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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.