The Power of Simplicity

posted Aug 18, 2017, 7:49 PM by Kevin Roughton
"This is so fun!" - Student from the back of the room while doing an activity about learning the continents.

Anyone who knows me knows that I basically hate maps. I mean, not actual maps. They are awesome. I have them framed and hanging on my walls at home. I mean maps in history classes. Far too often we teach maps without any purpose. We have this vague argument that they "need to know where things are" but I don't think we really believe it. Asking kids to be able to identify the Great Lakes by name, for example, seems pretty pointless to me.  I think the truth is many of us teach maps because that's just what we expect of a history class. 

As a result, I really don't do much with maps in my class. We use them as documents in DBQs and not much else. I do, however, realize that my students do need some kind of mental picture of what I'm saying when I reference Europe or Asia. So, a few years ago, our team designed an activity that was fun, simple and a great way to give students a mental picture to work with regarding the continents, and I nearly skipped it this year.

In this activity students imagine the maps of the continents as clouds in the sky. The whole point is that when they see a picture in a presentation that has a map of Europe they'll go "oh ya, that's the claw grabbing the dinosaur, must be Europe."
What is amazing about it is how much the kids get into it. All day long I had hands jumping up and reaching as high into the sky as they could. I had kids begging to go up to the screen so they could point out little details in the map that reminded them of all sorts of strange things. We were talking about maps and they were absolutely loving it. 

When we are constantly bombarded with rigor, rigor, rigor (and rightfully so) it is easy to forget that simple activities can still be inquiry-based and rigorous. Watching the students try to convince one another that what they saw was the right thing was hilarious.  Seeing kids who hadn't said a word in the first 9 days running to stand in front of the class was simply fantastic.  Having one literally say from the back "this is so fun!" is amazing.

And again.. we were learning maps - the only thing in history that rivals vocabulary in boredom!

Simplicity and play are such basic tools that I know we often feel like we aren't teaching correctly if we use them. We really need to get over that. Simple designs can still lead to deep and engaging learning experiences.

So, why did I almost not do it? Time. We had some new things to do schoolwide to start our year this year and something had to go for me to keep up my pacing. Luckily, more schedule changes necessitated me finding a 30 minute activity versus the full hour one I had planned for today. In the Clouds fit perfectly and I'm so glad it did. It has me reconsidering the other simple, playful activities I dropped from the beginning of my year in the name of progress. They just might have to come back somehow.

Turns out simplicity is pretty powerful.

Here's the full lesson plan:

In the Clouds

This is a shockingly simple yet effective activity. Students get excited about learning the continents in a unique way. Most importantly it teaches them that the importance of learning the continents is not just memorization but special awareness.

Purpose: Help students learn to identify the continents by look not just by name.

Time: 30 minutes

Materials: none


On a new paper titled in the clouds try to list the names of the 7 continents. If you don’t know for sure, take your best guess!


Explain to students the concept of cloud gazing. Ask them what the example cloud looks like to get them thinking.Tell them that today they are going to imagine looking at clouds in the sky and figuring out what they look like.

Show the first map (Europe.) Students are to write a sentence explaining what it would like if it were a cloud in the sky. They should explain their reasoning. They may not say “It looks like Europe!”


                -An alien claw reaching down to grab a dinosaur

After writing give students time to share with a shoulder partner and then with the entire class. Ask them to come up to the map and point if necessary.

Repeat with the other maps. (Currently Australia and Antarctica are not included in this activity.)

After going through the 5 maps it is time to test the students. Use the remaining slides to quiz them rapid fire.  Show the image and ask them as a class to chorally say which continent it is. When they get the wrong (and they will) remind them “That’s South America, remember, puppy begging at the table – South America.” I continue this for about 5 minutes. By the end they’ve pretty much got it.