I have vivid memories of attending math class during my freshmen year of high school. Not because the class was particularly interesting, or because I had an affinity for numbers, but because of the calculators. I can still remember them. Those giant, technological monstrosities in their shining black cases.

Though we would probably consider them old and clunky by today’s standards, at the time, these calculators were cutting edge. They could produce graphs and diagrams, log complex formulas, and store information like computers. People thought they were going to revolutionize the classroom, and for a while, they appeared to be right. Everyone looked busy and engaged and treated the devices with the utmost care.

Then the truth came out. Students weren’t using the calculators to do math. They had secretly reprogrammed them to play videogames.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

All joking aside, this story has a kernel of wisdom for educators to consider. Namely, that appearances can be deceiving, especially in the classroom. Just because a class is behaving does not mean they are engaging with the material, and just because your students are busy does not mean they are learning. As educators, it’s important for us to recognize the distinction between these conflicting positions. But where do we begin?

Well, here are three common mistakes we often fall victim to when considering the state of our classroom.

Are They Productive or Are They Busy?

We want our students to be productive, to actively involve themselves in a task which has a meaningful outcome. Sometimes we may think that because they’re busy they must be productive. Unfortunately, this is not always true.

  • Being Productive: Means students understand why they are doing the task as well as how to complete it. There is a clear product or result that they are working toward, and the conclusion carries a real-world relevance.
  • Being Busy: See students focusing on how to do the task rather than why they are doing it. The task is usually indefinite or unclear and the student has no emotional investment in the conclusion whatsoever.
Are They Respectful or Are They Compliant?

Life would be easier if we had a classroom full of compliant students, but compliance gains are short-term. You want students to ask questions and challenge the status quo. You just need them to do it respectfully.

  • Being Respectful: Is when students show empathy toward others, even those who are not following the rules. They use appropriate language and gestures to challenge ideas and ask questions out of curiosity instead of defensiveness.
  • Being Compliant: Is when students follow the rules without asking questions and identify themselves with grades more than with what they believe. They also lack initiative because they fear making a mistake or failing.
Are They Creative or Are They Crafty?

It’s easy to pull an art project off Pinterest and tell ourselves that we’re being creative. Are we promoting arts and crafts or creative thinking and expression.

  • Being Creative: Means the output of the project is vastly different from student to student. Models are provided as inspiration but not as clones to be reproduced, and students have an emotional connection to their project.
  • Being Crafty: Means the process is production-oriented with an emphasis on following instructions. The primary focus is to complete the project rather than think critically and creatively.
Know Your Classroom

Remember, don’t allow yourself to be fooled by outward appearances. Shiny new tech and modern games are helpful, but they can’t make the distinction between a class that’s learning and a class that’s merely pliable. Invest in your students. Show them what real inquiry looks like. Then watch them grow!

What about you? How do you overcome the learning illusion?