Is it content we're after?

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Brent Schlenker and I have been having an interesting e-mail conversation about content vs product. All too often the product gets in the way of the content being graded. Why is it that a good looking product can get you a better grade then a content rich product? And why is it that we choose to tell students what product they will make instead of allowing them to choose the product that they feel will best tell their story? And lastly why do we continue to have students report their findings in 20th century media?

Product vs. Content

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been helping the 5th graders build and design posters and brochures for their invention convention projects. Why posters? Because that was the task put to them by their teachers. The posters were hung on the whiteboard while the students gave their presentation. Don’t get me wrong, I love the 5th grade teachers; they are very tech savvy and use the laptops they are piloting this year to their full advantage. The posters turned out great as they should have; the students were not stretched technologically and did not expand their tech skills with this assignment. The products turned out great, but what about the content? Were the content requirements meet with this assignment? For the most part I would say yes, because the requirements where designed around the product. What if we reversed this situation and started with what content we wanted our students to cover and then allow them to choose the product they felt best conveyed the content and told their story?


Teacher choice vs Student choice

In a typical classroom the teacher chooses what product students will create: A poster, a report, a PowerPoint, etc. Teachers are use to telling students what they expect them to produce for a certain assignment. What if we changed this and allowed students to choose their own product based on the content they had to cover. Some might still choose to create a poster, but others might choose to create a digital video, or a podcast, or a slide show. What happens when you give students the power to choose their products? I have found the following happens:

1. Students become more engaged in the learning process
2. Students tend to stretch their skills more then if I would choose a product for them
3. Each student becomes an individual therefore individualizing their learning

I’m sure there are more, and feel free to add to the list.

20th vs 21st century  media

After talking with Brent in the e-mails I went back and looked at some of the posters my students created, and it got me thinking of Prensky’s article Adopt and Adapt.

When students make posters they are doing old things in new ways. How do I know? Because I made posters when I was in grade school. They weren’t done on computers, instead we took copies of pictures out of books and the encyclopedia and glued them to a poster. We then wrote on lined paper, cut it out and glued that on as well. Created some cool header with crayons and got a good grade.

I look at the picture above and ask myself what has changed? The answer: nothing, we’ve just updated the poster with technology, but at the end of the day it is still a 20th century or even a 19th century product.

I then started thinking about digital story telling seeing that I just finished my first attempt on my U Tech Tips blog for teachers. It got me thinking “What is the difference between a poster and a digital story:

Poster:                                             Digital Story:
Pictures                                           Pictures
                                                          Interviews (mock or real)
A written speech                            A written speech
research                                          research
layout design                                  layout design
good presentation skills               good presentation skills
class as your audience                 world as your audience
feedback from peers                     feedback from potentially millions of Internet users

Could digital stories be the21st century poster and PowerPoint? Could the same content that is graded on posters be graded in a digital story?

If it is content that we are grading why do we spend so much time worrying about how it is presented? What if we allowed students the option to present the content in a way that was meaningful to them? I don’t know about you, but I would find it much more fun to sit through an hour of presentations that went from lecture to digital story, to poster, to podcast, to web site, etc. Rather then an hour of presentations that were poster after poster after poster. What would the students take away as well? Seeing other student designs or how other students used media. There is power to be had in allowing students freedom to choose their product, even the chance that we might start doing new things in new ways.

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I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. Hey Jeff,
    You start out by asking “Is it content we’re after?” Answer: sometimes. Other times it’s skills, or understanding or some combination of the three.

    You said “What if we reversed this situation and started with what content we wanted our students to cover?” It’s called reverse planning and is a fundamental part of the IB philosophy, among other programs no doubt. All teachers should be looking at the outcomes first, asking themselves what the students are supposed to be learning and then choosing an assessment piece that best measures what they should have learned during a unit or lesson, whether it’s knowledge, skills or understanding. I would say this is the number one mistake teachers (myself included) make when planning because, as you’ve alluded to, we get caught up in the assignment itself and lose sight of what we were trying to accomplish in the first place. As teachers, I feel like sometimes we become better organizers of activities than educators. If this happens, then allowing the students to choose their own assessment piece will probably be as good as anything the teacher may have come up with, perhaps better. However, if the teacher has used the reverse planning method, it should be assumed that what the teacher has chosen for the students to do will better assess their learning than other options available to the students.

    Of course, we should be building in as much flexibility as possible when trying to assess learning to ensure we are differentiating in our classrooms. However, it often makes sense to provide suitable options we think will work best. If I had had it my way as a student, I would have never spoken or performed live in front of my peers. Instead, I would have handed in video project after video project.

    “Why is it that a good looking product can get you a better grade then a content rich product?” Based on my expereince, it’s because my criteria or rubric were poorly written, which usually becomes clear after the first or second presentation. If not, then it should be because you’re trying to assess skills or understanding rather than content.

    “And lastly why do we continue to have students report their findings in 20th century media?” This is a retorhical question, right? The answer, I think, is simple: people (teachers included) stick with what they know because it is easy, or at least easier. The solution, however, is much harder, but rests in the hands of the administration, IT teachers, classroom teachers who are willing to take risks, and last but not least, the students. Some of the best assessment ideas I use came from students asking if they could do something different.

    So don’t get me wrong, I’m all for trying new things and offering choices in my lessons (which you’ve seen first hand) for reasons you’ve listed above; but I beleive that our training and expereince counts for something, and that sometimes “teacher knows best.” That is, so long as the assessment piece was chosen because of what it can measure, not because it is easy to plan or is fun for the kids.

  2. Interesting conversation… I designed a project contract years ago with a student teacher. We were bored by reading/grading 115 of the same project. So, we made up a contract that allowed the student to contract for their project, there was a rubric about on task behavior/content/etc., and then they would sign and we would sign. The point being that the student would pick the specific content (based on the unit of study) and product to evidence the learning. I do 8 projects a year, 4 of them are of this type and the other four are types of projects/assessments that I know that they will need in the future (essays, exams, speeches). Students turn in projects more consistently with the ‘contracted’ project than with the others… there is no question. The ownership and development draws the learner into the content, it is less imposed and more genuine to the student. Also, the idea of signing a document and committing to a task is one that I think few students have a firm grasp on. All in all it has been a lovely way to engage the students and the teachers!

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