Thursday, July 15, 2010

Old Spice, David Pogue and Education Reform: Not as Weird as You'd Think

What can Old Spice commercials teach us about reforming education?  A lot.

Like most people, I love the new Old Spice commercials with the really good looking, incredibly ripped, bare-chested guy. They are  hilariously witty, both verbally and visually.

If you pay much attention to YouTube, you know the Old Spice creative team has been on a real spree the last few days, crowd-sourcing user questions on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, then creating short, 30 second video responses to the best questions.  They are, as you would expect, both funny and an excellent marketing ploy.  Hey, if I were a man, I'd run out and buy some Old Spice!

Now, to back up a bit, lately I've been reading Tony Wagner's Global Achievement Gap, where he posits that the education system is in big trouble, largely because the world has moved on, but the system hasn't.  We're teaching an industrial age mindset with an industrial age pedagogy, with lots of isolated little learners, and many teachers who still think collaboration is cheating.

Which brings me back to Old Spice. Yesterday, the ReadWriteWeb posted a fascinating article  on how the team went about making  and posting (so far) 161 of those videos.  They worked as a team, delegating tasks to experts rather than everyone working on everything (what Wagner calls "team-based leadership"); they leveraged social networking to gather data and real-time feedback from a vast audience, then integrated that information into their final product; they published that product, generating more feedback.  (Serendipitously, on the same day, David Pogue posted his crowd-sourced article on iPhone Apps We Wish We Had.)

Read the article? Can you see this happening in your school?  Well, if your school blocks Facebook, Twitter, and other networking technologies, it won't be happening any time soon. And that's one reason why education is in such big trouble in this country.  If the above scenario is what's happening in businesses these days, and Wagner says it is, we are not only not preparing students to be effective contributors to that society, we are working actively to prevent it.  That scares me no end.

This wildly popular series was not based on pre-conceived assumptions about their audience, or a discrete set of "knowledge."  With their ultimate goal in mind, they set about finding/generating information, then constructing their response to it.  I found the following remark especially telling:
Tait says that Old Spice's parent company Proctor & Gamble exhibited incredible bravery in allowing his team to write marketing content in real time, with little to no supervision.
"There is such great trust [between the companies]," he said. "But we are being very responsible. They have given us a set of guidelines and if we get close to the edges we contact them."
This is the crux of what education reformers have been preaching for years:  Teachers need to cede control to the students, to get out of the way and LET THEM LEARN.  We provide guidelines, we teach them the skills, provide the tools,  then sit back and let them do it, only 'interfering' when they need help.

It's scary to give up that much control; even when you're willing, the system doesn't always support it, though Grant Wiggins  (who spoke at our school a few years back) convinced me that we use NCLB testing as an excuse.  He states that good teaching will result in improved test scores, as long as it promotes understanding, not just rote content.  We need to stop seeing ourselves as experts and more as facilitators; more importantly, and this is the really hard part, we need to get students to take on the responsibility for their learning, to stop sitting there passively, hoping osmosis will do its work.

Though I think if we're doing the kind of engaged, participatory education the Old Spice team demonstrated, that enthusiasm will follow.  As Ian Tait, the leader of the project states, "Those people [the creative team] are having more fun than I've ever seen anyone have in a shoot like this. That's part of why it's doing so well. It's genuinely infectious."

The job for me now, is to figure out how this translates to libraries.  I have mostly taught the research process as an independent sort of endeavor, and I need to make it far more collaborative.

But a) this post is already long enough and b) my discussion with Michelle Luhtala yesterday directly ties in to this, because of some of the ways she is leveraging collaborative tools when she works with students.  So I will work on getting that interview up early next week, then elaborate on how I hope to implement these ideas in my own program.

In the meantime, this weekend is the big move;  I have to finish getting ready for that, so won't be posting much.  As a closing "gift," however, here's one of my favorite Old Spice commercials, followed by one of the video "blurbs" on libraries. Enjoy!

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