Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Extra-Curricular: More Than Just Good Entertainment!

Each Sunday evening Iowa educators have an opportunity to participate in a live discussion about an educational topic on Twitter called #IAEdChat. I usually check in a few times to see what the topic of the evening is but don't consider myself an avid participant. I'm more of a casual observer from the corner, and will occasionally opine with a comment or two. This past week was no different, and honestly I was more interested in seeing the Vikings beat the Packers than participate. However the topic was the value of extra-curricular programs so I thought I might share a few thoughts here today.

Usually when we talk about extra-curricular activities we immediately think about our athletic programs. There is no doubt they get the most attention and tend to draw the largest groups of students. This year it is especially true in light of the success our athletic teams are having! But to draw a line directly (and only) to athletic programs would mean missing a whole host of other programming options we have for our young people.

Middle school students participating in Lego League, an
extra-curricular activity designed to introduce students to
robotics and engineering. 
Extra curricular programs are those not connected to a content area or have a connection to classroom activities. Participation in these activities is dependent on academic eligibility and being a student in good standing. Co-curricular programs on the other hand are directly tied to a classroom activity and participation in these activities is usually tied in some way to an academic grade. Because of the fact participation is grade dependent, academic eligibility is generally not a factor. The commonality between both is that they typically occur outside the confines of the regular school day. Mechanically the difference is important, but for the purpose of this discussion we will pay it little attention, because what I would like to focus on is student engagement in school.

The idea of programming extra curricular activities for students outside the school day has long been woven into the fabric of the American school system. The fact is this is a uniquely American educational experience. European and Asian countries don't typically have extra curricular activities in schools. If students want to learn to play a musical instrument or play a sport, those events are reserved for time outside of school. It is interesting and somewhat ironic then, as American schools try to conform to other schools around the world (i.e. Finland or China), some of these same systems are trying to emulate what we are doing in our schools. Don't take my word for it, this has been well documented by the educational researcher Dr. Young Zhao @YongZhaoEd (who went through the Chinese education system) who suggests in his book, 'Catching Up or Leading the Way' that we may, quite frankly, have had this right all along.

But, why? Although the entertainment value at a concert on Thursday night or volleyball match on Tuesday night would make a great argument, this is more of a secondary or even tertiary benefit. The same can be said about community pride: great secondary or tertiary benefits but not the primary benefits for school sponsored extra-curricular activities.

We do know that there is a great deal that we can teach our students through our extra-curricular programs that cannot be replicated in a classroom. We can run simulations or experiments in a classroom, but the observations gained here are far inferior to the wisdom and understanding that can be gained from actually doing it. Sure, one can talk about problem solving and teamwork. But it is not the same as actually being on the team!

Perhaps the primary reason for extra-curricular activities in school is about forming a connection and bond between the student and school. There are reams of scholarly research that suggest students who feel a connection to their school do better academically, have a larger social network, and are less likely to drop out. So therein lies at least part of the solution to a vexing problem in schools. The more we can encourage youngsters to participate in activities, the more likely they are to have school success. They learn about being on a team, a member of an organization, or an integral part of the band. They begin to develop pride in themselves, the team, and the school. A connection is developed and a bond is formed.

As our students are all different and have different interests, so must our extra and co-curricular program. After all, we can only have one quarterback on the football team, and we can only have one lead in the musical. For these reasons we try to diversify our programming and provide enough unique experiences, or menu of options to meet the needs and interests of our entire student body. So yes, we have a football team, a band, and basketball. But we also have a student council, a show choir, robotics, and model UN! This is part of the American educational experience and what forms a comprehensive and rich school experience. It is also part of what makes it 'Great to be a Pirate!'

No comments:

Post a Comment