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Students: Consumers or Creators?

Society loves a binary. Their simplicity provides a lens for how many see the world. Good vs Evil, Extrovert vs Introvert, Masculinity vs Femininity, Individuality vs Conformity. Education is no exception. Arguments are made about the benefits of progressive vs traditional school models and teachers are characterized as either the “sage on the stage” or “guide on the side”. Such simplicity muddies the business of teaching. As educators, we’d happily argue that there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” student, just students.

So, what’s the answer to binaries? I’m a fan of the popular Old El Paso advertisement for tacos. In the ad, two young children argue about whether to have soft or hard shell tacos. A young girl proclaims, “Porque no los dos” (Why not both?); she is lauded as a genius, which culminates in a football-like celebration. And rightly so. This phrase has found its way seamlessly into my lexicon and while mostly used when I can’t decide what to order on Uber Eats, it’s useful in examining my ideas at work. Traditional vs Progressive – Why not both? Traditional AND Progressive.

Which brings me to the binary I want to examine, Consumers vs Creators. Recently, I’ve noticed a push amongst fellow educators to shift students from being consumers to creators, a move which I applaud. However, a basic assumption is that consuming is passive and therefore less valuable than creating. A distinction needs to be made between passive and critical consumption. What we need are critical consumers and impassioned creators.

My mother was one for trying to instil such practices in her children. During my teenage years, she would often ask me for my thoughts after I’d seen a film at the cinema. Statements such as “it was good” would simply not cut it. Whilst I used to loathe being pushed to define what I actually thought, I learnt how to critically engage with film, a practice I’ve taken into my adult years. As I come into the new year, with a long Oscars “must-watch” movie list, I remind myself that there is nothing wrong with being a consumer but that it’s not necessarily where the buck stops.

In order to create we need to consume.

For today’s generation, apps such as Tik Tok and websites such as YouTube embrace both the consumer and the creator. So how do we reflect this “Porque no los dos” attitude in our classrooms? Towards the end of last year, I took on the task of writing reading responses for our junior school. Response to a text epitomizes the relationship between consuming and creating, with students critically commenting on the work they have processed. As educators we have the privilege of helping students navigate this process, with several key decisions.

Text selection

Text selection is both an art and a science. I attended a brilliant keynote last year at AATEL Big Day Out labelled “In Defense of Teaching the Irrelevant” by Claudia Rozas Gomez. In her work, she argued that, whilst teaching students texts they are familiar with may engender interest, there was value in exposing students to the unfamiliar, in her own case, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The beauty of this, is that the teacher has a passion for the work. I’ll admit, less than two years in, that I’ve taught texts that hold little interest to me, because I thought students would love them. On reflection, teaching something I was passionate about. May have garnered more interest. The idea of selecting a work unfamiliar to students is one worth considering. It offers the opportunity for deep curiosity and the joy of discovery.

But what about the students, shouldn’t we give them a choice? Porque no los dos? At the end of the day, whichever method of text selection you use, student choice or your own (or both), you have to evaluate whether students are going to engage with it. Just because it worked four years ago or because it’s something the students are likely to know, that doesn’t make it the best choice for this cohort. At the end of the day, my challenge is that you take a risk, teach something you’re passionate about, and if it doesn’t work, go back to the drawing board.

Medium selection

Here’s the trick: get creative. No one wants to write an essay on a book they’ve just read. Talk about sucking the joy out of the process. With the freedom NCEA gives us, I encourage you to think of new and innovative ways to engage with students as creators. It’s easy to stick to traditional methods, the dreaded essay or ten slide PowerPoint. We need to offer more opportunities, in more mediums, for students to express their creativity. Maybe it’s podcasts, Tik Tok videos, Instagram channels, 3D models or spoken word poetry.

Ultimately both text and medium have to be responsive to your students’ needs and that comes down to you knowing them. Build relationships so that together you can make great choices about the texts you study and the way to respond.

In short, as we start the New Year, I encourage you to look at any binaries that might exist in your practice. And to ask yourself: “Porque no los dos?” Why not both?


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