What is Busy Work?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2019
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Busy work is work which will keep someone occupied without being constructive or productive. This concept often pops up in educational institutions, especially in schools with younger students which are difficult to control. It can also be applied to the workplace. While it does keep people busy, many people frown upon because it can be boring and the lack of constructiveness can cause students or employees to get frustrated.

In schools, busy work may be used by a substitute teacher or by a regular teacher who wants his or her students to stay busy so that they do not get into trouble. Examples of busywork include projects with no clear purpose, word searches which do not actually teach or reinforce vocabulary, and similar occupations. Teachers may also use truly educational projects like teaching sign language, imparting first aid skills, or singing to keep their students busy, but these things don't really count as “busy work,” since the students clearly benefit from them.

In the field of teaching, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to keep students focused, especially younger students. Many teachers stress, however, that projects and classroom activities in their classes will never be busy work or “work for work's sake,” encouraging their students to engage in their projects and assignments. Some substitutes also try to embody this ethic, although it can be challenging when you are bounced into a classroom with students whom you don't know.


In the workplace, many employees find themselves working on busywork, especially in offices with very rigid hours. Some employees actually invent their own busy work so that they appear focused and occupied to their bosses, while some bosses will assign busywork or other fruitless tasks to employees because they don't know what else to do with them. This is common in an office with a fluctuating workload, where employees will sometimes have a lot to do, but are not really needed at other times.

The concept of busy work dates back to around the mid-1800s in the United States, an era when the Industrial Revolution was starting to take hold. While it is certainly true that people probably came up with mundane tasks to occupy themselves before the Industrial Revolution, the advent of mechanized replacements for workers probably increased the amount of busy work in the industrializing world. This issue can sometimes be averted by restructuring hours in the workplace to ensure that all employees are productively used when they show up for work.


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Post 3

@Subway11 - I agree with what you said, but I hate when they give busy work for substitute teachers to give to the class. They should really have a lesson plan laid out that the substitute should follow so that the children keep learning.

I don’t have a problem with word searches or crossword puzzles as long as they are related to vocabulary or spelling words studied and they usually are.

I think that the substitute should have a more structured program so that the students don’t have time to misbehave and test their limits with the substitute. I rather see a substitute offer an art assignment that allows the children to be creative than a connect the dot

page or a coloring page.

I also think that playing educational board games can also work. There so many things that a substitute can do in a classroom that there is no excuse for busy work. I think that if a teacher offers busy work then they don’t really want to teach the children.

Post 2

@Icecream17 - I agree with you. I think that first you have to understand the homework and if it really does not make sense then you should have the child do the homework anyway out of respect for the teacher and then have a conference with the teacher to discuss the assignment.

There might be another reason that the assignment was given. I rather see homework offered then no homework because they should be trying to reinforce some skills at home. I know that some parents complain of too much homework, but they should comply with the school because aside from reinforcing skills taught at school the homework is developing character in the children.

They will also develop more confidence because those children that work hard will see the positive results in their grades and will soon be addicted to working hard. So I wouldn’t knock the homework one bit.

Post 1

I think that parents sometimes complain that their kids are receiving too much homework and some of it is really busy work for the students. I always look at my children’s homework and have yet to see work that is unrelated to their course of study.

Their homework is a reinforcement of the concepts taught in class as it should be. I think that parents that don’t feel that the homework is appropriate should do some of the homework to see if it does reinforce the lesson.

I did this recently when my daughter started a supplemental reading program afterschool. At first I looked at the work and could not make the connection with what she should be learning but the minute that I did the work on my own it clicked.

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