Monday, September 26, 2016

Play Doh in the Classroom:

or, How a Shiny Coat of Kinestheic Paint does not Create a Kinesthetic Lesson

This article on how to Use Playdoh in Junior High or High School came across my news feed this morning over coffee. I've used playdoh before in my awesome Squishy Circuits project that I've done the last few years, and was looking forward to more new project ideas.

I was a little bit disappointed that the article really only talked about using playdoh to model or sculpt things. Artistically representing a process, sculpting little models to represent points on a timelines. But those are all cool and novel ideas that could absolutely engage kinetic learners and raise general engagement for all students. But it didn't seem all that out side the box, and many of the ideas seemed more or less the same.

The thing that really struck me though was that these were supposed to be ways to engage kinetic hands on learners, and it seemed like most of the ideas required reading or writing before the student could access the kinetic portion of the activity. This one in particular stood out to me:
Play-Doh Check for Understanding Activity (handout) – This activity is a way to assess reading the students have done for homework. Students summarize the chunk of reading and then choose a section to create a Play-Doh sculpture. After the Play-Doh construction, students work with partners to reflect on what they chose and why.
The summarizing reading is the hard part! A 'normal' activity after reading would be to summarize what they've read through journaling or a writing assignment. All this does is add a kinesthetic activity on the back end. in a typical class period, you may or may not have time to get to the 'fun' part if the kids drag their feet on the summary. In order for this to truly be a kinesthetic activity, the modeling and playdoh part needs to come first. It needs to be the hook to draw the child into the activity. Perhaps after using modeling and sculpting to highlight a part of what they read, then the student can use discussion with a partner, reflection and writing. But even then, the default to written work is so strong that it's nearly impossible to escape.

I think that a lot of activities that are packedged for teachers are 'outside the box' or utilizing other elements of our brains and creativity aren't really all that different. They're the same old assignment, with the same old requirements, just dressed up in kinestheic (or whatever other learning style or fun methodology) clothing. It's a typical writing or reading or math assignment, with the the movement or art slapped on top like a shiny coat of paint.

I've spent a lot of time scouring the internet for ideas to increase engagement for students like mine, who are typically not very successful with the normal approach to teaching. I have to discard a lot of ideas that take this approach. They're the same old idea except with a shiny new graphic organizer, or a tech-ey app, or They sound good, but it's really no different the the status quo.

I don't know what the solution is. Assessment is a major issue with non-typical types of assignments. If they do a sculpture, how do I know if they truly understand what is going on. The quintessential subjectiveness of art makes it terrible for teacher assessment. If my student writes a clever rap about the commutative property, what is to say that he knows what it means, and can apply it?

One thing I do know is that it does us a disservice to dress up traditional lessons in kinestheic or artistic trappings and dupe ourselves into thinking we're really serving those nontraditional learners. It creates complacency where there is still a need. By all means, have kids model after (or before?!) they write a summary, create art to represent and interpret what they've learned, these are valuable interest and extension tools, but don't allow the shiny paint to fool you.

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