Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The "Crayola Curriculum" continues....

For some years now I have been uncomfortable with the sheer volume of photocopies (worksheets) being used in classrooms. It is very fashionable to want to reduce paper use for ecological reasons – but to be honest, this is not the cause of my concern (albeit that these concerns are valid ones). My concern is that much of the work contained on the majority of photocopied worksheets are low quality or worse – “busy work”. I define “busy work” as work that may well be engaging but does not align to the stated aims of the lesson.

Reading Ben Johnson’s blog at Edutopia recently the issue resurfaced. (Paper and Pencil Curriculum: How much do you rely on it?” Ben is approaching the issue from a slightly different perspective from my concerns but his blog contains a link to Mike Schmoker’s article on the “Crayola-Curriculm”. The link is well worth following in its own right as it makes some worthy points. Mike Schmoker uses the term “Crayola Curriculum” to describe what he has observed in many many school visits – the practice of getting children to “colour in” pictures – ostensibly as a part of the literacy program. Mike makes the point that, to a disturbing degree, often this activity does not relate to the objectives of the lesson.

In his article Schmoker states that school administrators were often not aware of the extent of the issue but that, once they were made aware of it, it was a simple matter for staff to ensure that their classes reflected the stated aim of the lesson and that there was less colouring , cutting, pasting and so forth. This may seem trivial – but by replacing such dubious activities (presumably only when they were not valid extensions of the lesson) some schools achieved a 25 point improvement in (SAT) literacy results in only two years. For maths the improvement was even more striking – up to a 40 point improvement in SAT scores. (The debate as to whether SAT scores are valid ways of assessing student performance will not be entered into here – we only have so much time in one life.) While Schmoker’s original article does not give significant details as to the changes made to programs the general thrust is clear – by aligning the actual work in the classrooms with the official objectives (i.e. no “busy work” and more focussed instruction) classroom teachers achieved a statistically significant improvement in measurable performance. Only a statistician would call the improvements “statistically significant”. The rest of us would call them “fantastic”.

Schmoker’s article is now somewhat dated – despite still resonating strongly. In an effort to determine if “busy work” was still as rife as I suspected I did some research. I wanted to discover what was the “average” amount of photocopying done in schools. It was surprising difficult to find a satisfactory answer. Eventually, after more coffee than was good for me and some increasing bizarre Google searches, I came up with a figure. The educational support office at Beaverton School District, (which, according to Google, is in Washington County, Oregon, USA) has some helpful advice to schools wishing to purchase photocopy machines.  The numbers it cites are based on actual observed usage rates in previous years. They suggest that elementary students would require an average of 120 copies per month, middle school students 130 and high school students 140 a month. Remember, these figures are based on actual previous consumptions in schools. Converting the numbers to a daily figure it would indicate that elementary students in Beaverton are issued, on average, six photocopies a day. Every day.

For the sake of argument let us assume that the Beaverton figures are representative of schools in general. If we assume a school year of 180 days then the “average” annual photocopy consumption per student is 1080. This is slightly more than two reams of paper each. If we keep that figure standard then we arrive at a figure of 10 800 photocopies in ten years – and that is ignoring the increase in photocopies in the older grades. Remember, this is photocopy usage, not total paper use.

Are we to believe that all of these photocopies are genuinely instructive? If we believe that learning is a social activity and that schools should follow constructionist techniques then the use of large numbers of photocopies seems difficult to reconcile with effective pedagogy. It seems incomprehensible that these huge volumes of photocopying can be educationally valid. Perhaps, as Mike Schmoler suggested, we should be paying a lot more attention to controlling the “Crayola Curriculum” and ensure that we align our practice with the official curriculum.

The “Crayola Curriculum” is not a pretty picture – no matter how pretty the colouring.

This blog was prompted by Ben Johnson’s blog at Edutopia – “Paper and Pencil Curriculum: How Much do you Rely on it?” http://www.edutopia.org/blog/paperless-schools-techology-ben-johnson?page=1#comment-90537

Mike Schmoker’s article can be found here.

The link to the Beaverton School District photocopy advice can be found here.
http://www.beaverton.k12.or.us/home/departments/business-services/purchasing/copiers/requirements/ )

Image of crayons: creative commons http://flickr.com/photos/laffy4k/404319562/


  1. There's a book, "Worksheets don't grow dendrites" that explores the idea of worksheets being busy work and they dont help the brain develop or learn anything.

  2. Thanks for the response Alfie.
    I’ve heard of the book – but not read it. I’m currently conducting a “thought experiment” trying to visualise a “photocopy free” classroom. What might it look like? Would teachers retreat to “chalk and talk” methods ... or would they utilise more constructionist approaches? Does the ease of using worksheets disguise the fact that much of the tasks are “busy work”? Classrooms with high photocopy usage are the equivalent of children having a steady diet of fast food – rather than home cooked. I’m thinking that removing photocopies from classrooms might encourage more effective teaching.

  3. I read this because I love my Crayolas--they add color to important project work--work that demonstrates our learning and teaches others what we learn. But, I do agree that classroom work should be focused work that's meaningful and rich--sometimes that will be a well developed worksheet, sometimes a writing assignment, other times a multimedia composition. There are many avenues to success when it comes to learning; choosing the best paths is the essential effort.

  4. i Maureen,
    The point of the piece was not really to attack Crayola or any art activity - but to recognise such activities for what they are. If you want to do art activities then do art activities - they don't need to be justified as they are important in their own right. Likewise music and any of "the arts". The point of the piece was twofold; to highlight the fact that sometimes activities undertaken do not match the official intent of the lesson, and that "busy work" may be enjoyable...but not necessarily educational. As you correctly note, classroom work should have the focus on the intent - and the activities undertaken need to be in alignment with that goal. Any activity that does not match the intent needs to be questioned.

    Thanks for your response.

  5. There is a concept called the flipped classroom where the student does their homework in class and watches the teachers lecture at home via online videos or instructional courseware. The goal is to allow the teacher to focus on the students needs in class. It would seem that this model might eliminate some of the busy work mentioned in your article. The flipped classroom model requires some form of online learning tool for the student.

  6. I see some merit in the notion of the flipped classroom. I wrote a brief post about it a while ago – you can access it here.
    My guess is that, like most instructional techniques, the devil is in the detail – that is, many factors would determine if the technique is successful or not. However, if the teacher has prepared a well constructed and well presented lesson that then requires genuine activity on an authentic task then yes, I see that “Flipping” may well have a role to play in improving classroom instruction. For me a major flaw with worksheets is that they are “one size fits all” regardless of individual student needs, readiness, and understanding – and that is assuming that the worksheet itself was actually of high quality in the first place.
    Thanks for your response.