Guest Post: Shaving Cream Lattes and Educational “Innovation”

The Progressive Educator is happy to welcome our University of Arkansas colleague (all thoughts posted here are his or ours or those of someone, anyone else other than our employer) Dr. Derrick Mears to the blogosphere and feature a post he wrote with this audience in mind. Before you run to the closest wastebasket at the thought of shaving cream lattes, know that the ideas–buying shaving cream, rejecting free lattes, and educational “innovation”–are separate. Feel free and encouraged to contact Derrick at the link below. ~czg

By Derrick Mears

Recently I attended an international conference attempting to recruit students to graduate programs at my university. I witnessed a strange new phenomenon that made me ponder just exactly where our American education system is headed. This observation struck me because it was in close proximity to another I made while shopping for groceries just the week before.

While shopping for shaving cream I wandered down the aisle and overheard conversations between store executives standing in the isle (making it difficult to get to the shaving cream) discussing how, through shelf placement and packaging, they could convince the customer to spend a greater amount of money for the same product. The discussion provided an overview on how this tactic would be not only convince the consumer to spend more money but also convince them to purchase a lower quality product. This made me think, how much of my shopping behavior is being manipulated by this type of marketing? How much of my behavior as a consumer overall was the result of these gimmicks? As an educator who works in curriculum and educational technology I also began to wonder whether this same type of marketing strategy was used to educate our children in public schools and to provide resources for teachers?

My answer came in the form of frothy lattes at the international conference I mentioned in the opening paragraph. I walked into the exhibit hall and caught the aroma of fresh brewed coffee and steamed milk and wondered, what was that wonderful smell? Unfortunately, the answer was not what I expected. One of the large textbook manufacturers had set up their own “Free Latte Station” complete with a barista that would customize your order. Though I love coffee it seemed odd that giving away coffee was being used to sell textbooks. Being curious and remembering my experience buying shaving cream, I begin to browse the products being offered. What I discovered was the “latte gimmick” was just one piece of the puzzle. There were multiple gimmicks and slogans being used in an attempt to sell not only textbooks but web-based resources as well.


As I declined my free latte (though it was tempting) I was reminded of a recent TED talk by Richard Culatta on “Reimagining Learning.” In the introductory portion of this video he spoke about how technology integration in school systems in many cases is merely taking a traditional medium of information delivery (like the textbook) and “digitizing it.” For example, take the classroom lecture, video-record it, and put it on line, then call it an “innovative new method of content integration.” This video also made me realize that what was being sold under the context of “free lattes” had strong parallels to what I observed when purchasing shaving cream.

Many of the companies at this particular conference were promoting digital content that was “aligned to common core state standards” or content that “tracked student progress” but were for the most part merely textbooks that had been digitized with used self-grading multiple choice quizzes to check for knowledge and comprehension. Many of these virtual textbooks would even highlight where the content was discussed in the text related to what was missed on the test so the student could go back and re-read the “important” parts. But even more concerning was the marketing slogan that these materials promoted “higher order thinking skills”.

Anyone in the educational field has heard (hopefully) of Bloom’s Taxonomy. A classification system for educational activities developed in the 1950’s and recently re-tooled that focuses upon helping educators design projects, questions and interventions. Activities which can be categorized into the upper tiers of Bloom’s are considered activities that promote what is referred to as “higher order thinking”. These types of activities require students to engage in in-depth analysis and/or evaluation of content or create something that didn’t previously exist. As I searched the virtual shelves (trying to ignore the smells of warm chocolate and caramel syrup being added to the roasted coffee beans behind me) I was finding it hard to see evidence of how reading a series of web-based textual content segments followed by electronic multiple choice tests was facilitating this type of learning. However, these products were flying off the shelves as districts were looking to meet 21st Century Learning guidelines for technology integration (which seemed like another promotional buzz slogan being used quite often by vendors).

The issues related to what I observed through my attempt to purchase shaving cream and watch the barista hired by the textbook company serve up lattes, continued to escalate until I realized what was really happening. So to end this meandering of thought, I want to share with you a hypothetical scenario to consider when evaluating and choosing educational interventions to facilitate student learning. Hopefully, it will also put into perspective what some corporations are doing to our educational system in the name of “integrating instructional technology into education.”

Imagine an individual with no background in computer programming walks into the MicroApplesoft Corporation. Upon arriving, the individual brings free donuts to all of the programmers who are busy writing the code for the newest operating system and tells them about the great computer system they would like to sell them that would revolutionize how they write code, ensure that code was aligned to appropriate practice in code writing, and revolutionize how individuals use the personal computer. The individual then gives them free coffee and shows them a cool video with pictures of people looking at the computer, smiling and nodding their heads like they easily understand what is on the screen. The individual (who I remind you knows nothing about writing code) through the convincing marketing tactics of free donuts and coffee then convinces the MicroApplesoft Corporation to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into the computer system. The individual then leaves and here is what arrives at MicroApplesoft Corporation’s office.




This is what many of the efforts at “revolutionizing” education through the use of technology are doing, merely “digitizing” content. Our children deserve better. They deserve opportunities to create projects using technology, engage in using and developing the new technologies, and guide the interventions and actual innovations of the future. So, the next time you buy shaving cream, instructional technology, or textbooks, keep the barista in mind and ask whether the shelf placement or gimmicky trick is really “revolutionizing” anything, or whether “digitizing” a textbook is really innovation.