A Moonwalking Red Herring

Dina Strasser, responding to skepticism of her earlier skepticism, addresses those who would suggest that classroom tech is a sufficient motivator for students:

While I have witnessed this and agree, I also think that it’s a red herring. A sparkling, glitzy herring in high heels dancing backwards, but a herring all the same. If I scan a page of a vocabulary workbook into the computer, convert it to PDF, and add digital fill in the blanks, my kids may be “motivated” to work on it— but it’s still the same damn workbook that has no basis in effective teaching practice, flexible problem solving, or language acquisition research.

Engaging a classroom on a daily basis requires more than just some superficial adjustment to classroom form. You’ve gotta bring great, diverse content daily and, unfortunately, there exists no tool, no shortcut, nothing else to do the job but the blunt application of profound creativity in the direction of challenging content standards.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Content, eh? Nothin’ but content?

    Yes, the best days of my teaching career always seemed to end when I could stand atop Mt. Research Paper and cry, “my students love the great, diverse content”.

    Now I feel like a schlub (sp?) b/c I’d be first in line at the confessional.

    “Forgive me, Superintendent, for I have transgressed. I have told my students that it’s not about Lord of the Flies, it’s not about Poetics, but it’s all about creating, communicating, and problem solving.”

    Yeah, we need the content to achieve our goals, but creating an environment that stimulates interest and participation is far more our daily challenge than standing upon the dais and preaching content.

    Now, everyone, back to transparencies!

  2. Ken,

    Why can’t the CONTENT stimulate interest and participation? Why do we feel we’ve gotta glamour up content with silliness (tech or otherwise) when it’s infinitely better (albeit admittedly ten tons harder) to connect kids to content itself? Why the false dichotomies? Don’t keep it separate, man. It’s all gotta be one. Feel the love. And try some of these delicious mushrooms.

  3. I guess everything is going over my head on this exchange of stichomythia.

    In the meantime, I’ll think quiet thoughts about why I went into teaching.

    testing, lecturing, and formative assessment…zzz…

    If I’m really missing something on this exchange, clue me in.

    For now, I’ll think about teachers who have really inspired me and ‘taught me stuff’…

  4. …there exists no tool, no shortcut, nothing else to do the job but the blunt application of profound creativity in the direction of challenging content standards.

    Sure there is. I call it Google.

  5. I feel like scales have fallen from my eyes. I had no idea there was this underground vendetta against Comic Sans. I thought I was just making my constricting teacher-centered assignments and print-crammed Powerpoint slides look friendly and accessible…but it’s true. (weeping) It’s all true.

    (It actually is true, though. I learn something every day on this blog.)

    H, I see your point. (laughter)

  6. Yesterday, I taught a class of college students who want to be teachers. I opened with this analogy that I think is appropriate: 6 months ago my wife and I bought a HDTV but kept our regular cable. Which meant, I had a $800 TV that wasn’t any better than our $200 TV. But now, we have HDTV channels via satellite. The $800 is much more well spent now. The difference obviously is the content. Moral of the story, content is always more important. However, there are times when technology can greatly enhance content. I saw a simple example of this the other day because it hit home with my 8 year old daughter. In Kindergarten, she worked on compasses and cardinal points and all that. She had a half faced, half crooked worksheet to work on. Then the other day, I saw how a teacher had her kindergarten students type in their address to google earth, take a picture of their house, and then describe what was north, south, east, and west of their house.

  7. I think this is unnecessarily dichotomous.

    To a certain extent, the content is what the content is (i.e. standards) and everything else is form. Oh, I guess you could make the argument that changing the books you read to analyze character or the work kids do to demontrate understanding of mark-up and discount demonstrate alterations in content, but I would argue that these are alterations in product. You’re still analyzing character no matter what you read, and you’re still doing discounts and mark-ups, whether you worksheet it out or have kids build web sites of fictious stores, and analyze different pricing approaches.

    Content (standards) –> form (how they’re taught) –> product (what kids do)

    (Please clean up my design. No really, please).

    I say this because a lot of the time my content ain’t that great. I’m teaching 14-year-olds short vowel sounds. That content sucks. But I can change the form to make it engaging, change the product so you don’t feel like you’re dumb when you’re 14 and still spitting out short-e, and so on.

    The real discussion we ought to have w/r/t to technology, is not how it is used or misused in form, but its role in product. Why are kids making powerpoints? Why are they blogging? Why are they using responders? Quite often there are strong, well-thought out and valid answers to these questions. Quite often there aren’t.

  8. Personification of fonts? There’s a teachable lit moment in there somewhere.

    While we righteous font-snobs and typophiliacs are busy heaping abuse on poor Comic Sans, we should pause to reflect on the spooky ways in which reality mirrors irony:


    The font featured in Obama’s CHANGE campaign signage was envisioned by its designer as “something that would look very fresh, yet very established, to have a credible voice to it. . . . It also needed to look very masculine and “of-the-moment.”

  9. TMAO, I’m going to push past my “ooh– he used the vernacular ‘suck,’ so it must be true” reaction and ask you to be a little more Socratic in defining your terms. I’m fascinated, because “sucky content” is what I’m hearing across the board to be the top reason for reaching for the magic bullet of tech, and I don’t trust its monolithic shine. Don’t take it personally.

    What does sucky content *mean*? It’s demonstrably important and necessary, but not intrinsically interesting to 14 year olds? It’s not linguistically or developmentally appropriate (as so much is in ELL instruction), but you’re required to teach it? It’s actually decent content with potential, but you’re too lazy/stressed/uncreative to figure out how to connect it to your kids’ lives?

    I know you’ve got a good answer for this. But I don’t think everyone does.

  10. Hi Dina,

    Perhaps the nicest parsing of the term “suck” I’ve ever read. Kudos. Sucky content means all those things. For me, it’s in the interplay of content and eventual product. Some content inherently lends itself to interesting product. Examples abound, so take your pick; there’s no need to belabor this point.

    Intrinsically low interest content can be made meaningful and exciting by:

    1) improving and making interesting the process (which is increasingly accomplished by appropriate tech use)
    2) improving and making interesting the product students deliver (which is increasingly attempted by inappropriate or at least unjustifiable tech use)
    3) some combination of the two