304. Busywork

If teachers and everyone else involved in planning children’s education were perfect, every moment each child spent in school would result in the best learning imaginable. Maybe there would still be some worksheets, but they would be so much better than some of the worksheets you and I have come in contact with. A lot of the worksheets we’ve seen can only be described in language I’ve avoided using in these articles. I don’t think a perfect teacher would give children any word hunts to do. They can be fun for some children, but they don’t do much to increase children’s knowledge or skill.
But nobody’s perfect. Some of the work teachers give children has very little substance to it. Its only purpose is to fill up some time. Sometimes the teacher is working with some children, and hasn’t organized things so that other children are ready to be productive while they wait for their turn. Or some other planning problem has left a gap that has to be filled. The teacher can tell children to take out books and read, but that only works sometimes. At other times, busywork fills in the gaps.
As a teacher, I felt guilty any time I gave a child busywork to do. Even if it was busywork the child enjoyed. Children, like adults, can get plenty of enjoyment doing things that don’t do them a bit of good. But no matter how hard I tried to plan every minute of the day, I always had gaps, and busywork was the easiest way to fill them in. I knew teachers who didn’t seem to need busywork, and I admired them, but I knew many more who, like me, had places where they kept emergency supplies of word hunts, crossword puzzles, math fact drills, and other papers that may have been a little educational occasionally, but were mostly there to keep children occupied.
When we were children, most of us spent a lot of time doing busywork. Teachers sometimes actually developed rationales for it: word hunts help children develop their figure/ground perception and their spelling skill. And of course, children have to know their math facts, and drill is the only way to learn them. Many parents accept these rationales. In fact, some even complain if their children don’t seem to be getting enough busywork.
But I don’t believe that it’s a good way for children to spend time. I forgive myself and other teachers who have used and still use busywork from time to time to make it through the day, just as I forgive myself and other parents who
sometimes use the television as a babysitter. And people disagree about which work really counts as busywork. But let’s try to avoid kidding ourselves about it, and let’s try not too rely on it too much.

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