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An earlier version of this post was published in 2013. This is an updated version.
A few years ago, I was working with a group of student teachers. One of them—we’ll call him Eric—was teaching seventh-grade social studies. His class was studying ancient Greece. The standards for grade 7 required teachers to address concepts like the government, economics, and culture of this era. For his 5-day unit, Eric was going to focus on the “culture” part.
On the first day of the unit, which Eric developed with his cooperating teacher, students would read the chapter of their textbook that swept through three centuries’ worth of ancient Greek culture in about five pages. Then they’d write answers to a set of end-of-chapter questions. On days 2 through 4, students would create their own Grecian urns by wrapping balloons with papier-mâché. Once the urns were dry, students would paint them in a similar style to that of the Greeks, incorporating something personally meaningful as the main artistic feature. Finally, they would present their urns to the class. On day 5, they would be given a quiz asking them to match 10 vocabulary terms, such as comedy, tragedy, urn, and Olympics, to their definitions.
Feeling more than a bit skeptical, I asked Eric to show me the standards his unit was aligned with. He rustled through some paperwork, then pointed to this language from the state standards: Students will demonstrate an understanding of the complexity of culture by exploring cultural elements (e.g., beliefs, customs/traditions, languages, skills, literature, the arts) of diverse groups and explaining how culture served to define groups in world civilizations prior to 1500 A.D. and resulted in unique perspectives.
I read this out loud to Eric, then asked him to show me exactly how his plans taught or measured the standard.
For a long moment, he said nothing.
Finally, he shrugged and told me the unit was basically what his cooperating teacher had “always done for ancient Greece.” She’d told him the urn project was really fun, and that the kids loved it. The only problem was, it had nothing to do with the standards. Draping wet, gluey newspaper around a balloon has nothing to do with deepening one’s understanding of societies and cultures.
All Hands-On Tasks Are Not Created Equal
I wish Eric’s story was just a rare example, but in my work with student teachers, as a classroom teacher myself, in my many years as a student, and now as a parent, I’ve seen far too many “Grecian Urns”: projects that look creative, that the teacher might describe as hands-on learning, interdisciplinary teaching, project-based instruction, or the integration of arts or tech, but that nonetheless lack any substantial learning for students. What’s worse, because these activities are often time-consuming, they take away from other tasks that would give students the chance to wrestle with more challenging stuff.
In their groundbreaking book Understanding by Design, Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins describe this problem as the Sin of Activity-Oriented Design. Instead of focusing on the desired learning outcomes, this approach merely seeks out tasks that might be fun, or at least keep kids busy: “The activities, though fun and engaging, do not lead anywhere intellectually. (They) lack an explicit focus on important ideas and appropriate evidence of learning.”
To illustrate this, Wiggins and McTighe describe a 3rd grade unit on apples. In this two-week unit, students read about Johnny Appleseed, paint pictures of apples, do math problems that involve apples, write apple-themed stories, make applesauce, and take a trip to a local orchard. Students probably enjoyed all of these activities, and it’s likely that both teachers and students were charmed by how cleverly the theme was woven into so many different content areas. Throughout the unit, students probably seemed engaged, the classroom was full of colors and productivity and maybe even collaboration, but what valuable learning actually took place?
Let’s move our lens to the higher grades. Here, the Grecian Urns might involve no crafts at all, but still force students to ride along curricular tangents that, rather than inspire and ignite a passion for learning, lead to dead ends.
Take the math and social studies teachers who decide to co-teach a two-week unit on famous mathematicians. Math and history, right? Students spend most of the first week on computers, researching the mathematicians’ birthplaces, families, deaths, and contributions to the field (which most students simply copy, because the actual mathematical concepts are over their heads…how many eighth graders do you know who can explain the Fibonacci sequence?). They spend another three class periods creating PowerPoints or Prezis full of facts about these obscure pioneers in math, complete with neat-o animations and stomach-turning transitions, and another three days presenting these to the class…
None of the kids got any better at math, nor did their thirst for history grow. But to someone walking by, maybe even to an administrator doing a formal observation, this unit would look kind of amazing. Students doing online research! Cooperative learning! Technology! Interdisciplinary study!
These teachers misunderstood and misapplied the concepts of interdisciplinary study, hands-on learning, and tech integration, and two weeks of precious instructional time were wasted because of it.
How to Spot a Grecian Urn
It could be argued that all lessons have some educational value, that any kind of reading and writing, manipulating materials and words, interaction with peers, and exposure to the world in general offer opportunities for learning. With that in mind, think of “Grecian Urn” as more of a relative term than an absolute one: Few lessons will be pure Grecian Urns; almost any lesson will probably have some arguable educational value. Far more lessons will simply contain elements that are Grecian Urn-ish; we can make these lessons better if we try to minimize those elements.
The best way to identify a Grecian Urn is to look at a task and ask this question: Does it consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact? 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. And it may need to go.
Here are some more specific ways to spot the Grecian Urns in your teaching, and what you could do to replace them:
1. Excessive Coloring or Crafting
If your lesson requires more time coloring, cutting, or pasting than meaningful work with the content you’re trying to teach, it might be a Grecian Urn. If you are a primary teacher and students need to develop their fine motor skills, or if you are, in fact, an art teacher, then these activities have a clear place in your classroom. Everyone else should use these tasks more sparingly.
This 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. If not, there may be a way to cut down the time it takes. Suppose you want students to draw illustrations of vocabulary words. Adding visuals can work wonders to boost memory, so this is an instructionally sound decision. But is it necessary for these illustrations to be colored? On posterboard? Or hanging from a mobile? Would a simple line drawing beside each word on a regular sheet of paper serve the same purpose?
Now if your goal is true integration of the arts into your curriculum, I have two articles to recommend to you. Both of these really dig into what it looks like when teachers use art to really enhance students’ learning: read this post on arts integration from MindShift and this one from Edutopia to learn more about what this looks like.
2. Excessive “Neat-O” Tech
This is the tech equivalent of item #1: If students are spending lots and lots of time searching for images, making digital drawings, adding animations or effects to slideshows, adding sound effects or special titles to podcasts and videos, you are probably heading into Grecian Urn territory.
The key phrase here is lots and lots of time: Our students will absolutely benefit from learning how to combine text with images, manipulate presentations to make them more interesting, and make use of all the digital tools at their disposal. But when a student burns two hours listening to sound clips so he can make a photo of Langston Hughes zoom onto his PowerPoint slide to the sound of screeching brakes, well, he’s probably not doing much thinking about the Harlem Renaissance.
So when you’re assigning work that requires the creative use of tech, be mindful of how much time students are putting into the bells and whistles. Look at your rubric and make sure you haven’t required too many of these bells and whistles to begin with. And if possible, see if they can make the bells and whistles relevant: If students want sound in their slideshow about the Harlem Renaissance, have them add a Duke Ellington song, music that’s actually from that era, rather than a funny sound effect.
3. Low-Level Thinking
Most of the thinking in a Grecian Urn task is on the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. In other words, the task appears to be creative, but the primary academic work is rearranging and regurgitating basic facts or definitions.
Let’s look at two possible assignments for students to demonstrate their understanding of the Food Pyramid. In one class, the teacher has students re-create the pyramid as a hanging mobile. They write all the parts of the pyramid on pieces of colored paper and hang those papers onto a hanger or something. They might also be asked to draw or cut out magazine pictures of foods that represent items within each part of the pyramid. All of this work is at the Remember and Understand level of Bloom’s. Students are more or less defining stuff, and yet the task still takes an awfully long time to complete. Grecian Urn.
But what’s the point of teaching the Food Pyramid? Don’t we want students to learn it so they can make healthy eating choices? Here’s a different assignment: Have students write up a 3-day eating plan that applies the principles of the Pyramid. Sure, they can draw a border around it if they like. This will take five minutes. They can choose a cool font for the headings; that’s 10 minutes. But shouldn’t the real time-consuming work be put into deeply wrestling with the content itself?
4. Big Points for “Creativity”
An assignment might be a Grecian Urn if a significant part of the grade is based on “creativity” or “attractiveness.” And by the way, I’m a big design snob. I think presentation is important. But if more than 10 percent of a grade is based on these things—and I even think 10 percent is pushing it—we’re not measuring the learning that’s supposed to be taking place.
The fix for this couldn’t be easier. Cut way back on the points you assign for creativity or attractiveness. And if you find that the projects you get don’t excite you because they are not colorful or pretty, it’s time to start planning projects that will excite you with their content.
5. Word Search
If the task is a word search, there’s a very strong chance it is a Grecian Urn. Some argument could probably be made for how word searches reinforce letter recognition in the very early grades. Fine. But if some form of letter recognition, decoding skill, or language development is not the curricular intent of your word search, then your word search is probably a Grecian Urn. If you are a teacher who doesn’t have time to do things like project-based learning or Genius Hour, but you have time to make word searches and have students spend time doing them? Drop the word searches and you just bought yourself and your students at least 30 extra minutes per week.
So you have identified a couple of Grecian Urns in your lessons. What do you do about them?
One option is to cut them out. Just move those lessons out of your plan book and replace them with activities that will actually result in learning. Look again at your goals: What do you want students to know or be able to do by the time they’re done? And what tasks will help them get there?
The other option is to revise them. Let’s go back to Eric and his urns. Maybe instead of using up three class days on all that wet newspaper business, he could have students draw their urns on paper. He could build the historical relevance by providing students with images of typical Greek urns, have them choose one, then draw their own urn with images that parallel those in the original, but with a modern twist. So if the urn they choose depicts a battle, they might draw something on their own that represents a significant war or other “battle” that has occurred in the last century. Students could then add captions to their drawings, pointing out these details and the thinking behind them.
If you really like your Grecian Urn activity, you don’t have to completely drop it. But if you can tweak it to make it take less time and build in more curricular relevance, you’ve made it a lot less “urn-y” and, in turn, given it a more rightful place in your classroom.
The Fun and Sanity Loopholes
Having said all this, I think it’s important to note that not all classroom activities have to have a clearly defined, rigorous academic purpose. There will be times when a task that would be called a Grecian Urn in one context serves a completely different purpose in another.
The Fun Loophole
Building relationships with students, creating a family-like atmosphere, and making the classroom a place students love to come has incredible value. If I didn’t believe this, I never would have written something called When a Principal Whips and Nae-Naes. Some things should just be done for fun. If students absolutely love playing with the drawing app on their iPads, make that an option for free time. If students want to create a collage as a thank-you gift for a departing student, by all means let them.
The Sanity Loophole
At other times, you just need your students to be still and quiet. Maybe you’re coming down with a stomach bug or you just got bad news over the phone. Maybe the morning assembly left you with only 6 minutes of class time and you know you’re not going to get anything done. Maybe they have driven you to the absolute brink and you’re about to start throwing things. The best teachers in the world have days when they just can’t be on. At those times, good old-fashioned busywork is like manna from heaven. That’s when you have them color. That’s when you pull out the word searches.
When used for fun or sanity, these tasks are no longer Grecian Urns; they’re more like classroom management strategies. The important thing is to know the difference.
That’s what I tried to teach Eric as we revised his unit. We had him use some graphic organizer activities, where students did side-by-side comparisons of ancient Greek and modern-day cultural elements. Students then completed a lengthy questionnaire, where they took on the identity of a person in Ancient Greece. Each student chose a social rank, age, and gender, and wrote about what their life was like. Some questions asked them to describe their feelings about other people in their community and about social issues. They had to draw a few sketches of some of the artifacts in their daily life and describe why these artifacts were important to them. Once all students completed these questionnaires, they worked together to arrange them on a wall in a way that represented their social hierarchy.
The activity took three days. Students collaborated, used technology to research their person’s life, and even used a bit of color for their sketches. In the end, they understood a lot more about ancient Greek culture and about how culture influences who we are.
And they did it all without a single strip of gluey newspaper. ♦