Busywork vs Productive Work: How We Waste Brilliant Minds with Monotony
Busywork worksheets are becoming a regular part of school life for many children. While this type of schoolwork is beneficial for teachers because it keeps children occupied, is there any evidence busywork is beneficial for your child? We need to ask if we are wasting student potential and burning their love of learning by keeping their minds occupied at a base level, ticking over with unnecessary work. To help students reach their potential, we need to eliminate as much busywork as we can and replace it with productive work.
In this article, we’ll check out these topics as well as looking at:
- busywork examples
- busywork vs productive work and
- why homeschooling reduces busywork and increases productive work.
Let’s get started by considering the below quote.
What is Busywork?
Busywork is an activity that is done in schools or workplaces that are given to students or workers to pass the time but have no intrinsic value. Essentially, busywork is a waste of time.
Merriam-Webster defined it like this:
‘work that usually appears productive or of intrinsic value but actually only keeps one occupied.’
The Urban Dictionary was even more damning in their assessment and put it like this:
‘class or home work teachers tend to give that usually have no learning benefit or provide more than necessary exercises to learn the material. this work is usually distributed when the teacher is lazy or needs to do something and needs to preoccupy the class for the day. busy work is especially common in cases of substitute teachers.’
In both cases of the busywork definition given, the explanation of busywork isn’t favorable and suggests that, while it may be helpful for the teacher or boss giving out the work, it is of no value to the student.
Why is Busywork Given to Students?
Busywork is given to students because teachers need to occupy students for a set amount of time. In the case of many substitute teachers, this could involve giving them busywork for a whole day (or more) while the regular teacher is away.
Because teachers don’t always have adequate teacher to student ratios, they must divide their time between students leaving many twiddling their thumbs for long periods of time. As a result, boredom would result and students might become restless. Therefore, students are given busywork to occupy their minds so they will be engaged. However, this engagement is often only on a low level and doesn’t usually involve much educative material or quality material to challenge student thinking.
What are we talking about when we refer to busywork? Here are some examples:
- giving students more schoolwork problems than they need to get the concept
- making them do more tasks than they often need to (i.e. clean their desks or other parts of the classroom)
- occupying students with ‘educational video games’ more often than they need to
- giving students more homework than they need to grasp a concept
- giving students excess chores like sweeping the classroom or moving a roomful of material from one class to another
- memorizing unnecessary scripts or texts
- quiet activities after testing
- worksheets that are given to detention students
Essentially, busywork is anything that rehashes information unnecessarily that students did not need to revisit. It is unnecessary work that keeps students occupied.
Busywork vs Productive Work
You can definitely be busy without being productive. When you compare student busywork with productive work, you see major differences. In particular, busywork:
- is mind-numbing, while productive work engages your brain
- can be stopped at any time without making you feel like you’ve missed a major concept; productive work will make you yearn to finish learning about the concept – or at least you’ll understand why you’re learning it
- may contribute towards killing your love of learning, while productive work makes you keen to learn more
- is often easy, while productive work stretches your mind
- makes you wonder why you bother, while productive work makes you satisfied
Busywork outside of school can also consist of checking emails constantly and doing other work that isn’t on your goal list. Thomas Edison had this to say about busywork compared to productive work:
Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.
We must question whether we are benefitting students when we fail to give them meaningful work to do.
Why Busywork is so Detrimental
The best education a child can get is through interest-based learning. Interest-based learning engages children and gets them asking questions about a topic they’re interested in. The reason busywork is so detrimental is that it has no regard for students interests. Usually, it is a busywork PDF a teacher has printed off the internet and copied 30 times to fill in a gap at the end of her sleepy 2 pm class.
The other reason busywork is so disastrous to student learning is that it kills a student’s love of learning. If you teach your students that schoolwork is learning and education, giving them printed busywork PDFs with content they’ve already learned is going to turn them off learning even more!
A day merely survived is no cause for celebration. You are not here to fritter away your precious hours when you have the ability to accomplish so much by making a slight change in your routine. No more busy work. No more hiding from success. Leave time, leave space, to grow. Now. Now! Not tomorrow! – Og Mandino
Why Homeschooling Reduces Busywork
Parents don’t need to give students busywork to pass the time as students can do numerous projects around the house using their spare time. Whereas in school, students are required to spend the full 6 or 7 hours on the school grounds (usually in the classroom), homeschoolers can complete mandatory work and then work on projects they love wherever they desire.
Often homeschoolers only spend around two hours on formal homework a day. They spend less if they’re younger, and more if they’re older. As such, they have more time to look at subjects that interest them. Because interest in education helps information retention, children usually learn a lot more in self-directed study or play than they do when given a worksheet.
Busywork Present in Some Homeschooling Curricula
There’s definitely a lot of busywork present in many homeschooling curricula out there. This was particularly the case when I looked at homeschooling curriculum reviews for the Abeka and BJU course. With many homeschooling curricula like Abeka, BJU or Switched-on-Schoolhouse, parents can skip the busywork, or (as a few moms reported doing) buy alternate years if they find there is too much busywork in the course!
For this reason, many parents prefer to plan their own homeschooling curriculum and go with a more eclectic homeschooling method. However, some parents love the predictability of a traditional curriculum like Acellus or Switched-on-Schoolhouse and find the thought of homeschooling without a strict plan terrifying.
For this reason, I recommend traditional homeschooling curriculum packages for new homeschooling families. They offer predictability, although there may be a small amount of busywork in them. After parents are comfortable with their homeschool, I’ll always encourage them to look into Charlotte Mason or Classical homeschooling, as I think these two methods add so much to the educational lifestyle we want to encourage in a Christian homeschool.
How Homeschools Can Focus on Brilliance More
In a homeschool, parents can focus on their children’s brilliance by observing their likes and dislikes. When parents learn children love a particular subject, they can focus more on that. Similarly, if they don’t like another subject, they can just focus on basic information.
The great thing about homeschooling here is that you can also incorporate ‘hated’ subjects into loved subjects and make them more palatable. For instance, if your child hates mathematics, but loves nature study, you can incorporate mathematical concepts into your nature walk. For example, you can ask them to count the number of stones on the ground or, if they’re older, measure the angle of the sun from the earth.
The Charlotte Mason education method is big on incorporating education into everyday life. Furthermore, Mason was also big on the use of ‘living books’ to make subjects much more palatable than they are usually when students are in school. You can read more about living books here.