What’s so special about extra-curricular activities?

remixed from the original CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user US Mission Canada

If you’re a reader who is unfamiliar with the current labour strife between public school teachers and the Ontario provincial government, click here for a great breakdown from People for Education.

I appeared alongside Zoe Branigan-Pipe, Stephen Hurley, Earl Manners, Misha Abarbanel, and George Thomas on TVO’s The Agenda last night to talk about “The Role of the Teacher” (aka Are Teachers Gonna Start Extra Curriculars in Ontario Again Or What?). It was an honour to be a part of and I enjoyed myself. But there’s one thing I wish we had discussed in greater depth.

Why has the loss of extra-curricular activities left this supposed chasm in our schools? Why do so many students, educators, parents, and other stakeholders see the loss of ECs as a reason to cry foul with deep, passionate tones?

Correct me if I am wrong, but ECs seem to be beloved for the following reasons:

  • Students and teachers can pursue personal passions.
  • They tend to be growth-oriented.
  • They are often project-based.
  • Collaboration is valued highly.
  • Losses and failure are celebrated as learning opportunities.
  • There are often concrete goals to pursue.
  • They tend to include mixed age/grade groups.
  • There is much more movement, less sedentary work.
  • Paper-pen tasks are rarely seen.
  • There is very little rote memorization.
  • The process is seen as more important than the destination.
  • There are no standardized, high stakes evaluations.
  • No one gets graded.
  • Assessment is feedback and improvement based.
  • The development of mastery is understood to be a long process.
  • Students and teachers have autonomy for the direction of the activity.

So is this a conversation about our beloved ECs or a discussion about what’s missing from learning in curriculum proper?



  1. I couldn’t agree more. I watched the first half of the show last night and when you said I had an instant – YES! *fist pump* reaction.

    I think it’s what’s missing in our curriculum proper. It’s also about how said curriculum is often delivered and tested.

    Thank you for raising this point on The Agenda. I wish the audience were MUCH larger than it is. I updated my status on Facebook with the link and your comment last night and will tweet this now to parenting communities in the hopes that the discussion will include more parents and not only teachers.

  2. I am a student in the Dalewood gifted program. I completely agree with what you said. The school system is messed up and needs to fixed NOW! I grew up thinking school was unavoidable, boring review with rare highlights like dodgeball in gym or field trips. Now that I know that you can do it a different way, I think that everyone should be able to do it this way. It started with a conversation with Miss Pipe at lunch. Miss Pipe asked me how it was fair that I got to stay in at recess. I responded “I don’t. I don’t mean I should go out, I mean everyone else should be able to stay in if they want.” I repeat: the school system is messed up and needs to fixed NOW! We (the current schoolkids) are the generation who care about fixing this. We are the generation who knows how. We NEED TO CHANGE THIS, AND WE NEED TO NOW! (I wish you could make NOW bold here) For the last time, the school system needs to be fixed! I think that kids should be able to learn at their own rate, their own way, and I would bet almost anything that 90% of kids agree with me. Fix this NOW!!!!

  3. Thanks for saying what you did last night Royan, I think you touched on a HUGE point, and it was completely missed by those that sat with you. It’s become about will they/won’t they, but your point was one that I’ve started to have dawn on me recently. Why is this ‘extra’? If sports/clubs/bands/trips/fun etc…. is so important, that we are fighting so hard over it, why aren’t those things ‘curricular’? It seems to me that the system now is realizing that a shake up is needed, not just to reflect the realities of learning in 2013, but to reflect the values that we as society place on various things. If we deem ‘extra’ curricular, as (or more in some cases) valuable than ‘regular’ curriculum, maybe the concept of curriculum is in need of an overhaul. Why do we force kids to spend 6 hours in a room learning the ‘important’ stuff, and then use the things that they really want to do as a ‘carrot’ as was said last night. If it’s important, lets focus on it. And I’m not talking about teachers doing EC’s, or getting merit pay or anything like that for ‘extra’. I’m talking about a complete overhaul of the system so that it reflects what we are placing value on as a society.

  4. Royan, I absolutely LOVE this blog post of yours! I’m not even speaking in terms of the politics here, but it’s your list at the end that I’ve re-read numerous times now and gives me so much to contemplate. I never saw things this way before, and yet, what you’re saying here makes so much sense. Extracurriculars could really not be “extra” at all. How do we make a change like this one though (and on a provincial level)? This is what has my head spinning tonight …


  5. Thanks, as ever, Royan – I must say that a friend in the staff room today said “you know that guy? Wow” ( I think my status went up right there). I love the list, and, as someone who’s not teaching instrumental music this year, because we don’t have the staffing, I can totally relate to the idea of making these “extras” part of what we do. I keep thinking that when/if we go back to extracurrics, I’d like to run a coding/programming group,and then I think, wait a minute, why isn’t somebody teaching that?

    Anyway, thanks for trying to take the discussion to another level last night. It was appreciated.

  6. Thanks Royan…for thinking out of the box! It’s important that we start asking questions….it also sounds like you’ve been thinking a lot about this. I was proud of you and the teachers on TVO and representing our voice….thank you.

  7. What a strange show that was. A former OSSTF president attacking teachers for defending themselves. I think Manners was there just to kick off a political campaign as a liberal MPP. I’m glad you derailed his nonsense. TVO Agenda producers should give their heads a shake on that choice.

    I found the choice of some of the other teachers there odd too. They either couldn’t get to a point or were too busy martyring themselves at the alter of extra curriculars “for the kids!”

    That martyr mentality is far too common in teaching. This is a profession, not some magical calling from the great beyond. If we begin to see it as a profession, we can become better at it. If we see it as a magical calling from on high then teachers are little more than passionate evangelists. As a parent, this isn’t what I want a teacher to be to my child. Passion is great, but if that’s all you’re bringing to the party, you’re not a very good teacher, no matter how many extracurriculars you do that save me on daycare. This one sided thinking demeans and decomplexifies professional development; it’s magical thinking, and there was a lot of it on that show! It also takes away from the classroom (as Zoe was trying to say in the show – before someone else said that was nonsense).

    Your question (which promptly got lost because you’re asking a question so outside their frame of thinking that they couldn’t even envision it) is the actual issue. If students have to go to sports and clubs to find the list of learning enhancements you gave above, then what the hell are we doing in the classroom?

    Extracurriculars have grown up around a stagnating classroom like barnacles on a rusty ship. Royan is all, “hey, this ship sucks, let’s fix it up!” The general response was, “barnacles are what it’s all about. Barnacles are awesome!”

    1. Timothy, I enjoyed reading your comment so much. I love the way you speak so honestly and intelligently. The ship-barnacles metaphor is perfect.

      1. Thanks Royan. Alanna and I were sitting here chirping at the TV through the whole thing. Those barnacles aren’t just ECs, they are also things like standardized testing. Good standardized test scores should be a byproduct of excellent learning, not the focus of it. Every time we do a class on EQAO preparation we’re putting more barnacles on the rusty ship, and those barnacles are many: removing PD, ignoring qualifications, protecting bad teachers at all costs, making pointless teacher reviews, failing to develop educational technology, weak administration requirements (resulting in school leaders who are doing it because no no else signed up) … the list goes on.

        On a completely different note, I think I’d add competition to your list above. Give students a chance to compete in class and they love it. I suspect many join sports simply for the opportunity to compete. I know competition has become a dirty word in curriculum, but it’s a natural piece of human being, and we ignore it at our own peril – especially when we send students who have been ‘protected’ from competition in school out into the world of work.

        If we framed competition around something other than winners getting marks and losers not getting marks, we wouldn’t have to ignore this important learning. I’m a competitive sports guy, I hate losing, but if I look at what I learned as opposed to what the score was, some of the most memorable games I’ve ever played were loses (on the scoreboard). Competition puts your feet in the fire, makes you prove what you know… an invaluable piece of the education puzzle.

        Thanks for all the brainfood on a Saturday morning!

      2. Competition that is meaningful and team based is mostly supported in research as incredibly positive, I think.

  8. Mr Lee,

    I think the loss of extra circular activities has left such a bit hole in the hearts of student because we enjoy them more than anything in school. The musical, the orchestra, sports teams, all let us express passions that are not otherwise expressed through regular school activities. It just seems as though one of the few things that students love about school is being taken away from and every student thinks alike. It’s not fair. Everyone has their own opinion, some think EC’s are not good for the development of students, some think they are. But for the students, we all think the same. We all have passions, we all have things we love. And one of the only thing that keeps us from being perceived as the same person, is what we love, Most of the things we love can be extremely well expressed through extra cirruculwr activities. And it saddens every single student when they remember they won’t be able to participate in the school musical, or try out for the track team. Those are he many reason EC’s are so important to students.

    Your Student,
    Hayden Godfrey

    1. Thanks so much for the comment, Hayden! I agree with you that they are missed terribly. Hopefully we can get them back soon.

  9. One more thing to add to the list … Co-curricular. Our system is rarely set up, or even envisioned, to include multiple disciplines. Extra-curriculars are the place where all those subjects come together. Maybe part of our new redesign could be to take away the math department and the business department, but include a course called “fundraising”.

      1. Me too! Me too! One of my best learning opportunities ever was a Grade 13 (yes, I’m old) course called Integrated Studies. I was taught by a couple of guys who had gone out on a limb and decided to teach a course that looked at Canada through the lenses of geography, history, literacy, religion, political studies, stats, media lit, music, culinary studies, etc. I loved every living, breathing minute of it. Our final task was totally up to us, led by our passions, I wrote a 10 poem cycle on Ontario, incorporating many of the perspectives we’d learned about.

        I carry the memory of that class with me, all the time, and try to emulate it in the way I teach. Thanks for helping me acknowledge that debt.

  10. Thanks to your tweet I was able to PVR the episode and got around to watching later that night. I appreciate the comments you made and I like the angle you were coming from and wonderfully expanded on in your blog post. It is a shame how some of the discussion goes on that show and how some of the questions are either loaded or leading and I think you did a great job of ensuring your points were made. (In fact, most of the teachers did an amazing job of not falling into the traps that the host was offering–which I understand he does in order to take the stance or view of “the public” or “a parent”.) Thanks for representing our profession wonderfully and more importantly, I think you speak and represent your students first and foremost. I LOVE the quote you lead with on this post!

    1. Thanks so much for your support and kind words. I was super nervous going into the panel discussion because I wanted to represent not only myself, but my school, staff, and colleagues respectfully. I’m so glad it came across that way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s