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Originally posted 3 years ago, but I think it’s still relevant now.

I’m at a conference, listening to a technophile gush about the latest available tools that schools need to quit blocking.

“What’s relevant to kids these days?”

“Facebook,” the audience cries out in unison.

“See, you know it. I know it. What’s relevant for the students? Let the kids use Facebook. Get them on Twitter. Find the tools that they use in life.”

I have serious concerns with Facebook, ranging from privacy to data mining. I also worry using personal spaces that kids have outside of school inside of school. It becomes the creepy tree house.

However, I’m much more concerned with the obsession with relevance, innovation and novelty.

*     *     *

The Astrodome was the most relevant stadium of its time. With the largest JumboTron, the trendiest color choice and a very modern, symmetrical design, it embodied the Space Age. It was the anti-Fenway. It was the ball park of the future. It was relevant.

It wasn’t developed with the purpose of baseball in mind, though. A simple foul ball nearly blinded the players, so they had to paint the ceiling tiles, which killed the grass, which led to Astro Turf. Astro Turf was relevant. It made sense. Except it looked ugly and it meant a diving catch could end a career. The stadium, once relevant, became a joke.

So, I think of lesson design. I’m not interested in relevant. I’m not looking for the trendiest tools. I’m not out to find the latest research from a collage artist like Marzano. I’m not peppering my lessons with the latest pop culture references to prove just how insanely hip I am (not that hip if I use hip, unless I’m a hipster using hip ironically).

Remember Carmen San Diego? Remember Lazer Discs? Remember WebQuests? Remember how all of those relevant technologies were going to transform learning? Remember the Information Superhighway and the fact that “kids don’t learn the same way?”

*    *    *

Fenway gets it right. The stadium was designed to fit the community, which explains the quirky field dimensions and why it continues to be one of the most creative designs in baseball. It was designed to fit the game of baseball, which is why it’s so classic.

I want to teach more like Fenway and less like the Astrodome. Or better yet, I want my teaching to be a hybrid ballpark like San Francisco, where there are still new innovations in structure and design (no one’s staring at a pole like they do in Fenway), but a clear embrace of the context, the community and the classic ideas. I want to start with meaning and purpose rather than relevance. And the crazy part? When I start with purpose, students often find it relevant to their lives.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Succint and brilliant. The other day in a discussion on learning, the (getting stale) phrase "21st century student" was used. Someone remarked the expression was fast becoming a meaningless cliche. The suggestion was made: "Let's use 'student for the ages.'" I think that's what you are talking about here.

  • I get what you are saying here but I am not sure that I totally agree. I get your concerns about Facebook with data mining, but do you think kids and sometimes their parents understand that as well. I am not of the mindset that we need to get kids to open these types of accounts. My concern is that many of them have them already and are doing things that may be inappropriate or not fully understand what some of their actions will lead to in the future. It is not about "relevant" but more about "real". We should share our world with them, but we have to connect in their world as well.

    It drives me crazy when we build things that "look" like Facebook or Twitter because at the end of the day, kids don't care when they go home. Yeah it might be cool while there are in school, but outside of that part of the day, what do they do. That is where "relevant" really means nothing.

    I love the Prensky quote that says, "We need to teach kids to respect the past but to live in the future." It is not an either/or question. There is room for both.

    Great post.

    P.S. Fenway is on my bucket list. Astrodome isn't.

  • I'm not opposed to Twitter in school, but I am against Facebook. I'm not against using tools that students use. Authenticity is the goal. My students use Blogger, Google Docs, Twitter, etc. I don't think something has to fit within the category of education software to be meaningful.

    My main point is that when we push toward relevance over meaning, we get suckered into what's trendy. If it connects to the world, if it respects both the local and global context and if it is meaningful to students, it will be relevant.

  • As a frequent vistor to Fenway, I have to say I love your take on it. The next time I pay $50 for parking, I'll be sure to remind myself the ballpark was designed to fit (and fund) the community. 🙂

    I've written about this a bit as well. I get nervous when I hear words like tools, engagement, relevance, connect with kids, etc. without thinning hard about the context within which these words should be used. As shiny and cool as technology can be, we have to continue to remember that building cultures and communities around the appropriate and timely use of these technologies is more important than simply using the tools.

    I really appreciate how you think deeply about relatively simple conversation. You continue to motivate and inspire my thinking!

  • Great, insightful post — as usual.

    This post on Edutopia today reminds me of your thinking, and of your book about a teacher trying to get pencils into schools (which I bought for a dollar but have yet to read).

  • Today there are so many tech tools available that students could not possibly use all of them well. I agree when you start with meaning and purpose and select what best fits your kids real things start to happen. You may not need Twitter, Google sites, Facebook etc… all at the same time. But, if you have a couple working well you can accomplish things. On another note, I don't think Wrigley Field had lights until 1988. Night games didn't fit the Chicago community.

  • Scott says:

    John, you state eloquently my reaction when I hear someone talking about "21st century teaching" or "cutting edge curriculum/classroom." I agree that we should start with meaning and purpose. And that the classroom/curriculum/whatever must be in the context of the kids – and that's going to vary from group to group (and sometimes kid to kid). Listening to and knowing your learners is as valuable–no, more valuable–than the latest technology or trendiest tools.

  • Mike says:

    I think you are spot on with the obsession about the "latest and greatest" It often brings on more problems than solutions. If it aint broke, don't fix it

  • Biochemist says:

    I think this is the best way to go about teaching. Too many people in general rush into new technologies, stating that "they are newer which means they must be better". Most technologies only come out because companies want to make some quick cash. I agree with this logic. Find a technology that has been around for a while with only some minor changes. Because obviously, since it has stayed and not disappeared like Carmen SanDiego, it must still work well for our purposes and needs.

  • This idea something we all need to keep putting in front of ourselves so we don't forget it. We too easily are blinded by exciting new technology and become blind and unquestioning followers of it like magpies entranced by anything shiny. We morph and morph ourselves and what we are doing to fit the technology and lose sight of our original purpose.

  • Shannan says:

    Isn't meaningful learning what it's really all about. The rest are just tools, when used properly they may enhance learning, if not then there's no need to use them just for the sake of using them.

  • Liz says:

    John, you made some great points! With my experience in the classroom students were given individual laptops to further productivity by having equal access to the internet, yet they were the number one distraction we had in class. Curiosity and imagination facilitate learning, if our students have already mastered Facebook and Twitter where is the cognitive gain?

  • Tamara says:

    Well said. The newest and glitziest doesn't equal the best. I particularly liked your very last sentence. It's something to be reminded of when constructing lessons.

  • Tom says:

    I see your Astrodome and raise you Shea Stadium. Actually, all of NYC during the mid-20th Century, whose driving force was the modernizer/innovator Robert Moses (I once worked at the state park named after him, in fact). He basically turned the boroughs into one giant highway system and while he was responsible for making the city accessible in many ways, he did it by basically bulldozing through poor neighborhoods. In fact, the Northern State Parkway on Long Island takes an odd detour because of the fact that when it was built, some rich person with influence didn't want his land bulldozed (that's the condensed version, anyway).

    I think very often shiny, new, and trendy is pushed by people who have influence and money and anyone who still thinks that anything "old" in terms of methodology or what have you needs to just go away. But some of the best lessons I have taught had their germination in methods or practices much older than Facebook or Twitter (speaking of which, I showed my students an actual Facebook the other day … we had a laugh), so again, I can't just chuck it all for this year's model.

    And while I like your metaphor, I'll offer this: Shea was deomlished a few years ago in favor of Citi Field, a stadium that was designed to look like Ebetts Field (sp?). It's like that crotchety old fart on the message board who insists that education was much better when he was in school and teachers were allowed to beat the shit out of students. 😉

  • Good reminder and overall I agree although sometimes it feels like semantics to me.

    You lost me at the end when your strong bias showed through. San Francisco, really?

    Comerica Park is a much better choice and I am TOTALLY unbiased in this. (still sickened by what Renteria did in SF after bombing for the Tigers).

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