Aesop's Activities:

Effective Teaching Strategies

for Goal-Directed Education

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D

        Aesop's Fables are designed to achieve an educational goal, to teach lessons about life.  By analogy, goal-directed Aesop's Activities can help students learn ideas and skills that will be useful in life.

        A Plan for Designing Effective Goal-Directed Education
        For a goal-directed coordination of instructional activities and teaching methods, we can:
        • define goals for the desired results of education, for the ideas and skills we want students to learn, and they are motivated to learn,
        • design a curriculum with thinking activities and teaching methods that will provide opportunities for experience with these ideas & skills, and help students learn more from their experiences.    {resources for Educational Design}

Modes of Thinking-and-Action:  The actions above (defining goals, designing activities & methods) are not labeled "1 and 2a & 2b" because they are not chronological steps.  Instead, they are modes of thinking-and-action in a process of educational design with flexible improvising that is guided by functional principles and strategies.  The modes of designing often overlap in time, and can be "reversed" when, for example, goals inspire activities and activities inspire goals, as explained below in Reversible Inspirations.    {more about modes}

Details are important.  These ideas (about goals, ideas & skills, thinking activities, teaching methods, educationally functional experiences,...) are not original — they are common strategies for teachers — so if they are to offer any practical benefits for improving education, the basic outline must be supplemented with details for "how to do it."  As a beginning, the rest of this page examines practical development-and-application details:   Define Goals for Personally Useful Education    Design Activities-and-Methods to Achieve Educational Goals    Effective Coordination of Goals and Activities (by using Integrative Analysis of Instruction)    Evaluation Activities – Why, What, and How?    The Process of Educational Design – Modes, Constraints, and Strategies    references

        • Define Goals so we're aiming for Personally Useful Education
        What ideas and skills do we want students to learn?  This question is important because effective design of instruction should be guided by worthy goals that, if achieved, will justify the time invested by students and teachers.
        Educational Teamwork:  goal-directed teaching is more effective when students are motivated by their own desires for goal-directed learning, and educational goals are "the ideas-and-skills we want students to learn, and they are motivated to learn."  When we-and-they agree, so teachers and students are sharing similar goals, education becomes a teamwork effort with an "us" feeling, and students are motivated to learn.
        When a curriculum is guided by worthy goals that are highly valued by students, who are motivated by a forward-looking expectation that what they are learning now will be personally useful in their future, their school experience is transformed from a shallow game (with grades being the only goals) into an exciting quest for knowledge in which the ultimate goal is a better life.  If students are motivated to learn so they can improve their own lives, they will adopt a strategy of intentional learning — by working diligently and enthusiastically, investing extra mental effort beyond what is required just to complete a task, with the intention of achieving personal goals for learning — that is a problem-solving approach to personal education if problem solving is defined as "converting an actual current state [of knowledge] into a desired future state [of improved knowledge]."

        The reasons for motivation can be intrinsic (to enjoy an interesting activity), personal (to learn ideas-and-skills that will improve their quality of life, now or later), interpersonal (to impress fellow students or a teacher), or external (to perform well on an assignment or exam).
        Students will be motivated to learn when they think that a school activity is fun now, or that what they're learning will be useful later.
        Motivation of students is easier when instructional activities “connect” with students' ideas about what is fun or useful, so teachers should design instruction based on an accurate understanding of what students want now and also what will help them in the long run.  But teachers can also work on another aspect of achieving a better match between the goals of teachers and students;  teachers can persuade students to modify their goals, by showing them why they should want to learn what is being taught, encouraging them to wisely ask, "What can I learn now that will help me in the future?"  Hopefully, we can help students discover that learning/thinking is fun and useful, so they will want to do it more often and more skillfully!    {more about Motives and Strategies for Personal Education}

According to a prominent educator, David Perkins (bio & educational theory), "people learn much of what they have a reasonable opportunity and motivation to learn."  The focus above is motivation, and below it's opportunity.

        • Design Activities-and-Methods that lead to Achieving Educational Goals
        In goal-directed education, thinking activities and teaching methods are designed to help students achieve educational goals.

I.O.U. — Section 2A will be revised eventually, but I don't know when.

        Instructional Activities:  Design Thinking Activities to provide opportunities for Educational Experiences
        During an instructional activity that promotes thinking and is thus a thinking activity, students can think and do, listen and talk, read and write.  If activities are well designed, students will be gaining educationally useful experience with the ideas (concepts and their relationships) and skills (being eagerly willing and skillfully able to think, evaluate/decide, and do) that are your educational goals.
        How can we design activities (with the goal of helping students learn ideas & skills) that are enjoyable and educationally productive?  For a creative teacher the possibilities are numerous and the range is wide.  During an activity, students can:  engage in lively discussions or debates, read a book or listen to a lecture;  search the library or internet to discover what others have learned about a topic;  study history or current events;  learn about different perspectives on issues involving science, technology, and society;  analyze a situation that is complex due to conflicting goal-criteria and complex causal factors;  learn and apply new ideas and skills, including strategies for problem solving;  solve problems (ranging in difficulty from simple to complex, solvable by known methods or requiring improvisational creativity), do case studies, play "detective" games, formulate a question or problem;  design and do an experiment, or do an experiment by converting instructions (written or verbal) into action;  make observations and collect data (with only the senses or using measuring instruments);  analyze data (that they collect, or that is supplied for them) by searching for patterns and working with statistics, make a graph (by hand or using a computer) and use it for visual/mathematical data analysis;  use scientific logic (to analyze and evaluate existing theories or invent new theories, to analyze and evaluate an existing experiment or design a new experiment), examine the content and style of scientific writing in a journal paper, or...
        A comprehensive set of goals, in 30 areas including 4 Life Skills, is the Education Standards that can be used for Standards-Based Accountability in Education.
        And I've written two pages about goal-directed lab education, Teaching Scientific Methods in Labs (with general principles) and Scientific Thinking Skills in Labs (with examples from chemistry labs at UW-Madison).

        A useful analytical tool for teachers — a visually organized method for exploring and improving the structure of instruction, for creatively coordinating activities and experiences — is below, in Analyzing the Structure of Instruction.  First, however, let's look at a valuable type of educational activity.

I.O.U. — Section 2B also will be revised eventually, but I don't know when.

        Teaching Methods:  Design Reflection Activities to help students Learn from Their Experiences
        A goal-directed approach to education has two main components: instructional activities that promote educationally useful experience (as described above), and (in this section) teaching methods that help students learn more from their experience, and remember what they have learned, and transfer this knowledge to new situations.  In an effort to do this, one effective teaching strategy is to direct students' attention to "what can be learned" from an experience in a reflection request that encourages students to think about what they are doing and why, about the possibilities for learning, and why they should want to take advantage of this valuable opportunity.
        A thinking activity can be implicit or explicit, and both can effectively promote learning.  According to Webster's Dictionary, reflection is "a fixing of the mind on some subject; serious thought; contemplation," and a request for reflection converts a thinking activity from implicit to explicit.  An implicit thinking activity is an intrinsic part of an overall activity;  students will automatically think because it's necessary, it's required while doing the activity.  In an explicit thinking activity a teacher directs attention to what can be learned, by a simple reminder or by a request for action such as discussing a question verbally or writing about it in a report.  Either way, it can shift a student from a minimally aware "going through the motions" mode to a more aware "active thinking" mode.  /  Of course, reflection can occur without a reminder from a teacher, whenever a student is thinking about an activity or what can be learned from it, in a metacognitive frame of mind.  And learning can occur even when a student is not aware of what is happening.  But a reflection request will often increase learning by students.
        the timing of reflection:  A teacher can initiate reflective mental-activity before a physical-activity, during it, or after it.  One practical application of goal-directed thinking activities is Teaching Scientific Method in Science Labs.  Closely related to Scientific Method is Design Method, which can be used as an educational tool that helps teachers integrate a wide variety of thinking activities;  these possibilities are explored in An Introduction to Design and Designing a "Thinking Skills" Education.

        •• Designing an Effective Coordination between Activities and Goals
        The page-summary outlines a simple plan for effective education:  define goals (for ideas-and-skills) and develop activities to teach these ideas-and-skills.  Well-designed instructional activities promote educationally useful experiences that help students achieve educational goals.
        A skillful coordination of activities will increase their mutally supportive synergism, thus improving their overall effectiveness.  Some activities will help students prepare for others, and the ideas-and-skills learned in early activities will be reinforced by later experiences, and so on.
       Because a coordinating of activities will be more effective if the structure of instruction is understood more accurately and thoroughly, one useful tool is...

        Integrative Analysis of Instruction — A Strategy for Understanding the Structure of Instruction
        When students do activities, they gain experience.  Opportunities for educational experience — for experience that is educationally useful because it's useful for achieving educational goals — can be analyzed using an activities-and-goals table, as shown below, with student ACTIVITIES in the top row and GOALS in the left column.  If an activity promotes educationally functional experiences that will help students improve the ideas-and-skills defined for a goal, there is a "yes" in the table-cell for this combination of activity-and-goal.
        Of course, a "yes" does not tell the whole story.  A table with larger cells could show more details, such as the differences between a student's experience with Goal 1 in Activities A, B, D, E, G, and H.
        This table clearly shows multi-experience activities (scanning vertically down the second column, we see that Activity B produces experiences that can help students achieve Goals 1, 2, and 5) and repeated experiences (scanning horizontally, we see that educationally functional experience for Goal 2 occurs in Activities A, B, D, E, F, G, and H).  A table may reveal experience gaps that will guide the designing of new activities.  For example, an earlier version of this table might have motivated a teacher, who noticed that after Activities A-D the students have no experience that will help them achieve Goal 3, to design this experience into later activities, In E, F, H, and I.
        What about students' knowledge from previous experiences, before Activity A?  These can also be considered, especially if there are reasons to expect that all students (or most) share these experiences, as when they occurred earlier in the same course or in a prerequisite course.  But for other experiences, such as those of first-year college students with diverse K-12 backgrounds, the assumption of shared experiences becomes less reliable.

  Thinking Activities that promote Student Experiences
 Educational Goals 
A B C D E F G H I    exams 
 Goal 1 
yes yes    yes   yes     yes  yes      yes 
Goal 2
 yes   yes   yes  yes yes yes yes yes     yes
Goal 3
         yes  yes      yes   yes    yes
Goal 4
    yes   yes yes   yes yes   yes
Goal 5
  yes yes yes yes     yes yes    

        How long is an activity?  This varies.  A mini-activity may be over in a few minutes, while a coherent mega-activity (composed of related mini-activities) can last several hours.  In the example above, Activities A-D might occur in the same class session, and (if we wanted) in the table all of these could be combined into one mega-activity (ABCD?) that would provide educationally functional experience for Goals 1, 2, 4, and 5.  Or a single activity might span several class sessions.  There is lots of flexibility in defining "activities" and "goals" so A-and-G tables can be made and used in any way you want.  Do whatever will help you understand and improve the structure of your instruction.
        There is also flexibility in the scope of coordination, which can range from a mini-lesson to a full day, week, month, or year, or longer.
        A common educational goal is to help students improve their mastery of ideas and skills.  To illustrate, imagine that "3" is the skill of theory evaluation, and that students begin with simple "one theory" evaluations in Activities E and H, then move on to complex "multiple theory" evaluations in Activities H and I.  To help students gradually increase their ability to do these evaluations, a teacher might "show them how" during Activity F, after letting them struggle with "discovery" for an easier problem in E;  in F, the students evaluate a theory but have lots of support (coaching by the teacher,...);  in H, some of this support is removed;  and in I, the students complete their move toward independence by doing an evaluation themselves, with no support.   /   Or maybe Goal 5 is to help students improve their skill in solving problems (of a certain type) that become more and more challenging, from B (easy) to I (difficult).  Or, helping students achieve Goal 4 might involve a building-up process leading to increasing levels of sophistication in understanding a difficult concept, beginning (in C) with a basic understanding, followed (in E-F and H-I) by applications requiring various types of creativity and/or critical thinking.
        The "exam activity" tests most of the educational goals (1 2 3 4) but not all (not 5).

        a confession:  In most teaching situations I don't MAKE this kind of table.  But I usually THINK in terms of "activities and experiences and their interactions" while planning instruction, because this provides a different perspective that can be very useful.  And for long-term planning — as in a series of labs during a semester, or a curriculum for K-12 or undergraduate education — I would certainly do this type of analysis, and would make the relevant tables.  Combining this with K-12 "science standards" could be a powerful combination.
        a summary of benefits: In a table, the visual organization of information can improve our understanding of the functional relationships between activities, between goals, and between activities and goals.  This knowledge about the structure of instruction can help us coordinate — with respect to types of experience, levels of sophistication, and contexts — the activities that help students achieve goals for learning.  The purpose of a carefully planned selection-and-sequencing of activities is to increase the mutually supportive synergism between activities, to build a coherent system for teaching all of the goals, to produce a more effective environment for learning.

        Evaluation Activities — Why, What, and How?
        In most parts of the world (North America, Europe, Asia,...) education involves assessments, with student performances being evaluated in the form of course grades, based on evaluation activities that typically include assignments and exams.  And sometimes (in Europe & Asia more than in the United States) the educational opportunities and professional options of students are determined by performance on high-stakes entrance exams.  Here are some thoughts about evaluation:
        Why?  1) motivation: A high score on an exam, or any other evaluation activity, is an extrinsic reward that will motivate students who want a good grade, although students also will study for other reasons: intrinsic, personal, and interpersonal.   2) experience: An evaluation activity is an opportunity to gain experience with ideas and skills, so it's just a special type of thinking activity.   3) guidance: If students are studying "for the exam" we can guide their studying by telling them what will be on the exam; in a well-designed course there is a close match between what is desired (the ideas-and-skills that are the educational goals) and what is evaluated.   4) feedback for learning: Students can continue their old strategies for learning with confidence (if they do well on an exam) or make appropriate changes (if they do poorly) in an effort to learn more effectively.   5) feedback for teaching: Similarly, strategies for teaching can be affected by feedback from exams when a teacher asks, "Are my instructional methods effective in helping students learn?"   6) evaluation of students: Most schools require grades for students, and most teacher assign grades based on the results of evaluation activities.
        What?  Usually it's easy to construct (and grade) an exam that tests lower-level knowledge, such as a student's ability to recall facts or solve familiar problems by applying a known method.  It's much more difficult to construct and grade exams (*) that accurately measure higher-level thinking skills, by observing how well a student responds to challenges like a novel problem requiring creative improvisation, or testing the quality of their thinking in a complex situation that measures their ability to make evaluations based on multiple goal-criteria that cannot all be maximized so trade-offs (with a weighing of relative advantages) are necessary, or where students analyze a situation in which conflicting causal factors are operating.  But if one of our goals is to help students learn higher-level thinking skills, then making exams that test these skills can be a worthwhile investment of time and effort that will be rewarded with improved education.   /   * It's difficult on a small scale for one semester in one class.  And the time-and-effort multiplies when multiple exams are necessary.  This occurs when a class will be repeated and a new exam must be constructed every semester (so a "novel problem" won't become a familiar problem), or for a sequence of classes taught by different teachers.  But the required time-per-student is typically higher for a small class.
        How?  Usually students work individually on an evaluation activity, but they can also work as a collaborative group;  with group testing, questions of fairness should be considered by asking whether some students have contributed more to the quality of a project than others, and how much "luck" is involved in assigning group grades.   A test can be in-class or take-home, written (with multiple-choice or short-answer questions, problem solving, essay writing,...), oral (by answering questions, asking questions, discussing issues, evaluating policies, solving problems,...), or physical (for example, by performing a laboratory procedure).  Or a teacher can observe the quality of work (in a lab) or the quantity and quality of expressed ideas (in a discussion), or have students do a long-term project, or...

        An effective exam should:  measure knowledge accurately (there should be a high correlation between a student's exam score and their level of understanding-and-skill);  measure appropriate knowledge (by testing ideas-and-skills that are the educational goals, and in a well designed course have been the focus of teaching and learning);  differentiate between levels of knowledge (by including tasks that vary in difficulty, with some that most students can do, some only a few can do, and some in between, thus avoiding a ceiling effect or floor effect where everyone does equally well or poorly).  Achieving these goals is not easy, but the potential rewards make it a challenge worth pursuing.

I.O.U. — Later, I will think more carefully about the three sections below, and will revise them.

The Process of Educational Design — Modes, Constraints, Strategies

        Interactions of Modes during Design of Instruction
        What kinds of interactions (between past, present, and future, and between educational goals, instuctional activities, and teaching methods) stimulate and guide the process of educational design?
        In this page, two earlier sections (Define Goals, Design Activities-and-Methods) describe modes of action, not sequential steps.  During the process of instructional design, there is interaction between modes.  Typically, design begins with a careful examination of the activities now being used in a classroom:  a goal-oriented analysis of these activities (in design mode) stimulates thinking about goals (goals mode), which inspires a revising or supplementing of the activities (design mode);  typically, most of the design-action is in design mode, but some of the most important action is in goals mode.
        Often, a logical extension of this analysis is reflection activities and evaluation activities.  To help students learn more from their experience, to help them convert potential learning into actual learning, we add thinking activities — both implicit and explicit — that encourage students to think about what they are doing (design mode) and what they can learn (goals mode) and why they may want to learn (motivation).  Evaluation activities provide useful feedback about whether the current instructional methods (evaluated in design mode) are effective in achieving the educational goals (defined in goals mode).

        Constraints on Design
        The following paragraph is from a section (The Challenge of Educational Design) in a page (Problem Solving in Education: Helping Students Learn How to Combine Creativity and Critical Thinking in Design and Science):
        For the design of education, challenges are posed by three practical constraints.  First, a curriculum and the accompanying instruction should be flexible so it can accommodate a wide range of learning styles and teaching styles.  Second, we should make it easy for teachers to teach well and to learn new methods quickly with a minimum of extra preparation time.  Third, if teachers feel obligated to cover a large amount of subject-area content, they may be reluctant to invest the classroom time required to teach thinking skills.

        Strategies for Design — Radical and Practical
        Educators should make decisions based on merit, not tradition, by examining every activity (old or new) and asking whether it performs a useful educational function.  But this radical attitude should be combined with a recognition that — when our objective is to achieve maximally beneficial results in a limited amount of time — instead of aiming for a fresh beginning (with a new set of goals, activities, and methods) it is often more practical and immediately productive to build on what already exists, to use the past for improving the future.


Sources of My Ideas
    Many ideas in this "Aesop's Activities" page will seem familiar, due to a general agreement among educators (and teachers, students, parents,...) about many goals and strategies for instruction, and because I have borrowed from and have been inspired by the work of others.  But you may also find some fresh perspectives that will contribute "added value" to the educational community.
    A few ideas are mainly my own.  For example, to focus attention on the principle that instruction should be goal-directed, with instructional activities done for a purpose, I constructed (Rusbult, 1989) the metaphor of Aesop's Activities based on analogy to Aesop's Fables.
    Some ideas — including goal-directed integrative analysis (developed for my PhD dissertation) and using the term "thinking activities" — seemed to be mine, since they were not based consciously on the work of others (although, like most people in our society, I've been influenced by a wide range of background ideas) but I'm sure these techniques & terms are widely known and used.  Some ideas are general common sense, although (as in the "activities and goals" analysis) I've provided a structure for them.
    And some ideas have been borrowed from other educators:  Bereiter & Scardamalia (1988) describe a principle of intentional learning;  Perkins & Salomon (1988) suggest that the application and transfer of knowledge can be analyzed along two dimensions (backward-reaching or forward-looking, and high road or low road);  and Perkins (1992) introduces a simple theory that "people learn much of what they have a reasonable opportunity and motivation to learn" and explains its implications for instruction.

    Craig Rusbult, 1989.  Physics: Tools for Problem Solving.
    Carl Bereiter & Marlene Scardamalia, 1989.  "Intentional Learning as a Goal of Instruction," in Knowing, Learning, and Instruction, edited by L. Resnick.  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, New Jersey.
    David Perkins & Gavriel Salomon, 1988.  "Teaching for Transfer," Educational Leadership 46, 22-32.
    David Perkins, 1992.  Smart Schools: From Training Memories to Educating Minds.  Free Press (Macmillan): New York.

This website for Whole-Person Education has TWO KINDS OF LINKS:
an ITALICIZED LINK keeps you inside a page, moving you to another part of it, and
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Here are some related pages:

Thinking Activities can be used to help students learn
scientific thinking skills in labs: principles and examples.

Principles of Educational Design to teach Thinking Skills:
Creativity and Critical Thinking, as these are used
in Scientific Method, Problem Solving, and Design

provides an overview of my ideas about education,
with tips for "what to do next" after reading
each of three introductory pages:

Motivations and Strategies for Learning
goal-directed personal motives for learning;  teamwork;
how a friend learned to weld, and how I didn't learn to ski

Aesop's Activities for Goal-Directed Education
a creative coordinating of goals and activities will
help students gain experience and learn from it

An Introduction to Design
how to design a product, strategy, or theory
(this includes almost everything we do in life!)

with ideas about theory & application from many authors,

This page is

Copyright © 2002 by Craig Rusbult, all rights reserved