Ice cream headache

A few weeks ago, Jeff Utecht posted an article about technology and student engagement at the Techlearning blog titled “Do you offer ice cream or toppings?”

Perhaps it’s just the English teacher in me who can’t resist a metaphor, but the post helped me think in new ways. Please read it!

In a nutshell, Utecht uses “ice cream” to represent the infinite, free, web-based tools and products currently transforming the information landscape as we know it. With all this free ice cream, teachers face an exciting and daunting challenge: how do we leverage students’ unfettered access to information technology to create meaningful learning environments? In other words, what can schools offer students that they can’t already have in unlimited, unrestricted quantities on the web? To quote Utecht:

How do we engage students who are used to information being free? How do we get students into our classroom so we can sell them the toppings? How do we get them to dig deeper and understand this free information? What is your topping? What is it that you can offer them that they cannot get anywhere else? How are you going to get them to dig deeper, to interact with knowledge rather than react from it? How are you going to engage students in the learning process and not allow them to be passive in their own learning?

My initial response to Utecht’s challenge was all about the ice cream — the tools, the products, the applications. I sidestepped the issue of “toppings,” and in doing so, some might suggest I sidestepped the issue of good teaching, too.

After all, is my objective to teach about technology or through it?

As a language arts teacher, I understand the value of toppings — opportunities for students not only to consume information but take it and make it their own. We don’t just read good poetry, we connect with poetry by discussing or perhaps by writing an original poetic response. We don’t just study grammar and mechanics, we integrate our knowledge of grammar and mechanics in peer editing exercises with authentic pieces of writings.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if we are doing our students a disservice if we do not spend some time contemplating the tools themselves. So, I am pasting my response to Utecht below, and I invite you to comment:

This is an interesting metaphor. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days and have decided that my approach would be less about “toppings” and more about “taste testing.”

In other words, what skills and knowledge do our students need to be discerning, conscientious consumers?

When it comes to ice cream, I look at fat content. The more the better because it’s creamier and doesn’t melt as fast. My husband is on a diet, so he asks for sugar free when it’s available. On the other hand, my two-year-old son who only recently discovered the thrills of ice cream, will eat any flavor or variety you put in front of him. He even asks for ice cream for breakfast! And the after-effects of too much ice cream? Don’t get me started.

In the same way that just about every person you meet has an “ice cream story,” just about every student you meet these days will already have a lot of previous technology experience. (Some more than others, and, like the very best ice cream, that would be a problem of access and affordability, wouldn’t it?)

With that in mind, I imagine it would be really easy on the first day of class to engage the “I generation” in a conversation about their likes, dislikes, and expectations regarding technology. What makes some tools/applications better than others? Let the students generate a list of some criteria, and then as the teacher introduces new tools/apps (flavors? brands?), the students are held accountable for using those evaluation criteria. I imagine as the semester progresses, this rubric of sorts will evolve and change as the students become even more savvy and conscientious consumers/users.

More ice cream metaphor: it’s ubiquity, endless variety, and general affordability makes it easy to incorporate into our daily lives. (How many people have you met who admit to eating at least a small amount of ice cream, or chocolate, every day?) More questions arise from this fact: how much is too much? how do we manage a balanced diet? and what about all that free stuff? what if some day it’s not free? (I think about that a lot when I use Google and such.)

My husband is currently watching his carbs, but in his day, he was a homemade ice cream connoisseur. And it had to be hand-cranked, no electric ice cream makers!! And everyone who planned to eat the ice cream had to take a turn at the crank.

Sounds a lot like open source, doesn’t it?

What do you think?


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Think on this:

"What if we just ignored the status of students in other countries? That wouldn’t be especially neighborly, but at least we wouldn’t be viewing the gains of children in other lands as a troubling development."

Alfie Kohn

"When I hear people say it's our job to create the 21st century workforce, it scares the hell out of me. Our job is to create 21st-century citizens. We need workers, yes, but we also need scholars, activists, parents -- compassionate, engaged people."

Chris Lehmann

Train of thought:

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