14 October 2012

What Alton Brown Taught Me About Education Technology

No uni-taskers in this kitchen

In 2006, while trying to build our newlywed, grown-up skills, my wife and I watched a lot of Food Network, particularly Good Eats with Alton Brown. Alton has made a career for himself by sticking to one basic formula: keep a kitchen stocked with flexible, quality tools, and know why (scientifically) you're doing what you're doing in that recipe. In many episodes, there’ll be some preparation task that often is accomplish by a uni-tasker (something like a garlic press, avocado scooper or these), an educational segment featuring kitchen tools or the science behind the day’s dish, and always an emphasis on quality.

I think those same principles easily apply to the application of technology in schools for teachers AND students.  Choose quality, versatile tools, and make sure people know how and why to use them.


Alton Brown doesn’t want you wasting your time with kitchen appliances that are going to break, and food that is only filling. We owe it to our kids to always have the technology in their classrooms functioning. Teachers have enough to do with their plan time than troubleshoot devices and relearn/rework devices every other day.  Spending a little more money often means a better user experience/interface, better design, and fewer headaches in the end. The example in my building is between one set of Turning Technologies clickers we were piloting and sharing in the math department, and sets of iRespond clickers that were purchased for every classroom in the school district. (a HUGE capital investment). Ultimately, both models provided the same functionality (run in PowerPoints, get data of student responses), but the user (teachers and students) experience was so much better with the Turning Technology clickers, that most of our teachers left the iRespond in the storage room and continued sharing the others. I understand going lowest bidder on a product rolling out to hundreds of classrooms, but from my observations it was a waste, because no one wants to use them. This is also a reason you usually see Apple products in schools. I'm not an Apple fanboy by any means, but I've NEVER heard anyone tell me how much they hate their iMac/iPad/MacBook


How does yeast work? Why do I cook my syrup at that temp? Why blend instead of pulse? Answering these questions in Good Eats episodes, Alton equips his disciples of cooks with the know-how to use these ingredients correctly, and creatively. Using the software and hardware tools in any given classroom requires click-training to instruct on the “how” of the system, but also a ton of “why”. Most companies have resource and best practice sections on the support pages of their websites; they do their part. The problem is that I think schools and districts often rely on this alone, expecting that teachers will all run to those pages on their plan times (and secretly hoping on their free time) to learn, train, and reflect on their new technology. The wonder of the internet age is that anyone can learn anything. The weight of the internet age is that there is more to learn and more to process. How do we choose?

We could all use a little Alton Brown on our shoulder, reminding us of that website, introducing that use of Google Docs, or playing around with that magic app, so we don’t have to. Twitter has been helpful for me and other teachers to bridge that gap, but it still requires boatloads of time that I have less of.

No Uni-taskers:

So give teachers fewer things to learn! There are several reasons for keeping uni-taskers out of the kitchen. In the classroom, its important for technology in classrooms to be versatile in application to make it easier on budgets, professional development and clutter. I'm currently trying out a "formative instruction system" for my district that has a lot of cool functionality - integrates well with current software, easy for students to pick up, several different ways for the teacher and the student to use it. However, just the teacher device for driving the clicker questions and/or annotating costs about the same as an iPad, and they've developed an app to (somewhat) replicate the experience. So instead of training all of our teachers on setting up and using this new system, why not use the clickers already in the schools, buy the iPads, and buy a $20 app that does the same annotation.

A couple bad lower-tech examples:

Equation vest builder - They’re cheap enough, I guess, but aren’t most uni-taskers? Couldn’t this just be done with tape and paper/index cards? How often are these really going to come out of the storage tub?

Noise Control Stoplights - The idea of these is helpful for students learning proper noise levels, but for the cost, it seems like a website or this free app always on the SMARTboard would be just as effective. (In my research, I came across this convincing article from Education World about the effectiveness of these lights, but I still think they’re not worth the price.)

Bottom Line:

Give a teacher a ton they can easily implement into the flow of their classroom, and guide them along the journey - they’ll thank you for it and use it. Give a teacher something else to try and figure out how to use - they’ll ignore you and continue using what already works for them.

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Thanks for sharing!