A few years ago, a Yale study showed that young children preferred food, even carrots and milk, wrapped in a McDonald’s wrapper over the same food without branding. It’s a clear win for marketing!
In education, we tend to hear news like this as a reason to try to wrap a layer of relevance around lessons, like adding hip hop lyrics to word problems and hoping kids are fooled into liking math more. The hope is that superficial graphics, popular references, or high tech gadgets will result in student “engagement.”
The confusion of “engagement” as a primary goal of lesson design is a mistake. Engagement is not a goal, it’s an outcome of doing interesting, personally meaningful work.
The idea that children are swayed by marketing messages should not be a call to educators to use the same tactics, but to provide children with deep exposure to ideas so that they can see past marketing sleight of hand.
Children should be taught to analyze marketing messages — but they should also learn about food, make food, and grow food. They need time to taste it, to feel it, and to see a flower change into a pea pod. Eventually they will make better choices about their own food. (Then they will read the calorie counts on the menu and annoyingly recite them to you when you are trying to enjoy a Bloomin’ Onion. But I digress…)
Children should also have the opportunity to live and learn with technology that puts them in control. Control does not mean pushing a button or clicking on the right answer. Control means using open-ended tools that allow for meaningful interaction with data, people, ideas, and concepts. It means programming and simulations. It means making, not consuming. It means giving students agency and responsibility for their work.
Students may be momentarily entertained by technology used to wrap a stale activity, but it won’t last.