good website should be something to which schools dedicate time.

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