Upgrading the Recipe for Learning

By: Mike Fisher

Back in the early 90s, my grandmother taught me how to bake biscotti in a traditional way. She was a baker by trade and taught me about the precision of measuring ingredients to get a perfect dough consistency, how to lay out the initial loaf, cut on the diagonal and re-bake until the cookies reached their optimum crunch. Over the years, I’ve experimented with the basic recipe, adding additional ingredients, replacing others, trying different thicknesses of the cookie, dipping the cookies in chocolate, etc. My ultimate goal is to get to the cookie, even though my path to get there changes every year.

20110302-139879-bacon-chocolate-chip-biscotti-1Around this time of year, I start thinking about the biscotti (and Grandma!), and what I will modify, replace, upgrade, or delete for this year’s batch. Sometimes that decision is based on new ingredients, sometimes on the audience for whom I’m baking the cookies, or the event(s) where the cookies will be shared. There is always a modification to the previous year’s process though the goal is always to get to the cookie.

The things we need to do with students — the tasks that we challenge them with — are the important factors here. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know Wordle or Socrative or Wikis or Storybird. It doesn’t matter that Padlet or Today’s Meet or Notepad is part of your everyday practice. It matters that you understand and design instruction around the outcome.

The path to that outcome is what we will replace, not necessarily the outcome itself. This modern mindset is really about willingness, not digital knowledge. It’s about trying new things and exploring new tools and avenues for instruction. It’s about exploring WITH the students rather than FOR the students.

The end result is still a cookie, but over time, that cookie gets better and better. I believe it boils down to two words: Think immersive. I want technology to be what water is to a fish; what air is to a human; what the Force is to Luke Skywalker. Immersed in technology is what classrooms in the 21st century must be, with digital tools an always-available choice rather than a planned-for event.

Here are the six questions I encourage you to ask when considering any digital upgrade:

  1. What is the learning objective?
  2. Is the task worthy of a digital upgrade?
  3. Will digital tools increase or decrease the cognitive level of the task?
  4. Does the digital upgrade involve collaboration, communication, creative problem solving or creative thinking?
  5. Are sufficient digital tools available and do all student have access to them?
  6. Are the students involved in some way in the decision making?

The big takeaway here is that the task, the objective, the demonstration of learning remain the priority and focal point of instruction. The strategy, however, can be variable while the end point remains fixed. Vary the recipe but still work toward the cookie! Teachers need a treasure trove of strategies, a virtual toolbox of opportunities to meet today’s student where they need to be met.

These digital learning strategies don’t require the teacher to be an expert in their function; they only require a willingness to let the students try some new ways of doing things. This is an opportunity to utilize digital tools for the sake of differentiated instruction and divergent thinking, where students construct their own versions of learning and critique the work of their peers.

We live in a world where teachers, though still extremely important, don’t exert the same influence that they used to. Students don’t need teachers to gift them with knowledge anymore, because knowledge and content are all around them. What students really need is help deciphering, exploring, and curating all of that information; teachers help students make these connections. Students need opportunities to feel as though they are in educational partnerships with teachers — a zone of mutual respect, proficiency, and wisdom.

You can read my grandmother’s basic biscotti recipe, and I encourage you to try out your own recipe replacements, deviations, and subversions, in the classroom and in the kitchen. This year, as a sneak peek to the reader, I can share that I’m considering some new ingredients including lime juice, cream cheese, and a blueberry/pecan trail mix that I enjoy.

And if you’re interested in learning more about Digital Learning Strategies and instructional replacement ideas, my new book is available from ASCD now. It is available in both print and digital editions and is part of ASCD’s new short form texts called ARIAS, meaning that the book is meant to be read in one sitting, perhaps while you’re waiting on that first batch of Biscotti to come out of the oven.

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