Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fenway Park or the AstroDome?

by John T. Spencer

I'm at a conference, listening to a technophile gush about the latest available tools that schools need to quit blocking.

"What's relevant to kids these days?"

"Facebook," the audience cries out in unison.

"See, you know it. I know it. What's relevant for the students? Let the kids use Facebook. Get them on Twitter. Find the tools that they use in life."

I have serious concerns with Facebook, ranging from privacy to data mining. However, I'm much more concerned with the obsession with relevance and the blind embrace of technology, regardless of context.

* * *
The Astrodome was the most relevant stadium of its time. With the largest JumboTron, the trendiest color choice and a very modern, symmetrical design, it embodied the Space Age. It was the most technologically-driven. It was the anti-Fenway. It was the ball park of the future. It was relevant.

It wasn't developed with the purpose of baseball in mind, though. A simple foul ball nearly blinded the players, so they had to paint the ceiling tiles, which killed the grass, which led to Astro Turf. Astro Turf was relevant. It was Space Age technology. It made sense. Except it looked ugly and it meant a diving catch could end a career.

The stadium, once relevant, became a joke.

So, I think of lesson design. I'm not interested in relevant. I'm not looking for the trendiest tools. I'm not out to find the latest research from a collage artist like Marzano. I'm not peppering my lessons with the latest pop culture references to prove just how insanely hip I am (not that hip if I use hip, unless I'm a hipster using hip ironically).

Remember Carmen San Diego? Remember Lazer Discs? Remember WebQuests? Remember how all of those relevant technologies were going to transform learning?

Fenway gets it right. The stadium was designed to fit the community, which explains the quirky field dimensions and why it continues to be one of the most creative designs in baseball. It was designed to fit the game of baseball, which is why it's so classic.

I want to teach more like Fenway and less like the Astrodome. Or better yet, I want my teaching to be a hybrid ballpark like San Francisco, where there are still new innovations in structure and design (no one's staring at a pole like they do in Fenway), but a clear embrace of the context, the community and the classic ideas. I want to start with meaning and purpose rather than relevance. And the crazy part? When I start with purpose, students often find it relevant to their lives.


  1. You would be doing everyone a favor if you avoided using sports metaphors when writing about learning.

  2. Thanks for the piece. I thought it was a thoughtful little illustration of fads in learning and society as a whole.

  3. To Anonymous poster #1:
    Why is that, may I ask? Mr. Spencer's analogy here is quite compelling, and one doesn't need to have prior knowledge of baseball itself to get the point he was trying to get across.


  4. It's not a personal dig. It's just a bad metaphor. Teaching isn't a competition and learning spaces shouldn't use models based upon the Cult of the Athlete. Find better metaphors. That's all.

  5. I have been meaning to write something like this on my website and you have given me an idea. Cheers.

  6. If we avoided metaphors because of their potential shortcomings, we'd never use metaphors.

    Opposing players tend to hate Fenway because of the terrible angles and silly green monster. If you want community, use Wrigley Field. Horrible team, best place to watch a game.

    Love this:

    "I have serious concerns with Facebook, ranging from privacy to data mining. However, I'm much more concerned with the obsession with relevance and the blind embrace of technology, regardless of context."


  7. Thanks Professor Shelly. I enjoyed reading this and find what you said true. If we teach with the purpose first, then relevance comes naturally.

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  11. Fenway Park is a baseball park near Kenmore Square in Boston, Massachusetts. Located at 4 Yawkey Way, it has served as the home ballpark of the Boston


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