Co-Curricular Activities Should Inform Classroom Experiences and Learning

Over the last hundred and twenty years, not much has changed inhow most schools organize their co-curricular or after school activities. Traditionally these programs offer students the chance to participate in sports, learn to play an instrument, or be part of a club that gathers like-minded or interested peers. These activities offer wonderful opportunities for growth, learning, and socializing and are where children often make lasting friendships, apply skills, and discover themselves. Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine’s recent book In Search of Deeper Learning uncovers just how meaningful learning can be within areas “peripheral” to the curriculum, because students choose their activities and are given opportunities to take on significant roles and ownership (this sounds like David Perkins’ concept of playing the whole game at a junior version). Mehta and Fine conclude that an apprenticeship model of learning is most effective for cultivating deeper levels of mastery and understanding.

Even the most meaningful co-curricular experiences (i.e. those that have the most impact on students’ well-being, learning, socio-emotional growth, and so forth) often remain isolated and students’ progress and accomplishments are seldom assessed, much less used as qualitative data to inform in-class curricular experiences. Yet when a child has a part in a play, she is learning about collaboration, self-direction, creativity, and accountability. When a young footballer practices on a team, she is honing self-awareness, teamwork, and resilience. When a young man is learning to play the tuba, he is developing his time management, self-discipline, cultural awareness and choice (playing the tuba!). If after school activities provide spaces for students to explore their interests, manage the pace of their learning, and grow socio-emotionally, why is it so rare for the collection of information on this process to feedback into the classroom? Co-curricular activities provide authentic, fluid possibilities to understand each child, their motivations, challenges, and competencies. These data should inform teaching and provide opportunities for personalization.

I propose that each co-curricular activity contain an assessment component based on competencies, ones linked to 21st century skills*. Each student could have a record of achievement based on demonstrated mastery of these competencies and evidence gathered throughout the co-curricular. This record would then be shared with teachers to inform the design of experiences in the classroom. For instance, if a young basketball player has made tremendous strides in collaborating with teammates on the court, her teacher should be aware of this and leverage this growth by enriching the learning process. Conversely, if resilience is proving to be an issue, having data to inform the teacher of the circumstances under which resilience may falter would help understand the whole child. This would not only provide useful input that could support the child’s needs (for support or extension), but also foster a culture that nurtures the whole child and approaches the whole world as a valuable place for learning.

Co-curricular activities should be spaces where students grow, explore, play, and have their curiosities piqued. Is this not what progressive educators aspire to find in the classroom itself? Co-curricular activities should sit alongside the traditional curriculum and support it, providing valuable information on what makes each student tick, what motivates each individual, what spurs socio-emotional and personal growth. After school activities hold be more than place holders for occupying kids on weekday afternoonsIf properly assessed and tracked, they could be part of an entire system that looks at the whole child in different contexts to further his learning. Co-curricular activities offer possibilities to deepen learning and inform personalization (as well as a place to apply core skills, but this is another topic). In the following months, I hope to explore these possibilities and provide an innovative approach to utilizing co-curriculars to spur greater growth and understanding. 

* I use this tricky term for expediency, but with slight discomfort given its overuse and relegation to the bin of platitudes.

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