Monday, March 28, 2016

What you Buy Depends on Where you Live

This blog post is part of a 10-day blogging initiative started by @tina_zita back in January. I saw some amazing blog posts from many colleagues during the initial challenge, but wasn't able to contribute, myself... until now! This is blog post number 8/10.

A few weekends ago, we caught an episode of @terryoinfluence's Under the Influence on CBC Radio. It was called Live & Let Buy: Where you Live Dictates What you Purchase.

The episode was full of examples of how residents of any one city could have radically different purchasing patterns than those from another city - everything from big-picture spending habits, down to one city preferring Pepsi over Coca-Cola.

Over and over again, the theme was: What you buy depends on where you live.

But all while listening, I couldn't help but make a similar connection to teaching, and the content we deliver to our students.

I've been doing a lot of work lately on researching and designing rich assessment tasks (see my post on "ditching effectiveness"). Do these activities follow the same theme?

What's a Frost Heave?

A few summers ago, I was part of a workshop in Toronto that had groups of teachers from various strands/grades brainstorming rich task ideas. The curriculum expectation my group was given to work with had to do with structures and materials - how could different materials impact the structures they form?

Our discussion turned to how different construction materials behave with varying temperatures or conditions. How could we tie this to something the students could relate to?

I suggested frost heaves. The urban teachers in my group looked at me for a moment, unsure of what I meant. I explained that where I live, in Ontario's Near North, as the frost comes up through the ground during the spring thaw, it buckles the road, making for some pretty incredible bumps.

Frost heaves

Pretty much every student around these parts would know what a frost heave was, and would likely have experienced the "thrill" of going over one at a good clip on a school bus. This turned into a great discussion of materials used for making roads, what sorts of experimentation students could do with different types of road surfaces, or even how a civil engineer or a road maintenance worker could come in and speak with the class as a guest expert. We had the makings of a great lesson.

Correction: we had the makings of a great lesson for students in my school board. They have personal experience with frost heaves, and have likely seen the types of damage frost heaves can cause on their parents' cars. They know the local roads where the frost heaves tend to form, and they might even know some of the people who have worked on the roads in the area.

Students in Toronto? They (like their teachers) likely have no connection with frost heaves. Sure, you could explain what they are, convince students that it is a very Canadian problem, show figures about the tremendous amount of money governments have to spend on repairing roads that could be spent elsewhere. But even with all that, students in Toronto would care about these seasonal bumps in the road about as much as my students would care about subways (a mode of transportation with which many of them would be completely unfamiliar).

A really great lesson that might take right off with one group of students, would certainly flop with another. What our students buy into, depends on where they live.

Who is our Market?

Like a company or a marketing agency, part of our job as teachers is to make what we "sell" enticing, interesting, and worth consuming. We want our clientele - the students - to be intrigued by it, to buy it, and to come back for more.

And just like the market for luxury cars, cosmetics, or television viewing, what our students will choose to consume will depend on where they live.

So when we, as teachers, design rich tasks (or even every day assignments!) we must consider our audience. How do we make it personal? What interests our students? What do they experience day to day, or season to season? What happens in our communities, and what do we collectively struggle with?

When we are looking to design rich tasks - larger, in-depth projects that demand creativity and problem-solving - we have a choice to make: 

If we are using this task in a particular area, will it appeal to the students who live there? Or better yet, will it be something they care enough about that it drives them to learn and be creative? What personal, geographic or community connection do they have with the task?

If we are making a generic task that could be used by students anywhere in the province, is it open enough that there can be more than one spin on it? Does the task address a challenge to which any student can relate? Or can they take the task and successfully approach it from their unique perspective?

As my colleagues and I move forward with a new project for creating rich assessment tasks, keeping in mind where our consumers live, and knowing that this plays an important role in what they'll "buy," will be paramount.


  1. You make some good points. Local knowledge and culture is very important to consider. I wonder if this is one of the reasons that generic resources are often lacking in interest because in order to be accessible to many people, they have to have a baseline experience (read, simple/boring)? I'm starting to think that the 'richness' of a task is best contributed by the learner, rather that have teachers brainstorming different ways to enrich a task (where we'll always miss something of interested to some students). Encouraging creativity in how students explore concepts rather than give them a specific goal to meet? Just an idea...

    1. You're absolutely right in that the learner can contribute much of the richness of the task at hand. Some of the best projects I've seen are where the students jumped in and took things in a completely different direction than I had intended (even with all my brainstorming!). We can't lay out all the details in trying to make the perfect rich task (too structured), but can we come up with something really juicy to hook them? Tailor it just enough to entice them, but still leave it open-ended and able to be interpreted in many ways? I struggle sometimes with finding the balance between too much structure, and too little structure, leaving students unsure of where to even start. Thank you for giving me more to think about!

    2. I hear ya! It's a constant back and forth with me too. I try to get them fired up to run in a direction that interests them, but sometimes I feel like I'm putting too much of myself in their interests to try and make things richer. I guess going to far sometimes is ok, as long as the end result is good, rich learning by them.


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